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How to choose the best story idea. | Laura Pauling

How to choose the best story idea.

Q is for Questions

I don’t know about you, but often, I have more than one story idea floating around in my head. How do we know which one to pursue?

Early on, I’d come up with a great idea and just write it; regardless of whether it would be a hard or impossible sell. Now I examine an idea to see if not only will I love it for the long haul but will it sell. (As much as we can determine that, which really, we can’t.)

What are my goals?

  1. Do I want to be traditionally published with dreams of hitting the bestseller list?
  2. Or am I okay with self publishing or not publishing at all? Or going through Lulu and just making copies for your friends and family?
  3. I’m going to assume that most writers reading my blog would like to be traditionally published and earn some kind of money for their work. No shame in that.

Will the idea be marketable?

  1. Is the idea overdone? (like vampires or angels) If it is, do I have a different take on it? Or maybe I should just ditch it.
  2. Do visual scenes come to mind when I think about this idea?
  3. Will it appeal to a large demographic?
  4. Will the character/idea provide enough external and internal conflict?
  5. Can I think of a main story conflict?
  6. Can I see a place for it in the market?
  7. Is it the kind of story I’d want to read?

Okay, so if the answer is yes to all or most of those questions keep going.

Can I make the story bigger?

  1. If I change the setting, would the story be more appealing? (For example, Across the Universe was a small town mystery but up in space.)
  2. What does my character want and want does he/she stand to lose?
  3. Is the internal conflict/theme primal? As in love, family, survival…etc.
  4. Can I make the stakes even higher?
  5. What are some possible midpoint twists or Act III reversals?
  6. Can I add murder? Betrayal? Lies? Ghosts? Family problems? Friend problems?
  7. Does my main character like a certain type of food that I could easily offer at the launch party?

Make lists. Don’t stop with your first idea. Make a list of 20 different ways the story can go. Make lists for all the questions above. Pick the one that sparks magic in your heart.

How do you determine which idea to invest in for the next year or so?

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25 Responses to How to choose the best story idea.

  1. anne gallagher April 20, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    Wow, that’s impressive. Usually when I get a new idea I just start writing and don’t even think about if it’s viable or not. And I have actually gotten two or three really good ideas in the last couple days. Great list. I’ll have to use this for bright and shiny’s in my head.

  2. Sophia Richardson April 20, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    Just reading these questions flushed out some subplots, scenes, and additional conflicts for an idea. Nice! Thanks for sharing, Laura, and I can’t wait to see what others suggest in the comments.
    – Sophia.

  3. Stina Lindenblatt April 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    Ideas come to me while working on another project. I’ll jot them down for when I have time to work on them. Often these ideas get forgotten, but occasionally one hits so hard, I KNOW I have to write the story. I keep writing down all the ideas that come to me during the next few days. Sometimes the idea still keeps pushing at me, begging me to work on the outline and characterizations. Sometimes I have to put my WIP aside to do this.

    After I finish the characterizations and outline, I’ll go back to my other project, but the new idea will keep talking to me, especially since I’ve now given my mc a voice. She isn’t going to let her story slide. She keeps trying to slip into my WIP until I finally say, “You win! I’ll write your story now!”

    And that’s how I know that I’ve found my next story, and that I’ve got to write it no matter what (even if I had another one planned and outlined before it). 😉

  4. Leigh Moore April 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    so far I haven’t really worried too much about marketability. Which killed me on my last MS that I kept sending and kept getting great feedback coupled with “not sure I can sell it.”

    I just try to find that idea that I can chase all the way through to the end. Then I know I’ve at least got something.

    Great post, Laura!

  5. Lydia Kang April 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    I get a handful of ideas but the one that strikes a chord very deeply in me is usually the one that wins out. Usually because I won’t stop thinking about it!

  6. Anna April 20, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    Such great advice. I used to jump on any idea that came into my head, but I’ve since learned that I need to think things through a bit more before I dive in. That way I’ll know if an idea is worth investing in and I’ll wind up with fewer abandoned projects.

  7. Creepy Query Girl April 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Honestly, I write the books I want to read but can’t find anywhere. THe stories I’m going to be living in and working on for weeks and months and even years have to be something I’m in love with. If others like it too, that’s just icing on the cake.

  8. Susan Kaye Quinn April 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    Number seven made me laugh! #butitsimportanttoo 🙂

    I pitch my ideas to my kids. If I see their eyes light up and they start telling me what the plot should be, I know I’m on to something. If they bring it up randomly three days later, I know I’ve hooked them. #theyremyaudience

    Of course, I have to love it to.

