How to Find Killer Ideas for Your Novel
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To give you a sneak peek inside our IFW courses, today’s post is one of our Pointers from the Pros. Pointers from the Pros are 4-5 page articles that demonstrate a specific point about the craft of writing. If you’re stuck on a certain element in your writing (or writing assignment), as a student, you can download a related article to help you breakthrough that particular block. Today we bring you advice from bestselling author Tom Hyman on how to find killer ideas for your novel. Enjoy!
Writing Your First Novel
Writing your first novel can be a daunting challenge. It will take many months—even years—of hard work to complete, and when you’re done, you’ll be faced with a task that may be even more difficult: getting your novel published. The competition is ferocious, and publishing houses look to the bottom line as never before.
So it makes sense to take advantage of any strategy that might give you an advantage, either in writing the novel itself or in trying to get it published. As it happens, one strategy can help you do both. Simply stated, it’s this:
Build your novel around one compelling idea.
That’s it. It’s easier said than done, of course. But if others can do it, so can you.
Create a Simple and Irresistible Story
An irresistible novel idea need not be earthshaking. It can be big and conspiratorial or small and romantic. It can be about a past event or a future possibility. It can be violent or it can be funny. It can be a story with an unusual twist. It can work in any genre of fiction. But what it has to be, above all, is the kind of premise that makes a potential reader curious and excited about the events and complications that might flow from such a novel idea. In other words, the idea has to make someone want to read your book.
The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans is a good example of such a concept. Robert Redford was so taken by the novel idea of a trainer who could communicate with and heal traumatized horses that he paid the author a huge sum for the film rights even before the author had written the novel (which was a first novel)! Redford knew that the basic premise would make a great story. And he was right. A “(fill-in-the-blank) whisperer” is now even in the lexicon.
Hollywood looks for that “killer idea” in every script or story proposal it considers. It has its own name: “high concept.” Anyone who has ever tried to sell a novel or screenplay (or pitched an idea to a film producer or studio exec) knows that the first question he or she will hear is “What’s your story about?” The writer knows that the answer to that question had better be immediately appealing.
Borrow a Lesson From Hollywood’s Novel Ideas
The same principle applies to novels. Of course, many great works of fiction have succeeded without paying the slightest attention to this concept. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to break into today’s centralized and commercialized book industry. If you’re an unpublished author, this approach will greatly increase your odds of getting your work some serious attention from the publishing industry.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty: Ex-husbands, second wives, mothers, daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the little lies that grow so big they become lethal.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: The adventure of three children through space and time in search of a lost father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract (time wrinkle) problem.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: In 2045, Wade Watts struggles to survive his rivals and other vicious players in the virtual utopia known as the OASIS.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson: Two outcasts, a convicted journalist and a tattooed punk prodigy tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: A standoff between local authorities and a terrorist organization that has taken siege of the vice president’s home where a posh party is being held.
Jaws by Peter Benchley: A mammoth white shark starts eating swimmers, spawning chaos and terror at a popular Long Island beach resort.
These books were all huge bestsellers and hit movies. They made their unknown authors rich and famous. Three of the books were actually debut novels.
Note that all six of these books have at their heart a simple and instantly engaging story idea. And because they’re simple concepts, I was able to describe each of them in 25 words or less. Now think about your own novel in progress—or the ones sitting in your desk drawer or on your hard drive that you could never get an agent or publisher interested in. When someone asks you about your novel, how long does it take you to describe it? A minute? Five minutes? Half an hour? Can you describe the essential idea in less than 25 words?
If you can’t, it might be time to do some serious rethinking.
The Many Virtues of a the Killer Idea
Other factors were involved in the enormous success of these six novels, but the key thing to appreciate is that the authors, unknown at the time, started out with such a strong story idea that it got immediate attention. All six required some reworking before they were ready to go to press, but the enthusiasm for each initial concept was strong enough to see these authors through the hurdles of getting published.
You’ll still have to write your novel, but if you start with a simple, appealing conceit, you’ll find writing much easier because that central premise will guide you structurally and keep you motivated. And you’ll certainly have a much better chance than most unpublished writers of getting attention and getting results once your novel is complete.
Here’s why: an attractive and easily communicated concept is like gold to the publishing industry. It makes the many arduous and expensive steps involved in publishing and selling a book so much easier and so much more likely to succeed. A literary agent will be much easier to find if your project contains an idea that will immediately generate enthusiasm among book editors and have them salivating to sign you up. An agent might even expect to get several editors interested and get their publishing houses competing for the manuscript. And the editor who takes the book on will be optimistic about its chances of success because she knows she’ll be able to get the sales, promotion, and publicity departments excited about the book. Those departments, in turn, will be confident they can fire up enthusiasm among booksellers, including big chains, which these days can largely determine a book’s success.
And so it will go. If all goes well, your agent will be happily busy lining up foreign publishers and offering the book to movie studios.
If momentum builds, you might be on your way to becoming a bestselling author. And the truth is, you don’t have to be an especially gifted writer. It helps, of course, but many a modest talent has launched a career on a strong idea. If your concept is compelling enough, you’ll get a lot of editorial attention from agents and editors to make sure you develop your concept. Why? Because agents and editors have a big stake in your success too.
This strategy applies to all genres of fiction, by the way. It certainly applies to crime and science fiction, but also to less plot-driven genres such as fantasy and romance. Consider Tolkien’s classic fantasy trilogy, the massive (900-plus pages), three-part novel, The Lord of the Rings. At its heart is one very simple idea: Frodo Baggins’ quest to drop the magic ring into the Crack of Doom before it falls into the hands of the evil Sauron. Many adventures take place in the course of all those pages, but that single quest defines and directs the entire story.
