Before Your Write: Developing an Idea

A novel starts with an idea. It could be a character, a title, a scene, a general premise. It could be anything that makes you think, “This could be a great story!”

That idea, though, is just that — an idea. You need far more than an idea to craft a novel. Developing an idea is a critical part of novel writing.


The initial phase of developing an idea is brainstorming. For me, this phase happens over a long period of time while I’m writing another novel.

Even though this shiny new idea is compelling, I don’t let myself get too distracted. I create a folder for the project on my computer and create a file for notes. You don’t have to get fancy. I use Notepad. Some people use Scrivener. There I collect ideas as they come to me.

All of the ideas won’t be in the finished book. The finished manuscript may not even resemble the ideas in the early notes. But one idea leads to another and to another.


This is also the time I do research, which can lead to new paths, new ideas.

This is fiction — is research important? Generally, yes, particularly if the book is set in the real world. While writing the book I’m getting ready to query, I researched Mississippi, retriever field trials, comminuted fractures, recovery from femur fractures, and injuries to the inner ear in dogs.

Research impacts story development greatly, closing some paths as not realistic but opening others you hadn’t dreamed of.

Getting Organized

As you take notes and do research, don’t be afraid to have as many document files as you need. Put research about setting in one, ideas about characters in another, and ideas about plot in a third.

The important thing at this stage is that you capture your ideas, whatever they are. Don’t limit yourself — even if an idea doesn’t fit with what you were thinking yesterday, write it down anyway. You can pick and choose later!

In my next Plotters Guide post, I’ll talk about developing a premise.

Before you write: Developing an idea

Critical Elements of a Story

The critical elements of a story are similar to the ingredients in a recipe. Each adds something critical to the final dish. Story is the magic you get when you mix ingredients like character and conflict, each in exactly the right proportion. Story is a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Let’s take a high-level look at the critical ingredients of story souffle.


Plot is what happens in the story. It is composed of related events that take the reader from the beginning through the middle to the end. The plot usually begins when something *happens* that poses a story question. The plot ends when that story question is resolved.

A murder mystery most often begins with either a murder or the discovery of a body. The story question is “Who murdered this person and why?” The plot ends when the murderer and his motivation are revealed.

A plot-driven story is one in which external events play a major role in determining the actions of the characters and the direction of the story itself. An earthquake strands a group of people and repeated tremors complicate their escape. A security malfunction frees zoo animals from their cages — with a group of school children locked in the zoo.


Characters are the actors in your story. They make choices that drive the plot and story forward. They act, and they react. They feel, and the readers feel with them. There are protagonists and antagonists, main characters and supporting characters, round characters and flat characters. Each has its place and purpose.

A character-driven story is one in which the characters’ choices and actions determine the plot. In Bridges of Madison County, Francesca chooses to involve herself with Robert Kincaid. She chooses to help him when they meet. She chooses to return there the next day. She chooses to invite him to dinner. And so on. The story is an exploration of her motivations and actions and the emotional consequences of those choices.

It is sometimes said that genre stories are plot-driven and literary stories are character-driven. It’s not that simple. Although some may be purely one or the other, those are outliers on a continuum. Most stories in all genres are a mix of plot- and character-driven.


Conflict, tension, stakes. These are what keeps people turning the page. Readers do not buy novels to read about happy people living happy, easy lives, getting everything they want. Readers want a perplexing problem and a creative solution.

The idea of conflict is sometimes misinterpreted to mean people fighting and arguing. (That would indeed get tiresome!) Although that is one kind of conflict, conflict and tension in a novel is much more. It is unanswered questions and the feeling of “what happens next” that keeps readers engaged. It is also what those characters stand to lose if they fail.


Theme is the “universal truth” within your story. Theme is what readers *relate* to. Very few people can relate to a boy who finds out he’s a wizard and goes off to wizard school. But everyone can relate to the themes of feeling out of place and making a place in the world where you fit in. Not everyone has had an affair like Francesca in Bridges of Madison County, but everyone can relate with the desire to, even just for a short time, throw off all of the responsibility in the world and follow your heart.

