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Where to get Ideas for Novels

Updated on August 10, 2009


Apple and Glass Marbles, 5" x 7" Prismacolor colored pencils on Stonehenge paper by Robert A. Sloan
Apple and Glass Marbles, 5" x 7" Prismacolor colored pencils on Stonehenge paper by Robert A. Sloan

Ideas are all around you!

Ideas come all the time to everyone. Most people learn to shut them out and keep from being distracted by them, unless they're in the very dull category of worries. From the moment school starts, people are taught not to daydream or spend time just sitting around thinking. That's called lazy and stupid compared to Doing Something.

Yet sitting around worrying about whether you can afford to buy this luxury or that and still also pay your bills and what other people would think of that purchase is completely acceptable even from the earliest age. It's as understandable as being jealous of that other kid who did have spending money for the candy or the toy you wanted. It's something that gets sympathy instead of disapproval. 

Everyone has an active imagination. The difference between finding good novel ideas or just making yourself sick with stress-related diseases is that if you're a writer, you can spend time daydreaming and share those daydreams with everyone else who is equally bored with a bus ride, a waiting room, being on hold or listening to a dull lecture that you know by heart anyway. This does apply to other arts too.

Ideas aren't generally original.

Who you are is what filters the infinity of possible ideas that come to mind. You'll enjoy some of them more than others. Thinking of a vampire stalking a moonlit urban landscape either for romance or vengeance, that's a fantasy and a daydream. It's also a cool popular one shared by everyone else who really likes vampires and it might get blown off as cliche by people who don't like vampire novels and are just too tired of hearing about the latest bloodsucker who swears off killing people because he met the right woman. 

Originality is in the details.

The latest romantic bloodsucker has turned into a series of big fat bestsellers with at least four volumes in it and a very good  movie. I enjoyed it, loved it and thought it was original. 

No one I'd read before that bestselleng author ever put a coven of vampires out in a field playing baseball. 

She told a good story with engaging, sympathetic characters, good dialogue, interesting setting and a powerhouse plot that just twisted all over the place. The characters weren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination and everything went wrong for them. No minor embarrassment or major character flaw went unpounded. The books came out well.

The "idea" of a book is its starting point. Turning it into a great story that might someday become a hit is a matter of craft in telling stories, not what the story is about.

Baseball and vampires are two unrelated ideas each with a thousand associations. Juxtaposed, the combination became original. Don't put baseball in your vampire story, it's been done. Please don't turn it into Vampire Tradition. Look at something else for your fanged hero to get into, something real that's true for him and no other vampire. Something you draw out of life that would be cool and fun in its own right.

In the illustration for this article I set up a still life with a couple of marbles. I didn't like it,  kept adding marbles and taking them away till I realized I wanted something bigger. I put in the green apple. Okay, wow, that works. I've got two green things and a red thing together. They're each tricky to draw in different ways. Way cool. I like that. I moved them around till I liked the composition, sketched it and then did a very careful job painting them in Prismacolor Realism because I wanted to do Prismacolor Realism.

Once I posted it on an art site, one of the comments was someone who said "I've never seen apples and marbles together in a still life like that." Another comment was "That reminds me of when I was a kid playing marbles with my brother and eating apples. That is so great."

I got the idea because for me, apples are a cool thing to draw and marbles are a cool thing to draw, so I threw them in together on what color they are and it worked. It worked because on a whole lot of unconscious levels, those things did go together. I wasn't thinking about marbles I played with as a kid but I did love marbles as a kid. I wasn't thinking about how green apples tasted when I was a kid either but that went into the painting. 

Combining ideas till it feels right is an intuitive, right-brain process. 

Juxtaposing ideas that don't seem to have anything to do with each other creates a visible new connection. It was there all along -- kids like playing with marbles and eating apples, those are two very common childhood experiences. It just wasn't planned that way as if I were trying to manipulate the viewers of that picture to think of it in that way. It may mean something completely different to other people -- and so might your novel.

