How to Choose a Story Topic
Looking to write a novel, are you? Well, aren't you awesome?
Whether you are typing up some fan-fic, working on a school project, aiming to write something you can actually publish, or just trying to prove to yourself that you can, every novel begins with a story topic. "But how?" you ask. "I don't have any good ideas ready to go!"
Have no fear. I've got you covered.
Sometimes a novel idea come organically, sparking to life without any effort, and that is one awesome experience. However, most of the time you have to make ideas come to life on your own.
Fortunately, this doesn't have to be the worst process in the world, with you clamoring blindly for something that sort of resembles an interesting plot line. That's right! You can indeed brainstorm some pretty amazing story ideas.
There are a few simple steps you can take to develop your next novel idea, so let's get started!
1) Forget About Genre
Your grade school teachers probably taught you to choose a genre before a topic so that your story would have some guidelines to follow. Unfortunately, this isn't the best way to start developing your story. (Sorry, Ms. Larson!)
Typical genre markets (e.g. romance, horror, mystery, etc.) are saturated with books. There's almost no new content left to be created! Unless you are a well-established writer like Nicholas Sparks or James Patterson, big-name publishers probably won't want your standard genre manuscript.
They might not even look at it. Gasp!
Today, the publishing industry is all about emerging genres (dieselpunk, climate fiction, magic realism) or stories that combine genres. Just think of the hugely popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which qualifies as magic realism, or Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, which is part historical romance, part science fiction.
Innovation and creativity are your two best friends when it comes to choosing a story topic. Don't box yourself in by choosing a genre first. Write what is on your heart and let your future self worry about semantics.
2) Consider What You Know & Want to Know
You've got two options when it comes to picking a story topic, and both are perfectly acceptable:
Option 1: Write about what you know. Think about your life. If you were telling someone your own story, what would it consist of? The good times and the bad, the joy and the conflict...your unique life experiences can form the basis for an amazing story. What are the things that immediately stand out as hall-markers of your life?
• Did you learn about grief at a very early age?
• Did you hike through Europe with nothing but a back-pack?
• Did you have a near-death experience?
You don't have to write about the experience from your own point of view. It doesn't even have to be the main event of the story. Stick your experience on a character and see how they handle it. Do they learn from it? How do their friends react and what enemies do they make? Write with your soul bared to the page and your novel will ring with truth.
Option 2: Write a book you wish already existed. Despite what I said about the market being saturated, there are holes that can be filled...except that they are more like tiny pin pricks in a swatch of fabric, and you have to find them.
This option is definitely where my own WIP idea came from. If I had to compare it, I'd say my novel is similar to A Game of Thrones with fewer adult themes and a bigger focus on relationship rather than political intrigue (though there is a touch of that as well). In essence, it's a book series that would be a perfect match for me.
Think about your favorite books, as well as the ones that almost were but didn't quite measure up. Do you ever wish that characters from two stories could meet one another? Or thought that a little twist in the plot would have made the book so much better? Now's your chance to jump on that idea!
3) Don't Be a Story Thief
Back around the holidays, I was watching some delightfully awful made-for-tv movies. There was one in particular that caught my attention. In this film, a female elf leaves the North Pole to find a family that can help her inspire the Christmas spirit that is needed to fuel Santa's sleigh. Sound familiar?
It sure did to me and Will Ferrell.
It's one thing to let a book you enjoyed inspire you to write something similar. It's a whole other thing to change a few names and genders and tout your book as a new original novel. That's sleazy, unoriginal, and just plain shameful. Not to mention that those authors' lawyers will be all too willing to slap you with a slew of lawsuits.
Stay original. Stay amazing. 'Nuff said.
4) Use Your Noodle
So how do you take that novel inspiration or life experience and create something fresh and exciting?
You brainstorm. I can hear you sighing already. Stop that. Brainstorming isn't everyone's favorite activity, but I promise it can be fun. So go grab a notebook or open up a new document so that you can jot down any inspiration you might have.