Theme and the way that theme resonates with readers is a key ingredient in making a story that people remember long after they put the book down.

Genre & Audience

It may seem odd to include genre and audience as key ingredients in a story. However, knowing where your book will be shelved in the bookstore and who will be reading it is critical information for a writer. Nothing could be more frustrating than getting to the stage where you’re looking for an agent or publisher and being told the story is well-written, but they’re just not sure where it fits. The more you identify up front, the less you have to rework on the back end.

This was just a high-level overview. I’ll delve into each of these critical ingredients in more detail in later posts.

Critical elements of a story are like the ingredients in a recipe.

Analyzing the Competition: Set Up for Success

Analyzing the competition sounds like a strange topic to have tagged as a writing post. Seems like it should be a publishing post. The problem is, if you wait until you’re done with the book, you may end up with something that doesn’t “fit.” Is that a problem? It is if you want to traditionally publish. It’s less of an issue if your goal is self publishing, but even this is good info to have.

Each genre has requirements. Audience expectations. Required tropes. Expected word count. Expected structure. The more you know as you craft your book, the more likely the finished product will resonate with your target audience.

Read Widely in Your Genre!

ALL writers, no matter how experienced, should read widely in their target genre. Why? Because that helps them understand the required tropes, what’s selling now, what is overdone — or under-represented.

I worked with a writer once who claimed that he was writing his story because there was nothing out there like it. A little more questioning, and he admitted that he didn’t read the genre. I sent him on a hunt, and he was shocked to find that his story wasn’t unique, and there were lots of books in the genre that he was interested in reading.

Read. Your. Genre.

Some writers complain that they don’t like to read (especially in their genre) while they’re writing, because other author’s styles seep into their own. I think that’s all right. That means you’re still developing your own style and voice — and being influenced by others will help you do that. You can smooth out the writing during the rewriting and editing process.

Analyzing the Competition is Different Than Reading

Analyzing the competition is most crucial for those who are relatively new to writing and new to writing in a specific genre. Analyzing the competition means analyzing other books in your genre to understand how they’re crafted in order to discover the commonalities. Those commonalities are likely genre requirements.

Some steps for analyzing the competition:

First, go to a bookstore, and select a variety of books in your genre that were published in the last year.

  • How many? 10-20. If you’re planning to write picture books, go for the full 20. If you want to write fantasy or historical sagas, aim for the lower end.
  • Ask the people who work at the bookstore for help. They know what was published recently, and they know what’s typical for the genre.
  • And yes, selecting books published in the last year is important. Styles change. You want to know what agents and publishers are looking for now, not what they were looking for five years ago. If you can find debut authors, that’s even better, because then you’ll know what they’re buying from NEW writers.

Read them. Enjoy them.

  • If you don’t enjoy reading the genre, you sure don’t want to spend a year writing and rewriting it.

Google conventions for your chosen genre. (For example, Romance-with-a-capital-R almost always follows a fairy tale model and ends with a Happily Ever After.)

  • TV Tropes is a great place to start.
  • Make a list of the conventions, and then compare the list to the books you read. For each convention, figure out the percentage of books that included that convention (i.e., the number of romances that had a Happy Ever After ending).
  • A high percentage tells you that agents and publishers (and readers) are *expecting* that convention. I understand how you may want to deviate. I understand how the idea of a formula drives you insane. I understand that your idea is so much better than any of the drivel you read. *cough* *glare*
  • But if you are an unpublished writer who wants to be published through a traditional publisher, then you need to give the agents and publishers what they want. If you plan to self publish, you have to give readers what they want.

Figure out the expected word count in your genre.

  • This is a good list. It’s a hell of a lot easier to work to this word count from the beginning, instead of overwriting and having to cut (or pad) like crazy.

Now: Analyze the books

Exactly what analysis you should do will vary according to genre. I list some suggestions below. Some suggestions will apply to certain genres more than others.