A theme you take for granted as a subtheme may be the whole point of a novel to one reader -- one of your core readers. Something you disagree with may come out as stated by a character who believes it and the people who disagree with you on it still really liked your book. Give up on assuming your readers are just like you. They all have their own reasons to like that story and it's arrogant in the extreme to assume you can even know all the millions of associations everything you put in a book mean to them.

You can get some general ideas from looking over at your own bookshelf.

Choose a general subject that you love, a type of book you like to read. You are going to have to not only read it but reread it and proofread it and edit and tweak it anywhere up to about 40 times, so it has to be a story you enjoy enough to go over it that many times without getting disgusted. There's no point trying to write for the market, not until you're so skilled that it's effortless to spin a new story on anything anyone suggests as a prompt and you find that process fun. Even then though, they'll fall in the category of things you write well.

Landscape artists aren't always good at portraits. They can become so, it's generally faster than learning to do landscapes from not drawing at all was. Most don't though because once they get to a certain level of success it's much more fun continuing to get even better at landscapes and there are many benefits for doing more of what you're good at -- instead of putting up something that looks like student work to people who expect mastery.

Novels do come in types and genres. What you like to read is likely to be a strong influence on what you write. 

There's a level of ideas where they're technical things about the type of story. You may really enjoy puzzle plots like the greatest mystery writers, clever plots that demand little puzzles get solved by the readers right before the characters get the answers step by step building up to a big puzzle suddenly making sense at the end. That can be satisfying.

What would happen if you combine that with a romance plot? A better novel is the likeliest result. It is possible to combine the worst elements of two genres for a true stinker of a book, something that's self-indulgently sentimental yet contrived and awkward, losing plausibility or sympathy for any of the characters other than a vague envy of the murder victim who's at least gotten out of the book early. It's possible to write a bad book in any genre, combining them is not a cure-all.

What it does though is create some originality.

If you really like a novel where someone survives against hostile nature, go researching a truly nasty environment and find out something about it. If you're physically capable, at least test something similar down at the life-size scale of taking up camping or rock climbing. The fantasy you had while out fishing about being alone in the wliderness surviving with nothing but a bag of salt and a knife is a good starting point for a novel.

So give your protagonist a hard time, maybe dunk him in the river so that he loses the salt and lose his knife when it breaks on a tree. Things in novels are the same things that come up in daydreams and movies and novels you read and stuff that just strikes you as weird in the news. Make it all  bigger than life and then throw it at characters who are less likely to survive it. 

Maybe you're a fit and healthy novelist who does know how to find edible weeds and cook them up well with fish that you caught yourself. So what would happen if Blimpy the kid who couldn't pass gym and has no interest in anything but computer games was the one out in the woods with a knife and a bag of salt and some drill sergeant type clapping him on the back saying "You'll be a man or you'll be dead, we'll come looking next month."

Bigger than life. It could go anywhere. Some of where it goes gets shaped by you being a writer who actually does eat dandelion salad, recognizes plaintains, knows coltsfoot has salt in it and that rocks can be cracked to make stone tools. Your background in hiking and weed-eating is useful and gives the novel a lot of richness. Blimpy's lack of it makes it either hilarious or terrifying depending on how you present him. He could be coming of age or just bumbling through goofy, equally funny mishaps and lucky moments without learning a thing except that he was better off delivering pizzas and playing video games.

Which do you enjoy more, comedy or adventure? What's the blend between gags that make you laugh out loud at the keyboard or hard struggles to overcome self and environment? That's where your ideas come from.

That one either grabbed you or it didn't. If it did, I would lay odds you will come up with a story I wouldn't have thought of in a million years, because I'm not you. 

All the experiences, skills, reading material, movies, and ideas you ever liked in your life come together in a unique combination in you. 

I was lousy at rote memorization as a kid and very good at test-taking. Most of the time the answers were right there in the question in test-taking so my guesses were a lot better than most because of how I looked at the questions. Twist of mind and the combination of my being someone who learns better by reading than by being read to. If it was in a lecture, I couldn't remember it without writing it down. 