- Internet Inspiration. Try browsing Pinterest, Flickr, or a magazine. Are there any pictures that stick out to you? A wedding shot? The stormy horizon behind a man in a sailboat? What emotions and themes do these pictures evoke? Start keeping a list of any ideas you have, and make sure to save these images on a Pinterest board or in a document so that you can view them again later.
- Real Life Inspiration. Spend a few hours people-watching at a coffee shop or a local museum. Does an old woman with tattoos catch your eye? What about the boy in the wheelchair? Write down or sketch out any interesting characters you see, and don’t forget to listen in to what they are saying. There may be an interesting accent or phrase that piques your interest.
Literary Inspiration. Read, read, read! One of my favorite writing quotes is from Stephen King. "If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write." This is beyond true. Extensive reading serves as both an influence on your own writing style and an inspiration for your work. Keep your notes close by when you pick up a book!
Once you've got a fairly healthy list of brainstormed ideas, read it over and let your imagination get to work. Combine elements, imagine characters, and work in your experiences. You'll have an epic story topic in no time.
5) Pick a Theme
Don't get any horrible, nightmare-inducing flashbacks of high school, okay? I won't be asking you to write about this theme in a five to ten page research paper, so breath easy.
A theme, in layman's terms, is the basic concept that your story explores. Your story can have just one theme or many. Either is just fine. An easy example of theme would be Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Can you guess her two main themes? It really is that simple.
Knowing at least one of your story's basic themes before you begin writing is important since your theme gives your story purpose. For example, Pride and Prejudice is just a story about a stubborn middle-class girl and an arrogant rich guy falling in love before its themes come in to play.
With the elements of theme added in, Pride and Prejudice becomes a story about how the bonds of love can help disarm the prideful natures and harmful prejudices held by different social classes. It's a more powerful story the second time around, is it not?
6) Write a Simple Summary
It is time to write up a simple summary of your story. It is okay if you don't have characters named or settings in place just yet. You are only looking to condense and confirm the topic you have set in place by writing up a few words about the story, similarly to the blurb you would see on a book's back cover.
Having this story summary in place before development will help you maintain focus while researching, outlining, creating characters, and crafting plot. Think of it like writing down a recipe to make later instead of trying to remember everything you were told.
Need an example of a simple summary? Here's one I made up on the fly...
A woman is haunted by the loss of her best friend, who was found murdered on the playground when they were only children.
Determined to discover her best friend's killer, the woman sets out to find the police detective who had been assigned to the case. Little does the woman know that the detective wants nothing to do with his only unsolved murder.
And neither does the ghost that begins to haunt the woman's waking dreams...
A little dark perhaps, but you get the gist. Also, can someone write this story for me? Awesome, thanks!
7) Ask Yourself a Few Questions
Now you have a nice little story topic with a sweet summary for your next novel. Congratulations!
But don't move on just yet!
First, answer the questions below to make sure your story is a good fit for you and your future readers. Don't worry about going too in depth as we'll be talking about many of these topics in future posts.
If, however, you can't easily come up with answers to one or more of the questions below, it might be time to head back to the drawing board.
- Am I passionate enough about my topic to spend a good deal of time with it?
- In what ways is my topic unique?
- What about my topic will attract readers to my story?
- Can I create strong, dynamic characters that will thrive in my topic?
- In what location and era will I set my characters in order to best unravel my story?
If you answered all of these questions easily, then you are ready to move on with your story's development. Congratulations, again! Learn your next move by checking out the content archives.
Feeling inspired? Now go make some story magic!
The Pre-Write Project
Are you ready to:
- Expand your story idea?
- Say goodbye to bad storytelling?
- Finally finish a first draft?
Avoid the messiness of writing by the seat of your pants and instead embrace the power of pre-writing using this 143-page fillable PDF workbook!