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Writing

How to Find Story Ideas for Your Novel: 8 Story Idea Generators

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 6 min read

In many ways, the novel is the apex of all creative writing. Whether you’re a New York Times best-selling author like Stephen King or new writer self-publishing a sci-fi novel for the first time, writing a novel takes tremendous skill, patience, and dedication. It also takes a great amount of creativity, and this creativity begins with choosing a compelling story idea.

For some lucky people, novel ideas and short story ideas flow like water from a fountain. For the rest of us, however, creative writing is a more deliberate process. If you’re someone who could use some tips for seeking out the best novel ideas, here are some ideas to get you started on the book writing process—from a thriller to a love story to a murder mystery to science fiction writing.

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8 Ways to Get Book Ideas

Creativity comes from all sources, but if you’re setting out to write a novel for the first time, here are some writing tips to help you come up with a story that is truly worth writing:

  1. Adapt a story from real life. You can get compelling plot ideas by reading the news or historical texts or watching documentaries. You can also use an existing nonfiction book to inspire a fictional novel, short story, or script. Thinking more broadly, you can source inspiration from a podcast, a poem, or even a self-help book.
  2. Adapt the plot of a fairy tale or folk legend. Many of the best book ideas come from storytelling that transcends multiple generations. The graphic novel Sumo by Thien Pham draws on centuries of Japanese tradition. The screenplay for The Little Mermaid was based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. If a great story has endured all the way to the present era, there’s a good chance its themes will resonate with today’s audiences just as well as they did with past generations.
  3. Create a character based on someone you know. Joel and Ethan Coen have said that they came up with the story idea for The Big Lebowski by creating a hardboiled detective thriller that featured their real-life stoner friend as the detective. Indeed, many authors have mined the traits of a best friend, family member, or co-worker as part of a great book idea. So the next time you’re around people you know well, jot down a few observations about their behavior—either mentally, in a notebook, or on your phone—and see if it prompts any story ideas. Your friend could end up being a key supporting character, or even the main character.
  4. Write about a moment in your own life. Many authors begin their writing process by ruminating on an event that happened in their own lives. William Styron drew from his own biography as a young editor living in Brooklyn when he wrote Sophie’s Choice. Judy Blume wrote Forever... in part as a reflection of her life as a 17-year-old high school student.
  5. Analyze the plot of a book you admire. Revisit one of your favorite books, whether that’s a recent standout or the first book you truly loved as an adult. As you reconnect with the plot, think about what makes the storytelling work for you. Does the book have a plot twist on every page? Is it a steadily unfolding character study? What elements might inspire plot ideas for your own story?
  6. Ask yourself “What if…?” Think about a known era from history, and imagine if a few key details were changed. This fiction writing technique is the cornerstone of a genre known as alternate history fiction (also called speculative fiction). Alternate history fiction is a style of fictional narrative where the author changes one key element or elements about established history and then concocts a story that results from this change.
  7. Embrace the bizarre. Some of the best book ideas may have seemed bizarre at first, but they went on to produce hits that topped bestseller lists. Authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, John Kennedy Toole, and William S. Burroughs are among the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century, yet many of their novel ideas might have been shot down by a risk-averse publisher. When it comes to your own work, don’t be too quick to censor yourself. While not all writing ideas will yield fully formed novels, it’s important to follow inspiration and see where creative storylines take you in your book writing journey. Remember that many a bestselling book was once dismissed as “too radical.”
  8. Start small with a short story. A short story plot doesn’t have to carry quite as much weight as the plotline of a novel. If, in the fiction writing process, you come up with an idea that may be a little too spare for your first novel, consider shifting it to a short story. You can find a step by step guide on how to outline a short story here. If you learn how to write a short story, the novel writing process will become that much easier.

6 Tips for Starting the Novel Writing Process

Starting a novel for the first time can be daunting, but if you have these elements in place before you draft your opening line, you’ll be setting yourself up for success:

  1. Choose a world in which you want to spend a lot of time. Your novel will require your readers to immerse themselves in a specific world for the hours that they spend reading. More importantly, it will require you, the author, to immerse yourself for weeks, months, and even years. Brainstorm a setting and a time period that interests you and keeps you engaged. Have more than one setting? That’s okay, too, but don’t underestimate the value of simplicity when it comes to storytelling, and don’t overstuff your novel with location changes.
  2. Find a story idea that can sustain your interest. Novels are more than just a series of settings and time periods. They must be driven by a story that remains compelling throughout its beginning, middle, and end. So decide what story you want to tell and be sure it can sustain a whole novel. It doesn’t matter if you’re planning an epic fantasy novel or a picayune dramedy set in a small town. If you think it may not hold a reader’s interest for several hundred pages, consider adapting your work into a short story instead.
  3. Assemble a cast of characters. Now that you have a world and a story, figure out who the key figures in this story are. Your main character is obviously the most important among these. A strong main character will have a rich and detailed life—from personal backstory to character traits to goals and ambitions. The more you understand your characters, the more you will have to say about them to an audience.
  4. Plan your ending. Even if you haven’t planned the beginning or middle of your novel yet, think ahead to a reader’s experience. They will invest a lot of time reading your creation, and yet the part of your novel that will linger with them most will likely be the ending. Make sure you’re giving them a fantastic one, whether you’re trying to write a bestselling thriller or a brooding, character-driven work of literary fiction. From your standpoint as a writer, having a clear ending in place may help you build a story that drives toward that ending.
  5. Break the story into acts. Now that you know where your story is going, it’s time to reverse engineer your narrative by breaking it into acts. Classic stories follow a three-act structure, with each act ending on a significant moment in the overall plot. If you pace your narrative to develop progressively throughout the novel, you’ll end up with a book that’s consistently good from beginning to end.
  6. Start writing before you get cold feet. Planning is essential, but don’t let overly meticulous planning keep you from the task at hand, which is actually writing your novel. The first draft of your first chapter may be terrible, and it may end up being totally rewritten once you’re done, but it’s important to dive in before you’re paralyzed by second guessing.
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