How to plan a new work of fiction – Techniques for generating novel ideas

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and thousands of writers around the globe will try to write 50,000 words in a month. In the coming weeks, I’m going to outline some tips and tricks for planning new works of fiction.

This is my favourite exercise for hatching ideas. I’ve used it to come up with the novel idea I’ll be writing in November.

Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling famously said, “The best way to have a great idea is to have a lot of ideas.” It’s a great tip for writers.

If you try this exercise for generating novel ideas it’s best approached playfully; write down anything and everything that comes into your head. The good, the bad, the ugly, and even the silly!

1.Think of an intriguing story incident or plot point… (anything goes!)

2. Think of the very worst person this incident could happen to.

3. And repeat.

This exercise works just as well the other way around, thinking of character first. Some people seem to work better devising character than story plot, so if that fits you, then think of an intriguing character, then think of the very worst plot incident that could happen to this particular person.

The reason this method work is because it guarantees conflict is built into the heart of the story.

Some examples:

There’s a revolution and the poor take over the control of the country, the worst person this could happen to is a Queen who is convinced she’s better than anyone. 

A character suddenly loses their sight and has to learn how to cope with being blind, the worst person this could happen to is an artist who never listens to anyone.

The world is on the brink of catastrophe and only a team of expert scientists can fix the disaster, the worst person this could happen to is a scientist who trusts no one and always works alone.

Or, try the character first approach:

A beautiful woman who’s convinced she is ugly, finds herself in the worst situation, her picture is used in a popular meme, and the whole world is judging her appearance.

An idealistic vegan who wants everyone to stop eating meat, finds himself in the worst situation, he falls in love with a butcher and the only way to see her is to accept a job in an abattoir.

These are quick ideas and imperfect, but it’s best not to edit yourself when you try this exercise. The ideas are just a starting point. If you take some time and write a long list then usually one or two ideas will resonate, and these are the stories you should develop further.

It’s quite normal to find a few lines in your list that are similar. That’s because as writers we tend to explore themes that matter to us, it’s quite likely your subconscious will throw up story ideas that hold meaning for you, similar ideas just presented in a slightly different way. Don’t hold back if this happens! You’re going to be spending a lot of time writing a book, it’s important that this is a story that connects deeply to the themes that matter to you.

I hope this idea-generating plan is useful to you. It’s inspired by a technique mentioned in Stealing Hollywood by Alexandra Sokoloff, a book I highly recommend, it’s full of good ideas.

Once you have settled on an idea why not check out Story Planner’s log line templates to develop it further?