Imagine hitting a point when your novel falls flat, or your story ends about 50,000 words before it should. This is a nightmare many writers live, especially during those committed times when they’re actually putting in the time to draft. *cough* National Novel Writing Month! *cough*
Alright, mock subtle hints aside, ideas for a novel have to be robust in content, unique in concept, and complex with great variety. That idea should be something that will surprise you with its potential. Ideas like this can come from anything, but they typically begin with one of three major triggers: theme, character, inciting event.
Sometimes you may want to talk through a big issue and use a story to do it. Some of the most glorious works of literature came about this way. Moby Dick only came into being because Herman Melville wanted to share his fascination and deeply mixed feelings about the practice of whaling and all the adventure involved. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens endeavors to explore the French Revolution in all its emotional, political, and cultural turmoil.
Writing with a single, major theme can quickly become preachy, so ideas like these need compelling characters who stand on all sides of the argument and experience the problem in real time. With characters, you can stick the audience in the nitty-gritty world of tough decisions, painful sacrifices, deeply human regret, ambiguous moral dilemmas, knotted-up politics, etc. This also sets up a few parameters for the plot, too, as the characters need to find themselves in these situations for realistic and highly-sympathetic reasons.
For some writers, there are amazing characters who come into being and practically demand a leading role. Again, amazing works show up with just this approach. One personal favorite is Perfume: The Story of A Murderer by Patrick Süskind. By the title, you could probably piece together that this main character is a killer. That said, the character is masterfully portrayed and unforgettable. Harry Potter is another story that leads with a character and his life. In both of these examples, and most other character-centered novels, the character both acts and is acted upon as their story unfolds, pushing them to change and develop in surprising ways.
The biggest pitfall for leading with a character is when they’ve got nowhere to grow. Sure, some lead characters come off as completely competent and fully-formed perfect right from the start, but how much can you do with someone like that? Whether they’re the complete ones, or they help others become complete, they had better be facing a challenge, one that’s just strong enough to take them down. So, in testing a character to see if they can carry a novel, know what their weaknesses are, what can break them, what they fear, what they fight for, where they come from, and how far they’re willing to go. If you choose a “superman”, you better have a bag full of kryptonite handy or that story’s going nowhere.
Stephen King, in his book On Writing, describes how many of his books spring from a certain situation or scene that set the gears working for a story. Historic events or true experiences can also evoke the muse. Consider In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, inspired by the real events of the Essex and her crew. This same event provided the frame for Herman Melville’s narrative treatise we mentioned earlier.
There are two main questions for exploring the story potential in an event. The first question to ask is what happens next? This tracks the ripple effects radiating outward. A dense, novel-worthy concept should ripple out on many levels, triggering more events of interest, changing characters’ lives, stressing existing relationships, creating new relationships, altering culture, highlighting ignorance, revealing lies, spurring cover-ups, etc.
The second question for testing this concept type is how did this happen? Author Bruce Elgin calls this particular plotting and development technique “the backward pass”.
“We are often gifted with an image of our character, triumphant or humbled at the end of a journey. If you have any kind of ending in mind, all you need to do is ask yourself, what needed to happen just before that ending? What was necessary in the story right before that moment? What Y led to Z? Then, you keep going. X to Y, W to X and on and on, figuring out the third act, the second act, all the way to the beginning of your story.”
Again, this is just more questions being asked and a great novel concept should have a wide web of options to explore.
If you have an idea for a story, just write it. If it turns out to be a short story, that’s great! If, for whatever reason, it wraps up short of the 50,000 word minimum, that’s fine too. Stories run their course in the first draft and there’s no law that says it has to reach its full potential in one shot. However, if you’re writing for an event *cough* NaNoWriMo *cough* that asks a high word count, just test the concept to see if you’ll have enough to talk about for that long!
Elgin, Bruce. “Session 4 Fiction Fundamentals: Frame and Arc .” How Writers Write Fiction 2015. Iowa. 26 Oct. 2015. Novo Ed. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.