Tons of people say that they feel like they have a novel inside them and wish they could write one. And yet so few people even try. It’s no wonder, considering how difficult it truly is to write a book. One of the hardest parts of writing a novel comes at the very beginning—coming up with the idea in the first place. And even once you have a glimmer of an idea, trying to figure out how to build a whole book around it can be overwhelming.
If you’re having trouble figuring out where to start with brainstorming a novel idea, here are some tips to help get you going.
1) Do Your Research
Even if you don’t have a specific idea for a story, you already know what types of stories you like to read. Odds are, your favorite genres to read will also be your favorite ones to write. Once you’ve settled on your genre, you can start researching.
You may think that something like historical fiction is the main genre that would require a lot of preliminary research. But research can help you to brainstorm all sorts of story ideas—be they fantasy, sci-fi, romance, or whatever else you might have in mind. If you’re writing fantasy, you might start out by reading up on Celtic fae lore, or vampire legends from different cultures. If you want to set your story in space, NASA has tons of great info on rockets on their website. If you’re lucky, something you come across might spark a new idea. And even if it doesn’t, you’ll still learn something new about topics you enjoy.
Research doesn’t always mean curling up with a reference book or your laptop. Sometimes research is just taking note of a building you think looks cool, or snapping a photo of a particularly lovely forest. Other times it can be sorting through old bits of writing you’ve done in the past to search for a diamond in the rough. (Another tip—never get rid of anything you write, even if it’s a small piece of dialogue you don’t have a place for. You never know the ideas it might inspire one day.) Often a new novel idea is just waiting to be discovered if you know where to look.
2) Start an Idea Farm
When you start to encounter some beginnings of ideas, it’s important not to let them fade in your mind. It’s good to have a dedicated place where you keep your early ideas: an “idea farm”. Every time you think of something that might be fun to write about, jot it down into your Idea Farm. It can be in a writing notebook, Word, Notepad, Notes on your phone—whatever works best for you.
No matter how small an idea seems, go ahead and jot it down anyway. It could be as simple as “neighbors in love” or “questing narrative” or “story about that tree I like near work”. It doesn’t matter if these ideas have any real substance to them yet; that’s what the idea farm is for. Every so often you can look over your ideas and see if you can think of ways to flesh them out.
Idea farms are a great way to keep track of your ideas. It can also be a real relief to look at yours and see that you’ve got a whole stack of story ideas to keep you busy for the foreseeable future.
3) Write Character Sketches
As your novel idea begins to take shape, it is paramount that you give early attention to your characters. These will be the companions who will lead your readers through the story and so they need to be compelling and engaging. As soon as you have even a vague idea of who your main players are going to be, it’s time to write some character sketches.
Writing a character sketch is as simple as opening a document (or your notebook), picking a character, and just starting to ramble about them. You might want to start out with what they look like and how they dress, though of course it’s fine if there are other aspects of the character that you think are more important to get down first. Then you can move on to their relationships; how they feel about their parents, siblings, friends, significant others, etc. You can also dig into any juicy bits of their past that might affect the story.
These brief character biographies will be invaluable when it’s time to start writing your novel. If you have a decent idea of who each character is from the get-go, then they will have a good chance of being the type of strong, well-developed characters that readers will follow anywhere.
4) Make Some Playlists
A useful method for getting a better handle on your growing story idea is creating a playlist for it. Think of the playlist like the soundtrack of a movie. A novel is sort of like a movie in your head, after all.
A good way to start is with one big, overarching playlist that you would give the same name as the working title as your story (don’t worry if you don’t have a working title yet; you could just call it “Untitled Project”). You can add any songs you want that you feel suit your story—again, the stuff you think would belong on your book’s soundtrack.
After that you can move on to playlists dedicated to your main characters, significant locales, and pivotal scenes. Even if you’re not particularly musically inclined, creating playlists is worth a try. You may be surprised by how much more deeply it might bring you into your plot and the mindsets of your characters.
5) Don’t Force It
There are a lot of suggestions here for how to go looking for ideas. But if you’ve done all you can and are still banging your head against the wall, give yourself permission to back off. While there are things you can do to try to kindle inspiration, you’re unlikely to ever come up with a good idea if you try to push it too hard.
So think about other things for a while. Allow yourself to enjoy your free time—watch movies and shows, listen to music, read books, go for walks, etc. Before you know it you’ll see an intriguing set of old railroad tracks, or hear a beautiful song you’ve never heard before, and suddenly the gears in your brain will start turning. Don’t worry that you’ll never figure it out—your idea will come find you when it’s ready.