Elements of a Good Idea© 2003, 2009, 2011, 2013 Vicki Hinze
(The following is an excerpt from my book, One Way to Write a Novel.)
The elements of a good idea address and answer questions. What do you want to say? Who wants to hear it? How do you plan to say it?
These are all important considerations and questions the writer must answer—hopefully before electing to invest the time and energy in writing the novel.
We can go a long way toward testing an idea before we write if we bear some basic factors in mind. A couple you’ll want on the front burner follow.
Section 1: Elements of a Good Idea
Readers are Armchair Adventurers
- Explore the unfamiliar while remaining safe
- Eager to explore the exotic
- Emotional security
- Exciting and different yet relatable
Readers are armchair adventurers, eager to explore the unfamiliar while remaining safe. Most of us spend our lives mired in the mundane, so when we read, we want to read about something that captures our imaginations, our attention. Something that breaks away from the lives we lead and launches us into a world or atmosphere or situation that we don’t typically experience.
That might be the story of a two-parent family in a small town. To one who hasn’t had that experience but has wondered what it would be like, such a story would be an adventure. Or maybe it’s the story of a spy or a super-hero, or to one who has never experienced love, a forever-after love story. It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well, in this regard, adventure is, too.
Keeping that in mind–that readers want adventure from the safety of their armchairs where they remain emotionally safe–you can see the advantage of giving them something a little exotic in your book. Almost anything can be exotic. The writer’s approach, investment, makes it so. A novel idea that snags the reader’s interest as well as your own can be exotic.
And let’s dispel a misconception now. We’ve all heard, “Write what you know.” That’s extremely limiting. In the past two plus decades, I’ve discovered it’d be far more indicative of what happens in a writing career to say, “Know what you write.”
I’ve written about terrorists, attacks, murders, human-trafficking, special operations, kidnapping, returning prisoners of war, biological warfare, chemical and nuclear warfare, political thrillers, time travel, reincarnation, paranormal novels set in other times, worlds, and in suspended time. I do not know these things from firsthand experience. I learned a lot about the subjects and theories and the types of people typically involved—learning to know what I wanted to write.
Being familiar with a subject doesn’t automatically translate to creating a salable book, though it can. In knowing what you write, an author can become familiar and enthused. Researching something unfamiliar can be dramatic and exciting and that spurs the intangibles (love and enthusiasm) spoken of earlier—the ones we are foolish to underestimate.
Section 2: Elements of a Good Idea
Good Ideas Have Universal Appeal
- Reader Interest
- Reader Can Relate
- The potent combination of Truth and Lies
The critical point is not familiarity. The critical point is that the subject must hold universal appeal.
Universal appeal equates to a large number of people (the masses) being able to identify with and being interested in reading stories about your ideas.
If you know the intricacies of the subject of your idea and you can write about it with authority, that’s terrific. Readers who know the intricacies of your subject will be captivated, too. But do remember that writing with authority alone isn’t enough.
If what you know is how to be a good insurance salesman or a good used-car dealer, you must understand that not many readers who are not those things will be interested in reading about them. There can be exceptions, of course—there always are in writing—but if the appeal is narrow then so too are the odds of selling. Why? The reasons vary, but bluntly put, readers experience these type careers in real life.
Remember, the armchair adventurer is eager to traipse through the unfamiliar and remain safe. So the good idea gives readers something they’re a little less apt to have personally experienced, something a little exotic.
For example, not many readers experience the danger and intrigue of the Intelligence community, or Air Force Special Operations. The mystique, intrigue and danger associated with these professions appeal to readers. In works about these things, the reader gets to step out of his or her world and into this one. S/he gets to peek behind the veiled curtain and has an opportunity to experience something new, something different and exciting—a touch of the forbidden—and that generates appeal and snags the reader’s interest.
