In critiquing novels (and even in writing my own), it’s usually obvious that the would-be authors have good writing skills. They can write acceptable sentences. They have pretty setting descriptions. Some of their scenes are intriguing. So why don’t their books succeed or sell?
Invariably, it’s because the authors haven’t developed a strong idea or “spine” for the book. As a result, the novel flounders. Here are five tips to come up with a strong novel idea:
(“So, what’s the conflict?”) Start with characters in conflict. A workable story idea is one in which the conflicts are clear and present in the basic premise. Give your main character an objective—what he wants—and then throw roadblocks in his path. Who or what is trying to prevent him from achieving his need, goal, or want? The conflicts between the hero/heroine or hero/villain are of two kinds:
1.EXTERNAL CONFLICT: This is the external situation. It’s what the book is about: stalking, Cinderella, arranged marriage, amnesia, serial killer, etc. What is my fresh take or twist on this situation/External Conflict? (Could come from a fun world like horseracing, a setting like medieval Scotland, a dynamite plot surprise, etc.) This is what gives the book many of the plot points as the story evolves.
2.INTERNAL CONFLICT: This is what makes this serial killer book different from all other serial killer books—the characters. This conflict comes from inside them, their personalities, their histories. It creates emotional turmoil between them. Where’s the emotional heat? Where is the pain? The abrasiveness? This is what gives the book depth. It’s what readers will remember long after they’ve forgotten plot point details.
3.MAKE SURE THAT THE EXTERNAL/INTERNAL CONFLICTS MESH: They can’t be random or unrelated. One leads directly to the other.
4. RATCHET UP THE STAKES: How can I make this idea even more exciting? Are these conflicts a matter of actual life and death? Spiritual or emotional life and death?
5. GET OFF TO A STRONG START BY SHOWING THE EXTERNAL CONFLICT IN THE VERY FIRST CHAPTER. In Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass says:
“The number one mistake I see in manuscript submissions is a failure to put the conflict in place quickly enough. In fact, it is the primary reason I reject over 90 percent of the material I receive …
Taking your idea through all five points before writing will remove much of the difficulty in producing a novel. It might also produce a novel that sells.