  • Approximate number of words per page (picture books and beginning reader)
  • Specific rhythm to text? Describe. (picture books and beginning reader)
  • Are there techniques such as onomatopoeia or alliteration to make the verbal reading more appealing to youngsters? (picture books and beginning reader)
  • How “advanced” is the vocabulary?
  • Number of main characters / Number of supporting characters
  • POV / Number of POV characters
  • Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is there a climax? (picture books only)
  • Key plot events and when they occur (10% point, halfway point, etc.)
  • Can the book be divided into clear “acts”?
  • Theme / How is theme handled relative to story?
  • Is the story funny or serious or ?

Clearly that’s a LOT of information. The less you know going in, the more important this step is. This step doesn’t write the book for you, but it provides some guidelines specific to your genre.

Rule of thumb: the more consistent the books were, the more indicative that is that you should follow that guideline.

In my next post, I’ll give an overview of the critical parts of a story.

Analyzing the competition separates the professionals from the wannabes.

The Big Idea: What Should I Write About?

Probably the most common question non-writers ask writers is “Where do you get your ideas?” (“Well, there’s a store down the street with a 2-for-1 offer…”) New writers ask a similar question: “What should I write about?”

The truth is, ideas come from anywhere. They’re cheap. A dime a dozen is way overpriced. You can get ideas by reading the paper, watching the news, reading books, and surfing the Internet. You can get ideas from dreams, from friends, from life experience.

The critical thing is that you find an idea you’re passionate about — one that excites you, that keeps you awake, that grabs hold and just won’t let go. THAT is the kind of idea that will hold your interest through the long process of writing a novel.

When I get that idea, I write it down so I don’t forget about it, but I don’t rush to start the story. I’m a plotter, remember. First I hold onto the idea, mull it, savor it. I play “What if?” If I have flashes of insight or interesting ideas, I write those down too. Those ideas may not find their way into the story, but they may be springboards for ideas that do.

I’ll talk more about brainstorming and developing the idea in a later post. Right now I want to focus more on the idea itself and some things you should consider when choosing an idea to develop.

Write what you enjoy reading

Peruse your bookshelves. What do you read? Got a whole bookcase of mysteries? Does fantasy line the shelves from top to bottom? Are your tastes more erudite showing a love of the classics? Maybe YA and middle-grade fiction are still your favorite stories.

Ideas that you’re passionate about AND happen to fall into a genre you love reading should be the first you seriously consider turning into a novel. Why? Because you understand the genre and the readers of it. You know what’s expected — and what isn’t.

If you don’t enjoy reading a particular type of story, don’t try to write it. If your reason for wanting to write in a particular genre is because “All the stories suck, and I could do so much better,” don’t do it. Readers (and agents and publishers) of that genre like the stories, and they will detect your arrogance and lack of connection with them, their genre, and their needs from a football field away.

Target a current genre

Genres and subjects go in and out of favor. For fans of a not-currently-popular genre who can’t find new stories, this is an irritation. For someone who wants to write a novel that he or she plans to traditionally publish, this is an industry reality.

I am *not* suggesting that you jump on the “trend wagon” and write the latest, hottest thing out there. Honestly, by the time you flesh out an idea, write it, go through critiques and revisions, and polish it, the trend will likely be over. Even if it’s not over yet, by the time you find an agent and get the book on shelves, it will definitely be over.

What I am suggesting, however, is that you stick to genres that are active, healthy genres today, because those will be the books that a publisher is more willing to take a chance on. For example, westerns simply aren’t a hot genre right now. So what should you do if you love westerns and have an idea for a western you’re crazy about? Well, if that’s your only idea — or it absolutely won’t let you go — write it! But if you’re wavering between a couple of ideas and the other is in a hot genre, you might want to start with the one in the hot genre. Show your agent and publisher that you can write an incredible story in a different genre, and they just might be willing to take a chance on that western later. (Or westerns might have a resurgence of popularity!)