Not many of us know hired hit women. Yet from sales and awards received on Debra Dixon’s Bad to the Bone, we know readers enjoyed reading about one. The same can be said for Secret Prey, James Rollins’ Devil Colony, and James L. Rubart’s The Chair. All these novels enjoyed (and are still enjoying) great sales and reader reception.
If your project is a commercial fiction novel you’re seeking to publish traditionally, then its subject must hold universal appeal. If you’re independently publishing your work, you of course have more latitude to pursue a niche market.
Universal appeal enhances the attractiveness of a novel to an agent or editor—your first reader—to publishers and in the market.
Writers often are told that the idea, or the basic premise, for a novel must be true. This simply isn’t so.
Good Storytelling is a Combination of Truth and Lies
Writers can (and do) lie. They have a license for it!
Please understand that I’m referring to the crafting of a work, not suggesting any writer lie in any other area or on any other aspect in this business. Personal integrity and ethics are extremely important. But in crafting fiction, authors lie all the time. That happens naturally when you create something from nothing to reveal, unearth or expose a universal truth to make sense of it.
We’ve all heard that the truth is stranger than fiction. That cliché became one, as have so many others, because it is true.
In life, people don’t have to have logical, reasonable and sensible motivations to act, and coincidence is readily accepted as a reality of life. But in fiction, none of that is true. In fiction, every action must be solidly and credibly motivated and coincidence is unacceptable.
A lack of solid motivation or incorporating coincidence will net the writer rejection letters containing phrases like convoluted plot line or illogical sequences of events or cardboard characters, which translated means that the characters are not fully developed and well-rounded.
The truth is often boring. The key is to lie and then convince the reader that your lie is the truth. Motivate characters’ actions by foreshadowing coming major events and preparing a solid foundation so that the lie seems not only true but also an inevitable truth.
How do you do that?
By offering specific details, proofs of the truth you want accepted as reality, in the work. If you expect a reader to believe the impossible, then give the reader details to prove the impossible is not only possible but also fact.
An effective way to accomplish this is a three-step process:
Example. If you have a character travel through time, then you need a means for that impossibility to be possible. A charmed amulet, say. Establish that amulet and that it is charmed, and then reinforce it. Once it’s established and reinforced, then it’s ready to perform and the reader is primed to accept the performance. S/he is prepared to suspend disbelief because the writer has prepared the foundation for that suspension.
Section 3: Elements of a Good Idea
Good Ideas Target Specific Readers
- Reader Appeal
- Reader Expectations
- Between-the-Cracks Books
A good idea is one that appeals to your reader.
Years ago, noted editor, agent and author, Alice Orr, suggested that writers imagine they’re sitting around a campfire, telling stories to hostile natives.
I add to that image: Either the writer’s storytelling entertains and enthralls those hostile natives or they’re going to throw the writer into a cauldron of boiling water, heating atop the campfire. Entertain or burn—now that’s incentive to target your readers—and if you think of it as entertain or net a rejection letter, it’s also true.
Readers of specific types of novels have specific expectations. For example, if the novel is a romance, the reader expects that not only will there be a credible romance but the development of the relationship will be the primary focus in the novel. If you write a “romance” that fails to meet that expectation, you’re not going to have satisfied readers. So when you test your idea, slot it into its genre or place on the bookshelf and check to be sure what the reader who goes to that genre or bookshelf to find will be found in your story.
Fail to meet reader expectations at your own peril. If you’re not certain what readers of a specific type of novel expect, nothing will tell you like reading books. Get a good cross-section of them. Bestselling authors, new authors; books published in the past year, in the specific genre and sub-genre. This is where you discover what’s available and where there are gaps you can tailor your story to fill.
I’d been writing romantic suspense for years, but I wanted to write romantic thrillers and thrillers with a romantic element. So the first thing I did was read three hundred thrillers. Three hundred three, actually—all published in the previous year, and all deemed quality reads by their publishers, who had nominated them for the International Thriller Writers’ annual Best Novel of the Year Award.