  9. Laura Josephsen April 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    I had to giggle at the last one (about food you can offer at a launch party). 😀

    These are great lists. I think I tend to follow most of the “can I make the story bigger” points, thought not always consciously, LOL. I don’t tend to follow all of the marketable questions–I mean, I find the conflict and I always write stories I want to read. (It would be horrible if I wrote stories I don’t ever want to look at, given how much I have to rewrite and edit!) But I can’t write a story just because I think it will be marketable. I write a story because the characters jump up and down and introduced themselves, move into my head, and refuse to go away until their story is told. (And even then, I’ve got them with me for the rest of my life.) Do I hope that there will be a place for them in the market? Yes. I realized that after being published, I suddenly had this pressure that I put on myself that everything I write HAS to be publishable, and then I’m like, “But what if this story is NOT? What if no one wants to read it? What if, what if…” And then I started to seize up and have so many doubts about my story. I’ve recently had to realize that and had to take a step backward. I had to get back to the root of WHY I write and hold onto that. (I need to do a blog post about this sometime.)

    Two ideas at once are awesome for me. In the last nine years, there have been very, very few moments when I only had one project going. I can’t write very well if I only have one story in the works. I’m much more productive with two–because I bounce back and forth. When one story exhausts me, I switch to the second story, and then the first story starts clamoring for my attention and builds up a little.

    Your posts always give me a lot of food for thought. Thanks for that!

    P.S. I’m passing a blog award onto you. You can find it at my blog if you’re interested. 🙂

  10. Patti Nielson April 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    Thanks for another great list. I’m just trying to flesh out a new idea so this will help, and I’ve learned that you really need to love your idea for the long haul.

    • Laura April 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

      Sometimes it might not be worth it to think of marketability because sometimes you never know what will sell! I think we just want to think twice about the really quiet novels unless we’re happy just to write it. Most of the literary MG and YA novels out there have something that creates a big hook. Whether it’s dealing with death or a Savvy.

  11. Laura Marcella April 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    Wow, these are terrific questions. I narrow it down to the stories I’m most interested in writing, and then I set them aside and mull things over in my head. Always there’s one story that takes precedence over the others in my thoughts and I know that’s the one I want to write the most!

  12. Lisa Green April 20, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    I LOVE this post!! These are all EXCELLENT (sorry for shouting) questions to ask when starting a project. I might even go back and do this today. And the what can I add – GHOSTS?? LOL now I have to see if I can add ghosts into my books… It’s like the secret ingredient!

  13. Jenny Lundquist April 20, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    The ideas I end up writing are the ones I can’t get out of my head. I didn’t worry about marketability on my first novel, but the longer I write, the more it becomes a consideration. I know that’s a good thing, but the flip side is that I never want that to be the determining factor of choosing to write a story. It has to be passion for the idea/story itself, otherwise I won’t make it through those days when I’m sick to death of working on my WIP and thinking my writing stinks.

    Your posts are always so thoughtful, thanks!

    • Laura April 20, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

      For me it comes down to that to. Which ideas I can’t get out of my head. But sometimes I can’t get an idea past the initial one line concept. That’s where the work comes in.

  14. Alex J Cavanaugh April 20, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

    Since everyone wanted a sequel to my book, that was the idea I pursued!

  15. Tana Adams April 20, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    Isn’t that just the question of the ages? It’s true With so many ideas vying for our attention it’s amazing we choose one and go with it. FOr me it’s about which idea is most formed at the time. In the back of my mind I want to do them all.

  16. Shelli April 20, 2011 at 9:48 pm #

    Some of my ideas just come to me; some I find through writing flash fiction. If someone reads something and says “I’d read that if it were a novel,” then I’ll play with it a little more and see if I have enough material. With my current project, I ran it through Story Maker. I like it a lot.

  17. Ann Best April 20, 2011 at 10:33 pm #

    I end up choosing the idea I feel most passionate about–which at this point in my life is My Life. Memoir is my thing now. I have two more tugging at me. Time to start writing scenes and/or outlining to get myself going.

    Thanks for a provocative post. Like everyone else who commented, it got me thinking…
    Ann Carbine Best, Long Journey Home

  18. Margo April 20, 2011 at 11:37 pm #

    I am a fan of making pros/cons lists when facing big decisions, but I never thought to apply it to writing ideas! But this is an excellent checklist. I am book-marking it for future reference.

  19. Donna Weaver April 21, 2011 at 3:10 am #

    Great Q post, Laura.

  20. Jackee April 21, 2011 at 3:24 am #

    Speaking of lists, I loved yours here! It opened up so many thoughts for me. Usually I just choose which story I feel the most passionate about but that leads to story hopping a lot. :o)

    Have a great night, Laura!

  21. Dawn Simon April 21, 2011 at 5:04 am #

    Nice lists–so interesting to read. I definitely ask myself lots of questions before I invest a ton of time in an idea. I think it shows up on the page if I’m having fun while I write, so I think about what stories I want to tell and live with.

  22. Lynda R Young April 21, 2011 at 5:32 am #

    These are great questions to ask. I get a lot of starter ideas, but when I think about it and try to develop the story further it goes nowhere or it needs more thought than I first realised.

  23. Ghenet Myrthil April 21, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    This is really great advice. I like to ask myself these sorts of questions before starting a new project. It’s great to write for the fun of it, but if you want to eventually try to publish a book, you have to make sure it has all the elements it needs to be successful. Figuring that out ahead of time is wise.

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