I didn't even learn to take notes and do that till I hit college because I read too much, in grade school and most of high school the in-class time was spent going over stuff I already understood and so didn't care enough about to jot down. So I creamed the tests and never studied. This bit me hard in college. A personal experience that only an autodidact (someone who learns better in self paced reading) could understand from within. 

Because I listened to the complaints of people who weren't autodidacts I eventually bulit up a map in my mind of what it was like for people who couldn't understand or retain written material. I could reverse my experience and imagine that anything I picked up from a book was as incomprehensible and dull as a lecture, while anything people read aloud made sense the way reading did. I could connect that and empathize, especially after college when I ran into professors who saved the good stuff for lectures and didn't rely that much on the texts.

That leap of imagination, that "What if I really was Superman?" type of leap is important to any novelist. 

That mental playacting gets drummed out of children early on by schools and the expectations of most people in terms of what they take seriously or not. Then it becomes socially unsafe to admit that you daydream about anything but a popular movie or something where everyone knows the story by heart because it's been retold by every one of your acquaintances along with what you're supposed to think of it.

So the process of finding your ideas is moving into dangerous territory.

Dangerous Ideas

No matter who you are, some of your ideas about life, the universe and everything are terrifying to a lot of other people. They've come up before and caused vast bloodshed and horror, even atrocities. Think about that bloke in the very popular book that just gets called The Book in Latin. The one that went around saying everyone should be nice to each other and share things and be kind to their neighbors.

That got him executed with torture as a revolutionary by a viciously defensive state religion. Then his ideas, expressed in stories his closest friends wrote about his teachings, got turned into reasons to go killing millions of other people who didn't agree on this or that point of dogma. "Join or Die" didn't come into that guy's teachings at all but you'd never know it from studying history..

So whatever you believe about what's right or true or good is going to offend a lot of people just because you took any stand on it. Write a book and your ideas about life, the universe and everything are going to be right out in it in your choice of characters and situations, the moral of the story, the authorial point of view. Do it badly and you may wind up accidentally promoting the opposite of your views.

The process of writing novels involves some levels of introspection that people who aren't writers can get by just fine in life without. It's not necessary to a happy life that you understand everything about the roots of what you believe, though I think for most people it helps a lot to act in accordance with your beliefs and not betray yourself too often. 

Life in these times is so full of controversy and cross-cultural contacts that "getting along with people you don't understand who do scary things and might kill you over something you think of as normal" is a real social risk to most readers. The science fiction novel about a human hero cooperating with an alien may help readers think better of how to get along with someone from a different part of the country whose accent is unintelligible and habits are just downright weird. Some themes are common because the stories reach a common need.

The stories that moved you most had personal relevance. Some of that could have been from some details, others because of theme. Something about reading stories and books made you want to write some. You know things that you want to tell people. You have ideas that if people listened to them, would probably help them feel better and do more, enjoy life more, get along better or accomplish some other good thing.

Go ahead and rant in your journal. 

Rants are a great source of novel ideas. If you care about the theme then you'll show the theme better, you'll put passion into writing it and have the patience to edit it until the words flow well and it gets across to readers painlessly. Any rant can be a prompt.

So keep in mind that you're going to have to write honestly about all the ideas you disagree with too, in order to play fair with the readers. You can't refute arguments that aren't made. You can't show flaws in bad ideas without demonstrating them by actual characters running aground on their flaws. Humility may be generally agreed to be a good thing, especially right after putting up with someone who's arrogant. False humility is a particularly annoying type of arrogance when someone's humbler than thou and makes everyone else ashamed of just eating breakfast because they're being so humble and virtuous. 

Novelists see story in that. Sometimes even comedy. The false humility idea may be a serious one for people who think about religion and morality, but it could also be a wonderful comedy exaggerated beyond anything reasonable -- one that could get sold as Christian fiction as easily as mainstream if you're interested in expressing that point of view. It doesn't argue against real humility, it looks sillier when contrasted with someone genuinely humble. 

Some of your most serious ideas may be best expressed as jokes. They'll still carry your slant, don't worry about that. It takes more work to filter your own slant out and try for something so common and universal that it reaches people outside your background and a broader readership than to write for an audience that pretty much agrees with you on life, the universe and everything.