By the time I finished, I was current on the market, who wrote what, and elements I, as a reader, expected to find in them. I heartily recommend heavy reading as the best foundation for a good education on specific markets, and writing targeting specific readers. Otherwise, you end up with “between the cracks” books: ones that don’t firmly fit on any bookshelf or in any genre, which makes them far more difficult to sell.
Section 4: Elements of a Good Idea
Good Ideas Require Active Characters
- Active Characters
- Admirable Qualities
- Three-Dimensional like People
- Worthy Adversaries
A good novel idea is peopled with active characters.
Strong protagonist characters are admirable, action-oriented, three-dimensional people and not reactive victims. So are strong antagonist characters. We’ll discuss that more in a bit, but I want to emphasize that a weak villain isn’t effective. S/he can’t carry a lot of story weight and that means your protagonist lacks a worthy adversary. Because the villain is weak, your protagonist doesn’t have to excel to best that villain, and that makes for a weaker story overall. You don’t want that.
So make your villains strong, then strengthen him/her some more. That is the best way to make sure your protagonist really shines. S/he has to—to best a worthy villain.
Once, I judged a writing competition where the protagonist carried so much emotional baggage—a consequence of struggling through a horrendous life—that I considered it a miracle she hadn’t committed suicide. The flaw wasn’t in the struggle. The flaw was that the woman’s life had been all bad.
A strong protagonist capable of carrying the weight of a novel is balanced. S/he has a life that is bad and good—like ours so that we can relate and bond with him/her.
By having a life that is either all good or all bad, you reduce the protagonist to the likes of Perilous Pauline, who spent her days tied to the train tracks, waiting to be rescued. This type of protagonist can’t struggle much, or enjoy much success in the novel. Her skills and abilities are limited and that means what she can actually do in the novel is limited.
Readers, who live normal lives of good and bad can’t relate well to Perilous Pauline types and they tend to frustrate readers. A protagonist worthy of your story is one who faces obstacles with courage and dignity, who fights the fights that need fighting—even when s/he risks everything (the higher the personal stakes, the better)—and fails and succeeds along the way, eventually failing and succeeding his or her way through to the end of the story.
In the end, s/he doesn’t have to win, but s/he had better change and be different—wiser, stronger, more something than s/he was at the beginning of the story. Otherwise, the reader finishes the book and wonders why s/he bothered to make the journey. That change is the payoff to the reader: the reason s/he made the journey with the character, and the reward should be worth the reader’s investment.
Another example of a novel that missed the mark was an entry for a romance novel. In it, the writer had crafted a seventeen-year-old heroine who was a drug addict involved with a thug. She skipped school, got drunk on beer, and destroyed her loving foster mother’s home while spouting enough four-letter expletives to make a porn king blush and yearn to wash out the protagonist’s mouth with soap. These are not the traits of an admirable romance novel heroine. And it was obvious that the writer had not researched the genre or the writer would have known it.
Not only was the proposed heroine underage, she wasn’t admirable. That translates to no sale.
A solid clue that the novel idea is a good one is that the character’s goals can be clearly defined. That’s very important to the course of the novel but also to the reader payoff just discussed. So let’s delve into that a bit to be sure you have a firm grip on why clearly defined goals are essential.
Section 5: Elements of a Good Idea
Good Ideas Have Clearly Defined Goals
- Goals, Motivations and Conflicts
- Changing Objectives
- Steep Consequences
When goals are clearly defined, the reader knows exactly what the characters want. This holds true for main and secondary characters.
Readers care most when they know what a character wants, why they want it, who is trying to stop them from getting it, and what the character will lose if they fail to attain those goals.
In other words, a character’s goals, motivations and conflicts are clear to the reader. Just as is true with people in real life, the odds of characters getting what they want or need are slim if they don’t know what they want or need. They must define success so that the reader understands the objective and can cheer, mourn, fret and invest in the journey.
