How to Develop (+ Test) a Story Idea
And turn yourself into an Idea Factory.
We’re running through this free course right now, in Ninja Writers. It’s called How to Develop (+ Test) a Story Idea. Or H2DSI.
How to Develop + Test a Story Idea
Prepare to Turn Yourself into an Idea MACHINE!
H2DSI is designed to do one thing. Turn you into an idea factory.
You can sign up for the full, free course here. But I’m going to run you through the steps in this post.
I designed H2DSI for myself. For years I had a habit of having exactly one good idea at a time. I’d get about halfway through writing it, and just when I got to the sloggy middle part, the second act, a new one would show up.
And it seemed so obvious that the right thing to do was to immediately stop working on the boring old idea and start writing the bright, shining new one — the one that was going to make me famous.
Only, I’d get to the boring part of writing that one, and like magic, the next excellent idea would emerge.
It was a vicious cycle that left me with a lot of half-written stories and no finished books. H2DSI lets me record those great new ideas and stay focused on the one I’m writing until it’s done.
It also lets me make sure that my new idea is big enough for a novel, so that I don’t get bogged down in an second act that’s never going to work.
I’m telling you. H2DSI works like magic. Thousands of Ninja Writers can’t be wrong!
Ready? Let’s do this.
I bet there have been characters floating around your head most of your life. If you’re a writer, you can’t help collecting them. Maybe you’re not even aware of it, but every time someone catches your eye for any reason at all, a little corner of your mind recognizes them as a potential character.
Get out a notebook and start listing them. All of them. Here are a few from my own list:
- The man I saw from a bus window, kneeling in prayer beside his muscle car on the side of the road.
- A very straight-laced little girl with a hippy mother.
- A woman who feeds bears from her windows.
- A kid naturalist named Augusta Catterson.
- A teenager who sees the worst thing any person they touch has ever done.
Leave a few pages so that you can keep adding to this list over time — making it perpetual.
Just like with characters, you’ve likely built a collection of setting ideas over the years.
Start by making a list of every place you’ve ever been. Every place you’ve ever dreamed of going. Every place that isn’t even real, except in your imagination.
Here are a few from my own list:
- Any zoo.
- A rambling old mansion — like in Sunset Boulevard.
- A high school locker room.
- A thrift store with some magic.
- A lush garden.
Get out your notebook again, open to a new section, and list all of your own settings. Everyone you can think of. Then, over time, keep adding to the list.
Are you familiar with the term ‘plot bunny?’ It’s a little nibble of an idea that digs it’s claws into you and drags you deeper. It gets it’s teeth into you and won’t let go.
Plot bunnies are situations. They almost always start with ‘what if.’
Here are a few of mine:
- What if a woman woke up one morning and was sure that her children weren’t really her children anymore?
- What if a kid tried to hike a major through-trail alone?
- What if a girl’s father was a notorious Ted-Bundy-like criminal?
Open your notebook again, to a new section, and list all of the situations you can think of.
Pick One of Each (The Development)
Now that you have your three lists — just pick one from each. A character, a setting, and a situation.
There you go. You’ve got an idea! You’ve got a whole notebook full of them. You don’t have to take something off the list just because you’ve centered an idea around it. You might need to put a character into a couple of situations before you find the one you want to write, for example. And you might reuse the same setting more than once.
The 5 Key Plot Points (The Test)
Once you have your idea, you need to test it, to see if it’s big enough to hold up an entire novel.
You’ll do that by coming up with five plot points.
The inciting incident: This is the first really interesting thing that happens in the story. Think of it like a question to your character: Do you want to come into the world of this story?
The lock-in: This is the answer. And it’s always yes. The lock-in is a decision your character makes that locks them into the story.
The Mid-point Climax: This is the second biggest scene in the whole story. As the name suggests, it happens at the middle of the book. It should mirror the tone of the end — so if you’re not writing a tragedy, it should be a big win for your main character.
The Main Climax: This is the biggest moment in your book. It’s sometimes called the dark night of the soul, because in a book that isn’t tragic, it’s the darkest scene.
The Third Act Twist: This is the scene that turns your story around from the dark night of the soul.
Here’s an example . . . The Wizard of Oz.
Inciting Incident: Dorothy meets Dr. Marvel, after running away from home to save her dog, and is invited to join him on the road. (The question!)
The Lock-in: After the tornado drops Dorothy on the witch in Oz and she realizes she’s not in Kansas anymore, she decides to take off down the Yellow Brick Road to find the wizard to ask for help getting home. (The answer, finally.)
The Mid-Point Climax: This is a big splashy scene, after Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City. They get spruced up to meet the Wizard and they really believe all their troubles are over.
The Main Climax: The Wicked Witch of the West has Dorothy and her friends cornered. Dorothy spills water over her, melting her right before their eyes.
The Third Act Twist: Turns out, Dorothy and her friends had what they needed inside of them all along.
That’s it. Your idea is developed and tested. Keep it in your notebook for when you need something to work on.
I make it a habit of developing and testing a story idea at least once a month. I have a notebook full of them. I really have turned myself into an idea factory.
You can sign up for the full H2DSI course here. It’s free.
It would mean a lot to me if you’d clap for this post and share it with your writer friends. Thank you!
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nationand the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer. You can be a Ninja Writer, too.