The nice thing is that odds are, a lot of readers do agree with you on most of what you believe. They grew up there too, or didn't like where they grew up. 

Think about lying.

Most people might agree it's wrong if just asked "is lying wrong?" But depending on where you live and what culture your family's from, which is worse -- little white lies that save face or being so bluntly honest about every vicious thing you could possibly say to anyone that you're a misery to everyone around you? 

People who lie habitually as social grease don't trust the always truthful. There's too much chance any confidence will get blurted out casually, destroying lives. Everyone has things that embarrass them even if they're not major crimes. It's terrifying for casual liars to run into the truthful and the mechanism that makes "be truthful all the time" work for non-lying groups is that non-liars learn when to shut up and lie by omission. 

Take any idea about life that you like and take it apart like that. Look at it from all sides. It's full of novel ideas. Now stick a person from a "liar" culture who knows when it's "really lying" and when it's just "saving face" and put one other survivor in from a non-lying culture. Make sure both of them aren't the most socially skilled members of their respective groups. Watch the sparks fly. This is probably good for three chapters worth of subplots even if it's not the main theme of the book.

#8 for my HubChallenge

#8 for my HubChallenge
#8 for my HubChallenge

Sort your Ideas By Scale

How long would it take you to tell the story?

This is the big way to distinguish Novel Ideas from Story Ideas. In fact, the same idea can sometimes be used for both by a skilled writer. The short story version won an award, so the writer sat down with it and turned it into a novel by introducing more characters, more complexity, related ideas, stretched it out and made it novel length without losing the pace.

A big idea like "Liar and Non-Liar Surviving The Woods" could be a short story focused on getting along with people who are that different -- maybe the one with the woods knowhow is being dismissed because he's the liar, or not trusted because he's the nonliar. There wouldn't be much room in it to mention more than dandelions and plaintains and you'd finish it off in five thousand words of mostly arguments about survival leading to an argument that helped them understand each other enough to cooperate. Or turn it into comedy, leave it unresolved because the helicopter picked them up on the liar's GPS because he forgot his phone was in his pocket just as they got murderous. Short and funny.

Or you toss them in that initial situation and delay the helicopter. You break the phone. You do things to complicate their situation. You ask "What could go wrong?" and then throw in anything that could go wrong externally while taking leaps back into their childhoods for where the liar learned how to tell white lies and save people's egos, while the nonliar has as many flashbacks to why lying led to so many betrayals and heartbreaks. Both of them have ex-lovers or present lovers or spouses. Both have had lives before the book went on.

In a novel you can cut from that flashback to where those characters are fuming. One of the spouses could be about ready to strangle the liar because he's late for something and she thinks erroneously that he dated his ex and that's why he's not answering the broken phone. The other one is insanely worried about her husband and she is trying to get rescuers out there because she knows he's got no woods experience. She's facing conflicts with getting people stirred up about hikers that are only a few hours late.

A few chapters later on, most of the characters are oriented that the hikers are missing so the story of the search parties heading the wrong way and mislaid by clues, or finding a phone that got thrown away because a nasty ex was harassing him on it shows that they're not there. All their interrelationships come back to the theme. You have a moment of recognition as the angry spouse realizes that he's not shacked up with anyone and is just out there in the woods without his BlackBerry, now she regrets everything she didn't say to him and joins the search. Meanwhile she's wibbling about whether to tell him she slept around on him.

You see where this is going.

Each character has a story like that and a different conflict. The starting point was "Liar and Nonliar Stuck In Woods" and then it got lots more complex with each new character added. The park rangers looking for them have got their own troubles. To unify the book, maybe there's some more going on with the theme. Maybe some white lies the rangers told are coming back to bite them because their equipment's not as good as it should've been or a bloke that should've been on duty went off doing something else. 