Write what you know

This is probably the most misunderstood advice in the writing world. After all, the whole purpose of research is to educate you about something you don’t know! Between research and imagination, writers are able to write convincingly about almost anything.

So why offer this piece of advice? In this case I’m referring specifically to things you know well — things you’re passionate about. (There’s that word again: PASSION.) What are your hobbies? What are you good at? What do you love? Mine those areas for ideas for stories. As an insider, you will have insights into that world that no one else will.

I love animals of all kinds, but especially dogs. So what am I writing a novel about? A dog. What were my screenplays about? Dogs. Will all my writing be about animals? Probably not, but I started writing by focusing on the thing I knew the most about and cared the most about. It meant I could focus on learning my craft with less time needed for research and learning. Was “writing what I know” required? No. But I believe it made the learning curve less steep.

After you get your big idea

Some writers have a tendency to stop reading, particularly in their genre, once they begin writing because they don’t want to be unduly influenced by another author’s style or plot. I think that’s a mistake. I think writers should both read books and watch movies in their chosen genre while they’re writing.

Nothing helps a writer grasp the flow of written language the way reading does. Find out who the “best” writers in your genre are. Read them. Absorb them. In my next post I’ll talk more about how analyzing the competition can give you a leg up.

Next, let’s talk about what you can learn by analyzing your competition.

Hybrid Writers vs. Hybrid Publishers

Plotters vs. Pantsers

To kick off this series, let’s talk about that age-old argument: plotters versus pantsers. “Plotters vs. pantsers” is a description of how writers write. If you interviewed a hundred writers about their writing process, you’d get a hundred different answers, some polar opposites, none wrong. The writing process is as individual as writers themselves.

Defining Plotters and Pantsers

Some writers start with a character or an idea or a flash of a scene. Just the tiniest spark of inspiration. They start writing, and they let the story unfold as they write. These writers are sometimes called “discovery writers” or “pantsers,” because they write by the seat of their pants, following inspiration where it leads them.

Other writers prefer to plan before they begin writing. These “plotters” want at least some idea of a destination and some semblance of a roadmap before striking out into the unknown.

Plotting and pantsing are opposite ends of a continuum. Although a few writers (including me) fall on one extreme end or the other, most writers fall somewhere in the middle. Some do high level outlines but vary from it when inspiration strikes. Others plan a few scenes ahead. Still others pour their hearts and souls into deep character backgrounds and then let their characters dictate the story events. Individual writers might even find that what works with one story doesn’t work with the next. Writing is individual to the writer, to the story, to the moment.

Why am I a plotter?

I am an extreme plotter. My professional background is in technical writing and instructional design, and my first professional writing was in nonfiction. Through nonfiction I learned how organization could make or break content, how structure determined whether content would be effective.

My first truly creative writing was screenplays. Structure is as critical — and omnipresent — in screenwriting as it is in a sonnet. With screenwriting I learned that structure could be the difference between mediocrity and art.

I also had the importance of pre-planning drilled into me by my mentor, a man who had made his living as a television writer for many years. It was, he taught, much easier — and faster — to make massive revisions at the outline stage than when you have a finished draft in hand.

And so, those were the lessons I carried with me when I began experimenting with prose fiction. To my delight, I discovered that nearly all of what I learned about story and structure in screenwriting could be successfully applied to novels as well.

I also found that the method I had worked out addressed many of the concerns and pitfalls that seemed to plague other writers. Pacing, character arcs, intertwining of events all falls neatly in line. I decided to share my method with others in hopes that someone else could skip over some of those concerns and pitfalls as well.

Come over to the dark side!

Do I think my method and ideas are the only way to write a novel? Of course not! Do I think pantsers should abandon their preference and come over to the dark side? Yes! No, I’m kidding.

I do think, however, that even die-hard pantsers will find something useful here though, because even pantsers have to deal with structure and organization during the rewrite phase.

Come on. I know it’s scary. Just give it a chance!

Ready for the next step? Let’s talk about what to write about.

Baby Pflouff -- she'd definitely be a plotter