What’s the Big Idea? Generating the Idea for a Story

It seems that everyone has an idea for a book. I think that’s why there’s a saying: ‘There is a book inside everyone.’ Tell someone you are writing a book, and they will generally tell you that they have an idea for a book they would like to write. In most cases (including my own), the idea is the opening scenes of a story. The idea will encompass the catalytic event that occurs at the start of a story and triggers the story’s subsequent events.

An idea isn’t a plot, and it’s a long way from a completed book! But you do need an idea before you can proceed.

The idea for my first book was born at a weekend novel writing course held by Jill Marshall of WriteGoodStuff (now the Jill Marshall Author Academy). Jill handed each person in the room an object from a box, and asked us to imagine a ‘what if’ about our object. Once we had imagined our first ‘what if’ she asked us to imagine a subsequent ‘what if’, then another and another. If your story has ‘legs’, then the string of ‘what if’s’ you’ve imagined will become the basis of your plot.

The object I plucked out of Jill’s box that day was a strange metallic tool. I wondered, ‘what if’ my object was an alien tool used to implant alien life forces into human bodies. My next ‘what if’ was: what if a young boy found it and unwittingly transplanted an alien being into his granny’s body. Then: ‘what if’ granny looked normal and no one believed the boy. ‘What if’ granny was a hostile alien? Thus my book was born. Now that the book is finished, it hasn’t followed the exact path that I laid out that day, but it isn’t too far off. (By the way, the object was a tool for tuning guitars, but I didn’t know that at the time.)

The idea for the book I am about to start writing (and the subject of this blog) came about after an evening spent blobbed on the couch watching a movie on television. I can’t remember the name of the film, or even too much of the plot. What stuck with me was the film’s ending – the world was struck by a solar flare that destroyed everything and everyone.

As I tried to get to sleep that night I pondered a whole series of ‘what if’s’. What if a boy was in a car accident and mistakenly pronounced dead. What if his wealthy parents had his body cryogenically frozen. What if a solar flare struck the earth and the radiation killed off most or all of Earth’s inhabitants. What if the cryogenics facility continued to run on solar-powered generators for a number of years afterwards. What if the boy woke up when the generators finally stopped running. What if he had lost his memory in the car accident.

It was hard to sleep imagining the sort of world this boy would find. Who would he meet? Where would he go? How would he survive?

At this point in time, I have a vague idea of what will happen in the story, in very broad terms. I am not the type of writer who can sit down and nut out every twist and turn of the plot before I start writing. I will start writing, and expect that the plot will reveal itself in more detail as the writing progresses.

Or at least I hope so!

(Note: click here to read an interesting blog post by Donna Gillespie on whether to outline or just start writing once you have your great story idea).

Click here to read a post by author Mike Wells on how he came up for the idea for his horror story ‘Baby Talk.’

Next time… I’ll talk about how I’ve used the input of other writers to help develop my idea.


9 thoughts on “What’s the Big Idea? Generating the Idea for a Story

  1. Good question! I was asked the same thing by a family member yesterday. The answer for me is that no, I am not worried about someone else using my idea. Even if someone loved this book idea as much as I do, and sat down to write a novel using the idea, the end result would be completely different to mine. In fact, I think it would be an interesting experiment to set a number of different writers to work on a novel with the same starting premise, and see just how different the results would be.
    It is said that there are really only 7 story lines in the world, and every novel out there is just a variation of one of those so on that basis my story idea is not original.
    However having said all that, I will be keeping most of the specifics to myself. After all, I do want people to want to read the book when it is finished.

    • Thanks SJ. I hadn’t heard the 7 story lines comment before. I’d be interested in having the list, to compare everything I read. Maybe an idea I can put to the writing group I go to.

  2. Hi Derin, there are a number of different theories about what the unique story lines are. The ones I heard about in a workshop I think come from Christopher Booker. His seven storylines are:
    1. Overcoming the monster (Jaws, Beowulf)
    2. Rags to Riches (David Copperfield, Cinderella)
    3. The Quest (The Odyssey)
    4. Voyage and Return (Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe)
    5. Comedy (Shakespeare’s comedies, Oscar Wilde’s plays)
    6. Tragedy (Dorian Gray, Anna Karenina)
    7. Rebirth (story of Ebeneezer Scrooge)
    It’s an interesting theory. Not sure how useful it is though.

    • That is interesting. I was looking at the list with a view to my favourite books, and yes, they do fit in there, although sometimes as a mixture of two. I will take the concept further, and discuss them in a number of different forums. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: I love it. Do you? « Diary of a Novel

  4. Pingback: Seven ways to breathe life into your novel or short story idea | onewildword

  5. Interesting post, Especially since I’m right in the story idea-process myself right now. And the what if-game is really fun. You’re right about what you say above, even though someone would get inspired from the premises you give you would probably write two completely different stories. I think concepts can’t be stolen. Only completed work can. And that’s a totally different topic.

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