You can pick the theme of "Lying" and weave in dozens of stories showing every way in which it affects these people's lives, split the cast between habitual liars and nonliars, show the lack of communication happening again and again. Let some characters on both sides spout off about how honesty is so important and how tact is so important. Let some false rumors float around, throw in someone maliciously suggesting the men ran off together for a homosexual liaison to show the harm a cruel lie can do. Then show that giving the willies to the gay ranger who's searching for these men, but is closet and afraid people will know about his long term relationship with a miner in the area. 

They get together on the search and sort out some of their personal miscommunication while they're looking for the hikers.

All of that can be done silly or serious, any degree of humor you want in it. Any direction. With a novel idea, I have a method of developing it that will work no matter when in the process you figure out what the whole plot is.

Starting Point -- an idea I like, which probably has an inherent theme like "Liar Vs. Nonliar."

Show that looking at it from different angles. Throw in whatever else could happen that would be fun. Toss in new characters like the gay ranger worried about his closet and the ex-wife still trying to break up her ex's second marriage by lying to his current wife or doing it by proxy. Each character brings more complexity.

Each introduction brings new ideas. Everything they do or say brings up new problems and the guys goofing in the woods are doing dumb things every time they're onstage trying to survive. Someone could eat something bad and get sick while the other one has to either abandon or take care of him. It gets exciting.

In the first third of the book, the first act, keep throwing in new stuff from left field. The farther into the middle, the more look for complications created by what the characters did to solve the first problems. Say one of the guys knows from TV that flint can be knapped, breaks some rocks, cuts his hand open and gets an infection in his hand. Now there's a ticking clock on the adventure because if he gets too sick, he'll die out there. On top of it his ego's leading him to pretend he's fine. That solved the "no knife" problem because they do have the lousy piece of sharp rock he made but no practice using it.

The social complications happen in the rescue party, but their story can be just as interesting. 

The middle can be sustained for a good long time adding new complications and creating new problems with every solution anyone comes up with for their problems. 

The last part of the book plotting is tricky. That's where the main source for things that can combine is what's already down in the book. This is where mentioning there were poison mushrooms does matter because someone may use them to distract a bear. This is also where subplot conflicts like the maliciously lying ex can boil over and be resolved. The end is when to start using every resolution to push toward the main conflict. After the main conflict is resolved, that's when it's time for the helicopter to actually find them and the guys to face their wives and husband having learned something from getting tangled up in all that. 

Maybe our gay rangers were dealing with some lie of omission that would hurt them deeply and risk the relationship if it came out but came to a point where they could communicate about it without running away from each other feeling betrayed. They don't have anything but their love to hold together on, each of their groups of separate friends thinks their friend's in the right and the other one's completely unjustified. If they sort that out, their relationship's deeper. If they sort it out by letting go, then they're out of a relationship that didn't work. Either way is a resolution.

Some writers, especially mystery writers, get ideas for the ending the way I do for starting points. It's almost the same process -- they know Who Done It and then start setting up puzzles and complications. By the time they're through figuring out everything that happened along the way they have added a chapter to several per new character brought in and that many complications that fit together into a coherent whole.

If this sounds like an enormous hassle compared to just writing a short story, you might be a natural short story writer. Every writer has a natural length.

But if you can never manage to find the end and resolve all the questions raised in the story (Are they going to live? Who will? Are they going to stay married? Who will? Are they going to manage to get the helicopter working?) within the length of a short story, you may be wrestling with having too many ideas or ideas that are too large to tell in a short story. That means novel writing may become a lot easier.

When you have a dozen characters in the story you can decide at the end that this one was extraneous. Maybe you didn't need the ranger to be gay. So you know he is, throw out the bit about his lover, shorten it by that and put in more about the wife's mother telling her what a rotten liar her husband is when she knows that's one of his good points and trusts him to tell the truth when it matters. Maybe the mother-in-law thing worked more toward pushing the story to a complete conclusion. Maybe it is the other way around.

You have the elbow room to throw in what happened when one of the characters was eight that set his mind to thinking white lies were that vital or that dangerous. You can just throw in something cool that distracted you midway through writing the novel because you saw some documentary on wilderness survival and thought that bit about the ducks was neat. That's what makes novel writing easier than short stories for a natural novelist. If it's not done, you don't have to call it done until you have actually resolved all the conflicts.

