This is an often-asked question of authors. I have attended a number of book signings as a reader anxious to hear what an author has to say, and I have been fortunate to have been asked to speak and sign books myself. In every instance, this question gets asked.
The simple answer is ‘real life’.
Have you been following the Murdaugh case in South Carolina? In a nutshell, it goes something like this: The Murdaugh’s, a once prominent and now notorious South Carolina family, are mired in several murder investigations going back years, stories of drug addiction, money swindled from clients, and most recently, a failed attempt to stage a murder for purposes of collecting on a life insurance policy.
As has been said before of events we’ve all witnessed, you can’t make this stuff up!
There is at least one problem with the Murdaugh case as a work of fiction: Any editor would tell you that you’re trying to squeeze three or four novels into one book. Pick one or two events and focus. The point being, that an idea for a story is just the beginning of the process; a great deal more goes into developing a story idea.
There are those that argue that there are fewer than ten plot lines to pick from and that all stories can be placed into one of the following buckets: Overcoming Something, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. I think that to the extent this is true it is so because the themes explored in each of these plot lines speaks to the human condition and are therefore universal. Who doesn’t love a good underdog story (the ‘Overcoming Something’ bucket) even if we know how it’s likely to end?
Nevertheless, while story structure and plot lines repeat, developing and telling a good story requires work. Volumes have been written on the topic and it’s not possible to summarize all the salient points others have made. I will simply provide a glimpse of how I am trying to do it.
First, decide upon the genre you are writing.
Popular genres include Suspense Thriller, Crime Detective, Espionage, Young Adult, Sci Fi, Romance, Courtroom/Legal Drama, Historical Fiction, and Southern Fiction. Knowing what genre you are writing helps an author understand what readers expect and thus narrows the possible story ideas.
For instance, if you are writing a crime detective story, will you try to develop a private detective as a recurring character, a character around which you can write future books as well? Readers like a series, so developing a recurring character can be a good career move.
You might choose to focus more on the nature of the crime and the criminal mind or possibly the geographic setting for the book will play a prominent role in the story. Readers enjoy stories set in locals with which they are familiar.
Once you have decided on the genre, part of your job is to know your genre and you do this by reading a lot of books in that genre.
This type of research can fuel your imagination and help you come up with a unique idea.
Now, that being said, we all have an image of the private detective with personality quirks and methods of deduction and induction that give this person an uncanny skill at unraveling crime scenes and mysteries. So, it’s okay if your character does too because that’s what readers of the crime detective genre expect and want.
Second, develop the premise or big idea for the story.
This idea can often be expressed as a ‘what if’ question. Examples: What if the leader of a mafia family is grooming the youngest of his three sons to become a governor or president but this son rises to the top of the underworld after he seeks revenge for an attempt on his father’s life.
What if a young woman who is hailed as the female Steve Jobs lies to investors about the state of product development as she fools people into believing she has invented a medical device that will revolutionize the medical care industry?
What if a CIA agent is sent on a mission down a river in Vietnam to find and kill a rogue colonel who has gone mad and ends up confronting his own fears that the evil that took over the colonel’s mind is something that lies not only in his heart but in the heart of all men? What if a small-town, country girl heads to New York City to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress and living a glamorous life and ends up falling in love with a boy from her hometown who she runs into on the subway?
A fiction writer must become an astute observer of the world around them and must fall in love with asking questions that go to the essence of the human condition. The human condition can be serious, romantic, fearless, and scared but these are emotions that resonate with everyone. An espionage story that merely chronicles exploits in a linear fashion whereby the reader is treated to one chase scene after another until the villain is finally killed or captured may pass the time on an airplane, but it will hardly move a reader.
However, if we learn that the spy is an orphan and that his loyalty to his country is rooted in his belief that his country is the only family he has, then the story can be more meaningful to a reader as we better understand what drives the hero.
Okay, so you have a premise for a story.
Now you must decide who the main character will be, what this character wants, what drives the character to pursue this want, what stands in the way, what the pursuit will cost the main character, whether he or she gets what they want, and how the pursuit changes them.
The process of working out the details of a good story is time consuming, and you will likely write words you end up throwing away, and revise your premise, the plot, etc… until you arrive at a good story to tell. But know this – a good story is one in which the main character, because of the challenges faced, changes or doesn’t change, but the prospect for change is there.
The prospect for change, for better outcomes, is the essence of hope. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t hope for something.
So, if you are looking for an idea for a story, simply analyze your own life and ask yourself ‘what is it that people hope for?’.
In 2004, Christopher Booker published “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories” and developed this list.