By Tim Knox
Is there a magic formula you can use to consistently come up with great story ideas for your books? I’m not sure there’s much magic to it, but I’m happy to share with you the formula that I use to come up with ideas for my own books and those for my clients.
Actually, it’s more of a mathematical equation than a magic formula, but saying I have a mathematical equation just doesn’t impress my writer pals at the coffee shop like saying I have a magic formula does. I do use a plus sign (+), a multiplication sign (x), and an equals sign (=), still, would you rather be Harry Potter or Albert Einstein?
Yeah, me, too.
So, here my magic formula for coming up with great story ideas.
Character + Situation x Obstacles = Ending
I know, not really that magical, but it can create a magical story when the spell is spun correctly.
Basically, you take a character (or characters), drop them in a situation, put obstacles in their path that they must overcome, and let the story progress to the ending, be it happy, unhappy, tragic, or otherwise.
Let’s look closer at each factor before putting the formula to a test.
Every great story requires a strong main character (or characters) that readers can relate to or connect with on some emotional level. That character can be the prototypical hero or heroine, a villain, a human, an alien, a dog, a cat—even a spider named Charlotte.
Or perhaps the book features an anti-hero; a bad guy or girl with some redeeming qualities that cause the reader to root for them even though their heart may be fifty shades of grey (see what I did there?).
Think Dexter, Lucifer, Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara, Tom Ripley, the young Darth Vader, or just about any character in Game of Thrones.
For example, Jaime Lannister is a conniving murderer who pushed a little boy off a tall tower and sleeps with his sister, yet he is one of the most popular characters in the Game of Thrones books and TV show. Why? Because he connects on some emotional level with readers (and probably more so to female viewers of the series on HBO).
The situation is the proverbial soup the character finds himself swimming in. If you’re the character, the situation can be anything from waking up with a dead body next to you in bed, to finding out your wife has disappeared and you’re the prime suspect, to realizing you only have a few weeks left to live, to finding out that you have a ten-year-old son from a one-night stand that you didn’t know existed. The situation is the vehicle that carries the story. It is the impetus that drives the character toward the obstacles and through to the end.
An obstacle can be anything that gets in the way of the character’s progress or desires, or threatens life and limb, or prevents the character from getting what he seeks. It can be as simple as a pimple on senior picture day, to missing a flight, to falling in love with a married woman, to opening the door to find an ax murderer standing there.
Obstacles are what make a story interesting. We want to see the hero triumph over adversity, even when things seem insurmountable. The greater the obstacle, the more the reader will care about the hero. Obstacles give the story purpose, they put meat on its bones, they give us something to fear and something to root for.
The ending of a story should be determined by how well the hero has worked through the given situation, overcome the obstacles, and arrived at the end of the journey. Sometimes that ending is happily ever after, sometimes it’s happy for now, sometimes it’s misery and tragedy, and sometimes you’re left hanging by your fingernails at a cliff.
No matter the ending you write, it must be logically determined by all that has come before otherwise the reader will be disappointed by the resolution or lack thereof.
If you’ve taken the reader down one long road, then suddenly veered off in another direction to end the tale in an unexpected way, you’re going to tick the reader off. Your sales, reviews, and reputation will reflect their disappointment.
Imagine the reader backlash if, after all that has happened in Lord of the Rings, Frodo wakes up to find that it was all just a bad dream. Not good, J.R.R.; not good at all.
So, again: Character + Situation x Obstacles = Ending
See if any of these bestselling plots sound familiar to you.
- An old fisherman who has not caught a fish in 84 days (Character) goes out to sea alone and hooks a large marlin (Situation) which is eaten by hungry sharks before the old man with the fish lashed to his boat get back to shore (Obstacles). Because of the size of the marlin’s skeleton, the old fisherman is redeemed in the eyes of his village and gains the respect of his peers once more (Ending).
Or this one:
- A young orphan boy living with nasty relatives (Character) discovers he is a wizard and is sent to wizarding school (Situation) only to face an evil sorcerer and his minions who seek to dominate the world (Obstacles). The young boy and his friends defeat the evil sorcerer and save the day (Ending).
Or perhaps this one:
- A poor young man and a wealthy young girl (Characters) fall in love despite their socioeconomic differences (Situation) but her rich family opposes the union, and she is sworn to another, forcing her to choose between love and obligation (Obstacles). She makes her choice and lives to be an old woman in a nursing home whose husband reads to her every day (Ending).
- A young boy, disfigured by a facial birth defect, (Character) goes to public school for the first time (Situation) only to face cruelty and bullying from children and adults alike (Obstacles). He overcomes adversity and becomes an inspiration to all (Ending).
Do any of those books sound familiar? Do you see how they all fit the magic formula?
In a nutshell: take a normal (or abnormal) character, drop them in an abnormal (or normal) situation, pepper their journey with obstacles, maybe throw in a little romance, a little humor, a little dark magic, a little serial killing, whatever you like, and see how they faire. That’s how you make the magic happen.
Watch the video at the top of the article for more insights on how to come up with great story ideas.
Tim Knox is an author, ghostwriter, editor, and publishing coach who has ghostwritten over 100 books in various fiction and nonfiction genres, and produced over 200 videos and podcasts on the topic of how to become a better writer. Tim’s company, Knox Publishing, works with new and established authors to help them improve their writing skills and marketability. His novels, Angel of Mercy and Sins of the Father, as well as other works, may be found on his website at timknoxbooks.com.