You may still want to move some bits around, maybe the fun thing you thought of while doing the last chapter really belongs in the early middle to tell readers that one guy's ex was trying to scuttle his marriage and you realized it's important that he throws his phone in the creek to get her to quit bugging him so that they won't get rescued too fast. It's okay to get those ideas out of order and just jot down where to put them when you're done. Some writers prefer to outline for exactly that reason -- it's very easy to move plot incidents to where they do the most good.

The main thing is that an idea for a novel is an idea that includes a whole lot of other ideas. So none of your ideas are stupid or cliche. Ideas for a book are subjects, the same way that deciding to paint a windmill or a waterfall is a choice. Ideas for what will make it a better story will tend to relate to the first central idea. For a linear organic writer, sometimes the first idea isn't even the main theme anyway.

My example idea in all this started off with Blimpy in the woods not knowing dandelions are food -- that had nothing to do per se with lying or liars. But it could go in that direction as soon as I threw in another survivor and came up with something that would keep them from buddying up like best friends forever from the start. It could have been anything. To develop a novel idea in a linear way, treat everything that is down as if it happened and anything that could come into the story later as open, including either or both revealing he's got a wife and/or an ex and looking at the rescuers.

What makes it easy to recognize good novel ideas is practice in jotting them down. The more you pay attention to the momentary fantasy of "I could turn that into a novel" the easier it is to recognize the elements of a good novel in day to day life and everything you enjoy reading. It's not the idea itself that makes a book great or lousy, it's how it's told and how it's put together with all the other ideas -- most of which are in their most basic form recognizable and familiar to most readers.

So start a jotbook. Keep making notes anytime you see anything that could work in a book. Sooner or later some of them will repeat and others will connect until what you have is a good novel idea -- a concept for a rich, powerful book that only you can write.


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Thank you so much for writing this. I totally got past my writer's block!

    • trusouldj profile image

      LaZeric Freeman 

      6 years ago from Hammond

      good stuff.

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Kitty Fields 

      6 years ago from Summerland

      Same here...had a dream and wanted to write it into a novel. Working on it now actually!

    • profile image

      Jade is Awesome 

      7 years ago

      I started a novel from my dream, it's not as inspiring as the novel I'm writing now, but still I like it but I take so long on the start it takes too long to get interesting.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Oh that rocks. My first novel started with a dream too. It's a good thing. Keep going with it. If your husband couldn't put it down, it's probably a good idea. You need to start fresh from page one for the Nanowrimo -- but then, you could always do that and then return to this beginning that started with a dream. The good ideas don't go away. They come back again and again till you write the book.

    • skye2day profile image


      9 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      Oh My Gosh, another great piece of info. I just may not have to take that creative writing class at ACC. (kidding) I may some day I can not think that far ahead.

      I have an idea for a book. I had a dream. It was very real. I wrote the first two chapters in one half of a day. I got sidetracked with life and stumped on where to go next. Anyway my husband read it and said he could not wait to turn pages. That blew my mind. Maybe the holy spirit laid it on my heart and that is the reason it was a 'page' turner,according to my Hubby. Maybe he wanted a nice dinner. (kidding) I did feel the holy spirit working in me. That happens often when I write.

      Your sketch is awesome. I thought,'how clever round things.' My daughter is an incredible artist. Her favorite medium oils and pencil. I am going to put a picture of hers for a profile widget. I just thought of that. Variety the spice of life. God loves variety. Everyone is different and special. Thanks

      I may try the November write a novel thing. Later Gator. Your friend

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Ethel, that'd be great! Check out NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month. Every November, more than 50,000 people get together in the month of November from all over the world (it is worldwide, not just USA) to try to write a 50,000 word novel during November. It's a lot of fun and a surprising number of people do finish their novels. Those that don't at least get them started and often a long way toward done. The forums are excellent including help for editing it afterward and sending it out or self publishing.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      9 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      I'd love to create a book some day. Perhaps. Who knows


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