The best beginnings are based on strong story ideas that immediately set the book apart from all others of its ilk. If you have a bad feeling that your story idea is not compelling or unique enough to hook agents or editors, much less readers, then this post is just for you. Because all other things being equal, the lack of a strong story idea is the biggest problem I see in manuscripts by writers trying to break into the business—or break out of the midlist onto the best-seller list.
Some of these tricks and techniques may seem a little offbeat to you, but give them a try anyway. Many are aimed at seducing your subconscious, a critical if obstinate ally in your quest to tell a good story. So give me the benefit of the doubt regarding these tried-and-true brainstorming and idea-capturing methods. To discover more brainstorming ideas, check out The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings.
In The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, author and literary agent Paula Munier shows you how to craft flawless beginnings that impress agents, engage editors, and captivate readers. You’ll learn how to develop the big idea of your story and introduce it on page one, structure opening scenes that encompass their own story arc, kickstart your writing with effective brainstorming techniques, and introduce a compelling cast of characters that drive the plot. You’ll also examine best-selling novels from different genres to learn the secrets that experienced writers use to dive straight into a story.
With thorough examinations of voice, point of view, setting, dialogue, and conflict, this book is a must-have tool for luring your readers in with your opening pages—and convincing them to stick around for the ride.
Paying attention is perhaps the most obvious and difficult way to generate ideas. Ideas are everywhere if you know where to look and remember to look there. In a world where we are continually bombarded by sounds and images, overstimulated by everything from traffic to texts, and distracted from the minute we open our eyes in the morning to the last flicker of the screen before our weary eyes finally surrender to sleep, the gentle art of observation often goes unpracticed. Yet observation is one of the writer’s keenest tools—one that cannot be replicated by technology. It’s on you to observe the world around you—people, places, and things, from local flora and fauna to conversations overheard on the subway. The world is the writer’s oyster, so put that smartphone and those earbuds in your pocket; go out into the world, and take note(s).
Always Have a Notebook Nearby
Ideas can strike at any time—when you’re in the shower, in line at the grocery store, drifting off for a nap. But like lightning, they come and go in a flash. So be ready to capture them. Keep a pen and a notebook in your pocket or purse, and failing that, you can always email yourself notes or use the voice recorder app on your phone. I have sticky notes and index cards all over the house. I even sneak a pencil and paper into yoga class because doing yoga, like meditating, often acts like an idea faucet. One downward dog and the faucet goes on—the ideas flow.
Being funny is, by definition, a creative act. That’s because humor often stems from making unexpected connections. The best punchline is a surprise—and we laugh at the novelty of the connection. Putting together familiar things in an unfamiliar way—that’s idea generation.
Whenever the ideas aren’t flowing, use humor to get your juices flowing again. If you’re stuck on your beginning, rewrite it as a funny scene. See the humor in something, and the whole world may open up around it. That’s where the space is, the room you need to root around for a new approach.
Keep an Idea Box
This may seem simplistic, but this practice really works. Every writer should have a physical place, be it a box under the bed, a file cabinet in the corner, or a bulletin board on the wall, to keep anything and everything that might prove useful for a story someday. Maps, postcards, souvenirs, slogans, affirmations, news clippings, photos, illustrations, magazine articles—collect them all. Think of the box as your secret treasure, and whenever you find yourself at a loss for a good idea, rummage through it.
I have an idea box, but I rarely go through it. Out of sight, out of mind—that’s truer for me than it should be. Recognizing this about myself, I’ve designed a better way to display images and ideas that resonate with me. Instead, I have covered the fronts of two cabinet doors with cork. Door #1 is my Plot Door, where I pin the index cards I use to plot my work in progress—a scene for each card. On Door #2, I tack reminders of elements I might use in a story someday: photos of interesting places, snippets of dialogue, pictures of people who’d make good characters, sticky notes (right now there’s one that says, “Read more John Cheever”), artwork that somehow evokes the themes that preoccupy me, etc. Every time I look at it, I can almost feel my little grey cells start firing.
Granted, my approach is that of a Luddite. If you’re an early-adopter type, use technology to jump-start your creativity. Some writers swear by Scrivener; others use Pinterest. Find what works for you, and get your own synapses firing.
Do Something Else
Agatha Christie, whose diabolically clever ideas for mysteries still engross audiences nearly a hundred years later, used to say that the best time to plot a novel was while washing the dishes. At more than two billion—yes, you read that right—copies sold, Christie is ranked by the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling novelist of all time. Which is enough to make me consider giving up my dishwasher permanently. Almost.
The point is that sometimes the best thing to do when you think you’ll never have another good idea again is to abandon your desk and do something else entirely. Preferably something that occupies your conscious mind, letting your subconscious mind out to play. Chores are good—mopping the floor, folding the laundry, polishing the silver, chopping wood, weeding the garden, ironing shirts, raking leaves—and they offer the added benefit of providing a sense of accomplishment and an orderly environment in which the chaos of your own creativity can hold court. Just be prepared to stop mid-chore to run to your desk and capture all the great ideas prompted by that homely art of housekeeping.
Keeping a positive mindset is important, but being positive is only part of being happy. To be truly happy, you need to go deeper than a positive outlook. You need to believe that you are leading a meaningful life (or, failing that, a life at least worth living). Fortunately for writers, writing is a way of creating meaning out of what for many can feel like an existential void. That void is a source of sorrow, and sadness, like stress, is the enemy of creativity.
Unhappiness impedes the creation of new ideas, according to researchers at Penn State University. People suffering from even a mild case of the blues tend to hold back, wary of making mistakes and cautious to the point of inhibiting creative work. Moreover, people in sunny moods outperform those in sad or neutral moods in all kinds of divergent thinking, from word association to story ideas. Seriously.
Happiness is not just good for your personal life; it’s good for your professional life as well, not to mention your writer’s soul. So don’t worry; be happy, and keep writing.
Think of your favorite story—the one that kept you turning pages late into the night, the one with a plot so compelling, so multilayered, so perfect that you couldn’t put it down. How can you make your own plots—in your novels, short stories, memoirs, or screenplays—just as irresistible?
Plot Perfect provides the answer. This one-of-a-kind plotting primer reveals the secrets of creating a story structure that works—no matter what your genre. It gives you the strategies you need to build a scene-by-scene blueprint that will help elevate your fiction and earn the attention of agents and editors.
Inside, literary agent, editor, and author Paula Munier shows you how to:
- Devise powerful plots and subplots and weave them together seamlessly
- Organize your scenes for the greatest impact
- Develop captivating protagonists and worthy antagonists
- Use dialogue, setting, tone, and voice to enhance your plot
- Layer, refine, and polish your storyline
About the Author:
Paula Munier is Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services. She began her career as a journalist, and along the way added editor, acquisitions specialist, digital content manager, publishing executive, author, and writing teacher to her repertoire. Paula is the author of several books, including Plot Perfect: How to Build Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene. Her first mystery series debuts with Spare These Stones in 2018 (St. Martin’s Press).