As for romance, consider two classic bestsellers in this genre: Love Story and The Bridges of Madison County. I bet you can write a 25-word description of the basic premises of these novels yourself.
There’s no guarantee you’ll become rich and famous. But you can greatly increase your chances in this precarious business if you can find an irresistible concept upon which to base your novel. It’s not easy, but writers do it every day. To a great extent, it’s an acquired skill.
Learn How to Play “What If?”
The first step in developing this skill is simply to start looking at the world around you in terms of “what-if?” Those “what if?” treasures can be found in many places. TV, newspapers, magazines, and online articles are great sources. But there are others.
Some years ago I saw documentary footage about the American Army’s liberation of Dachau Concentration Camp in 1944. Part of the film showed military interrogators exposing an SS camp guard who had tried to pass himself off as an inmate. What if he had succeeded, and in the chaotic aftermath of the war found himself trapped in his identity as a Jewish concentration camp survivor? What if he built a whole new life around this lie? That was my inspiration for the novel that ultimately became Riches and Honor.
In another instance, a conversation about advances in genetic engineering with a medical researcher led me to an idea: What if a rogue scientist developed a genetic program that could produce the perfect child? This became Jupiter’s Daughter.
Another novel, Seven Days to Petrograd, came from a work of nonfiction. I had just read Edmund Wilson’s book, To the Finland Station, about Lenin’s historic trip aboard the sealed train from Zurich to Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in 1917, an event that led directly to the Russian Revolution. My “what if” was simple: what if the Allies tried to stop Lenin by putting an assassin aboard that train?
In Seven Days to Petrograd, I used a number of familiar historical figures, like Lenin, as characters. The fictional use of historical figures or celebrities represents another way to ask a “what if?” question. Some years ago Nicholas Meyer wrote a popular first novel called The Seven Percent Solution, in which he paired the fictional legend Sherlock Holmes with the real-life legend, Sigmund Freud, to solve a kidnapping. (This book was later made into an excellent film.) Caleb Carr wrote a very successful murder mystery called The Alienist, (made into a TV series) using as his protagonist Theodore Roosevelt when he was Police Commissioner of New York in 1896. The journalist Joe Klein (under the pseudonym “Anonymous”) wrote a bestselling novel called Primary Colors, a thinly disguised portrait of former President Bill Clinton.
You can also find terrific novel ideas in historic events. The excellent novel by Joe Kanon about the building of the atomic bomb called Los Alamos is one example. (This was also a first novel.)
Once you have a great idea, the other pieces of your story will fall into place much more readily than they will if your initial idea is vague and ill-formed. Your “high concept” will give you the essential organizing tool you need to develop everything else, including your major characters.
There’s no question that you need strong characters to make a story worth reading. And nothing will help you to develop them faster and more effectively than having a great story concept firmly in mind first. You can’t create strong characters in a vacuum. Once you have a context to put them in, you’ll have all you need to start populating your world.
Getting to that “EUREKA!” Moment
How will you know when you’ve stumbled on a killer idea?
First of all, the idea should excite you. A lot. It should fire up your imagination immediately. If it doesn’t, dismiss it. If you aren’t genuinely excited by it, it’s unlikely to excite anyone else. Never allow yourself to think, Well, I’m not all that crazy about the idea, but I bet it will appeal to a lot of readers. It won’t.
Try your idea out on friends. If they react with genuine enthusiasm, you may be onto something. If their responses are lukewarm, and you have to explain at length before they seem to get it, then you need to refine the idea further or you haven’t found it yet.
Remember, your basic premise doesn’t need to be over-the-top sensational. A great idea is not necessarily a big idea. It’s a pregnant idea; an idea you instinctively know is loaded with breathtaking possibilities, an idea that will motivate you and stir enthusiasm and curiosity in a potential reader.
Here’s one to get your creative energy flowing:
Someone discovers a rich deposit of gold ore in a suburb of a big American city. If this happened, imagine the complications that might ensue. Greed, after all, is a powerful motivating force, and gold has a magic allure unequaled by any other substance on earth. The California gold rush in the 1850s happened in a relatively remote and unpopulated area, but its consequences were profound, both on the state of California and the entire country. The city of San Francisco grew from that.
Today, the effects of a major gold find would not only be more dramatic, they could cause major social, political, and financial upheaval.
Think of the possibilities. Land values would skyrocket. Neighbors would turn against each other. Some people would sell and move out, others would start digging up their property. The resultant gold rush would bring in hordes of investors, speculators and fringe characters from all over—including some undesirable ones.
Things would get ugly. The big mining corporations would try to muscle their way in, posing a threat to the wellbeing of communities for miles around. The local government and the police, not to mention the governor, would have one monster of a headache.
And what a plot and cast of characters you could develop for this! The dramatic possibilities are endless. It could even be done as a comedy. The opportunity to show people at their hilarious worst—and endearing best—would be tempting for a skilled humorist.
You get the idea. By the way, no one has used this one yet.
If you can come up with this kind of central premise, you’re already halfway to the shelves of major bookstores—before you’ve written a single word of the novel. If I can do it, you can do it. Great ideas are out there. You just need to start looking for them.
Tom Hyman, a former magazine and book editor, is the author of many novels: Jupiter’s Daughter, Prussian Blue, Seven Days to Petrograd, Riches and Honor, The Russian Woman, and Giant Killer. He has also written one work of nonfiction: Village on a Hill. His novels have been selections of major book clubs and have appeared on bestseller lists. Tom’s books are in print in over a dozen languages worldwide.
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