Writing a Novel: The Four Elements Of a Solid Story Concept

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Do you want to write a novel? In addition to creating a solid plot, you are also going to need a strong concept for your novel. Wondering how to conceptualize your story? Todd A. Stone, author of the Novelist's Boot Camp, shares essential elements for developing a story's concept.

story mapping | writing a novel

Developing A Story's Concept

One common civilian technique for developing an idea for a novel is fairly straightforward: Start with a bit of information that piques your interest, then ask What if? But the answers to the What if? questions you asked in the civilian world of writing just aren’t strong enough to base a novel on. Instead, you need something stronger—you need to move from What if? to a comprehensive concept.

A comprehensive concept is a foundation builder. It is a short statement that combines the following four essential elements to form a strong base for your complex novel: (1) genre, (2) main character, (3) opposition, and (4) macro setting. You can arrange these elements, in any order.

Examples of Story Concepts From Popular Novels

Here are some example comprehensive concept statements formulated from popular novels.

In a mystery [genre] set in modern Los Angeles [macro setting], a female
bomb squad technician [main character] pursues a mad bomber [opposition]
who killed her partner.
Demolition Angel by Robert Crais

A by-the-book Army officer and a break-the-rules Green Beret [main characters] battle a new Nazi Fourth Reich [opposition] in a techno-thriller
[genre] set a newly united Germany [macro setting].
Kriegspiel by Todd A. Stone

Now, to go from What if? to comprehensive concept, you need to leverage the what in What if? That is, begin with your scrap of information—idea, person, place, thing, tidbit of news, slice of history, scientific observation, or whatever else that sticks and inspires you—then ask specific What if? questions designed to formulate each of the four elements of your comprehensive concept.

For example, start with this fictional news item: Private plan crashes. No pilot found. Now, instead of asking yourself random What if? questions and allowing your train of thought to pick its own destination, focus and direct your What if? questions to determine genre, initial main character, opposition, and macro setting. You can address these four elements in any order.

  • Genre: What role could this fact play in a horror story? What role could this fact play in a spy novel?
  • Opposition: In a horror story, what kind of monster might be involved? What could that monster do to make planes crash and pilots vanish?
  • Main Character: What if the protagonist was the missing pilot? What could be his reason for disappearing? What role could his disappearance play in his discovery and pursuit of the monster? What would the main character do to track and kill this kind of monster?
  • Macro Setting: What kind of setting might be interesting for this story?

Arrange your answers to form a comprehensive concept statement. As long as you focus your questions on genre, main character, opposition, and macro setting, your novel concept will be strong enough that you can confidently move forward. Directed What if? questions can not only help generate interesting and unique genre-appropriate characters, settings, and plot lines—and make use of the interesting scrap of information that inspired you—they can also help you go beyond the comprehensive concept and create subplots, backstory, supporting characters, etc.

People. Places. Events. Things. Some combination thereof. A tidbit of news, history, or science. Any and sometimes all of these somehow stick in your imagination. You feel there’s a novel somewhere in the unique history of an island paradise (Hawaii), in the caves near Hannibal, Missouri (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), in a paralyzed crime scene inspector (The Bone Collector), in dinosaur DNA preserved in mosquitoes (Jurassic Park). In the civilian world of writing, you’d ask What if? about an inspiring tidbit of
information and hope to get an idea you could turn into a novel. But as many a soldier knows, hope is not a plan. When you leverage the what in What if? in the context of genre, character, opposition, and setting, you can build interesting essential elements for your novel’s comprehensive concept.

Of course, you’ll need to further develop this concept, starting with genre. To do so, don’t simply ask What if I turned the page? Do it!

This excerpt is from Novelist's Boot Camp by Todd A. Stone. Buy the book and:

  • Develop your story line and characters
  • Practice description, setting, and dialogue with writing exercises
  • Cut, rework, and improve your story
  • Get a bonus guide for writing a novel in 12 weeks

Buy the Novelist's Boot Camp today!