During the course of the novel, the character’s goals or objectives might change. If they do, that change should be as the result of his/her novel experiences. Something happens to change the character’s course. Some event, some new insight or knowledge is gained and it forces the change. There should be a reason for the character’s goals to change and the reader should have a clear understanding of those reasons. If s/he doesn’t, you’ll lose the reader and his/her investment in the journey.
So be sure that the character’s objectives are clear, motivated, and specific to that character. The end of the journey matters. It’s significant and important, and if the protagonist fails, the consequences should be steep to that character and/or to others who matter greatly to him or her.
What the consequences are, and whether or not they are significant depends on the type of story you’re telling. So let’s take a look at that in the next section on slotting your ideas.
Section 6: Elements of a Good Idea
Good Ideas are Slotted
- Genre or Mainstream
- Readers’ Buying Habits
- Defined Marketing Niche
- Intent to Entertain
Consciously decide whether you are going to write a genre or a mainstream novel.
While whether a novel is genre or mainstream doesn’t determine its veracity as a novel, and one is no better or worse than the other, they are different and your decision on what type of book yours will be can impact your ability to sell the book.
Think about your story. Where do readers who buy this type book look for it in a bookstore? That is a criterion that editors use to determine how to publish the book. Whether the readers look for it in general fiction or in, say, the mystery section. Whether the readers the publisher has identified as buyers for the type of book buy in hard cover or in paperback. And if in paperback, whether they buy in trade format or in mass market.
Many authors believe that the format—hard cover, trade or mass market—speaks to the quality of the book. Honestly, it speaks to the readers’ buying habits for that type of book.
It is the readers’ buying habits that is the greatest determining factor in these type decisions. And there are distinct selling advantages in writing with them in mind. The more easily an editor homes in on marketability when reading your manuscript, the greater the odds that you’ll see it become a published book.
To the new writer seeking publication, writing in an established genre is far more favorable than writing a mainstream novel. The reason is simple: money.
Taking a chance on publishing a new writer requires a huge investment on the part of the publisher because the writer doesn’t yet have an established reader base to help sell the novel in the marketplace.
If the book fits within a defined marketing niche, then the publisher greatly increases odd the book will sell well. It’s been proven repeatedly that it’s very easy for a new writer to get lost on the mainstream bookshelf. Every possible tip to help the readers who would love this specific type of book needs to be used to help the reader find the book.
Writing a genre book attracts readers who prefer that type of novel. Whether romance, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, horror, suspense or mystery, readers know what to expect and where to go to look for it. Booksellers know where to shelve the book so that potential buyers can find it. And more critical, wholesalers know where to put the book so that it’s shelved with other books like it. Remember, often in the wholesale markets, stockers and not readers or those who love books are physically take the books out of the shipping boxes and placing them on the shelves.
Understand, too, that even within a specific genre, every publisher has preferences. So not only should a writer read copiously within the chosen genre, she should also read publishers lists (a selection of books within a single targeted genre) to determine what specific genre preferences each publisher has for her type book.
Don’t mistakenly believe that if you look at the publisher’s guidelines, you’ll know exactly what the publisher wants; you won’t. You’ll have a general sense of what the editors are looking to buy, but nothing conveys the nuances-which can be considerable and crucial-to the writer and informs as well as reading the books published.
Genre or mainstream, a novel’s intent is to entertain. A writer can never forget that or minimize its importance. More often than not, the means used to entertain the reader is through emotional engagement. Getting the reader invested in the outcome of the novel. That makes testing your idea for these things is wise. Ask yourself:
Will this story idea entertain readers?
Will this story idea make people care?
Will the characters create reader empathy?
Put your novel idea to the test.
If it proves universal in appeal, marketable, engaging and you feel genuine enthusiasm for it, then it’s time to take a look at the novel focus.
© 2003, 2009, 2011, 2013 Vicki Hinze