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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Monday, January 14, 2008

TESTING YOUR STORY IDEA

By Norah Wilson

I’m currently mired about 300 pages deep my WIP and stretching for the end, so when I hear people talking about starting new stories, my first reaction is jealousy. Then I come to my senses! Unlike many of my speedy writing friends, it takes me at least a year to finish a story. So when I’m finally ready to embark on a new story, I feel a certain pressure to be sure I’m committing to the right one. This is compounded by the fact, unlike every other writer I’ve ever known, I don’t have multiple story ideas coming out the wazoo. Consequently, I tend to want to go with the first decent one that comes to me. I’ve had to learn the hard way to “test” that idea before saying “I do” to it. If you’re teetering on the verge of a new story, here are some questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • Is your story idea compelling to YOU? I know we’re supposed to look to the market, but you’re the one who has to spend the next year or six months or whatever with it. Does it get you in the gut? If it does, chances are it will move someone else, too, and that’s what readers want to be left with – the sense that they’ve had a meaningful emotional experience.

  • Is it strong enough to sustain a full-length novel? Or does it start to collapse when you begin to try to string together enough plot points to form the sketchiest outline? Is there enough genuine conflict to keep it going? (Robert McKee says, “Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.”)

  • Does your story have high personal stakes for your protagonist(s)? McKee puts it like this: “What is the risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants? More specifically, what’s the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his desire? If this question cannot be answered in a compelling way, the story is misconceived at its core. For example, if the answer is: ‘Should the protagonist fail, life would go back to normal,’ this story is not worth telling.”

  • Does it have high public stakes (affecting the wider world beyond your H&h)? This might be optional for many romances, but according to Donald Maas, it’s key to writing a “breakout” novel. I always look for a way to incorporate public stakes, if I can.

  • Lastly, ask yourself, does the story fit a known market? Does it have a hot premise? A commercial hook (or two or three)? If you can put a few checkmarks in the marketability column at the outset, so much the better. When you get bogged down in the middle, it will help keep up your flagging confidence if you’re able to remind yourself that your story does have something going for it. But don’t torture yourself unduly over this. I personally think it’s more important to write something you’re passionate about than to write something you think you should write simply because it seems marketable.

That’s pretty much my checklist. I find it helpful to do GMC (Goal, Motivation and Conflict) charts for the hero, the heroine and the villain. [If you’re not familiar with GMC, check out Debra Dixon’s book on the subject. I recommend it highly.] Basically, it involves sketching out their goals (what do they want?), motivation (why do they want it?) and conflict (why can’t they have it?). This exercise will help you evaluate your idea, and it also lays the groundwork you’ll need when you’re ready to plot that sucker.

So, what are YOUR benchmarks for evaluating an idea? I’d love to hear them. Maybe I can add them to my toolkit!


28 Comments:

At 10:21 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Great list of questions to ask ourselves, Norah. I think it's key to work on something that excites it. It can have all the commercial potential in the world, and it can still fall flat if we as the writer aren't excited about it.

 
At 12:09 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

I agree! Beging passionate about what you're writing about is so important. Lots of good advice, especially about conflict keeping the story moving forward and great reminder to ask ourselves what's at stake for our characters and what will happen if they don't get what they want? If not much will happen, then it's time to go back to the drawing board.

 
At 12:36 PM, Blogger Chelle Sandell said...

Very informative list!

I try to toss conflict ideas around with my CP's to see they think it's strong enough before I map out a basic storyline.

How's that working for me? Hehe...I'm a fairly new writer, so it's working great so far.

 
At 3:36 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

Great advice, Norah. I totally agree with you and Trish and Theresa. If I have several story ideas, I always pick the one that excites me most.

One way I test my story ideas, for short stories, is to formulate a question that I want my story to answer. Does anyone else do that?

 
At 5:45 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Trish said: It can have all the commercial potential in the world, and it can still fall flat if we as the writer aren't excited about it.

Great point, Trish! I think I've read some of those. ,-)

 
At 5:51 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Theresa said: Lots of good advice, especially about conflict keeping the story moving forward...

Yes, this is SO important. And for me, it was the last piece of the puzzle to fall in place. I was one of those writers who didn't want to torture mycharacters. Instead, I was very nice to them, thereby saving the torture for the judges and editors who had to slog through my boring, boring stuff.

 
At 6:02 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Chelle said: I try to toss conflict ideas around with my CP's to see they think it's strong enough before I map out a basic storyline.

Oh, absolutely, Chelle. They can help you refine the conflict and heap on the torture. Brainstorming with CPs at this point is a great idea.

I think I'm my own worst enemy in that department. I'm one of those dumb@sses...er, unfortunate souls who seems to have to shelter and nurture an idea to maturity on my own, writing 3-4 sample chapters and a detailed synopsis before I can share. I guess I have to demonstrate that I can make the idea work. LOL.

BTW, what an interesting name! Is it pronounced "Shelley"?

 
At 6:12 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Mo H said: One way I test my story ideas, for short stories, is to formulate a question that I want my story to answer. Does anyone else do that?

Ooh, great suggestion! Pose the question(s), and then consider how you'll go about answering it(them). It seems to me that would be very instructive in gauging your idea, level of conflict, etc. I'm filing that one away!

 
At 7:18 PM, Blogger Bonnie Vanak said...

Wonderful, wise advice Norah. Very good checklist. You have to be enthusiastic about what you write, and at the same time have a viable market for your idea. And GMC is a great resource for the building blocks to your story.

Something else to consider is if you have a story idea you love targeted for a market that may not be hot, consider pairing it with an element from another subgenre that is. Paranormal historicals, for example, or putting a new twist on chick lit that catches an editor's eye.

As far as speed in writing, you may mature story ideas for a while, but it takes time to create a gourmet meal, which is how I think of your writing. Some of us are exquisite meals to be savored, others like me are fast food gulped down on the run, lol.

 
At 7:26 PM, Anonymous Barbara Phinney said...

Norah, you have some great points here! I really like the idea of having high public stakes. I had never considered that before, but it really makes sense.
Thanks!
Barbara Phinney

 
At 8:14 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Bonnie! Thanks for dropping by. Guys, Bonnie is a fellow "Lollie" (Ladies of Leisure), and a fine writer. She now writes for Nocturne, as well, and I would give my pinkie finger for an imagination a fraction as fertile as hers. :-)

Great point, Bonnie, about genre bending and blending to give your project an edge. Reminds me of what Noodler Janet Mullany did with her "Regency chicklit", and we all know what a hit that was!

 
At 8:16 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Oh, and thank you, Bonnie, for the fine compliment! Though I must say, I'm at the point in my WIP when it feels more like a dog's breakfast than a gourmet meal!

 
At 8:34 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Barbara! Thanks for dropping in! I'm glad I could give you something to think about with the public stakes angle. But ladies, this gal taught me everything I know about raising the *personal* stakes. She knows how to torture a character, and does it exquisitely in her Intimate Moments and Love Inspired Suspense novels.

 
At 9:19 PM, Blogger Isabel said...

Nora, these are awesome tips!

I'm starting a new project at this point, and the one idea I'm looking for --- like you and others have said--- is the one that excites me and has the strength to get me out of bed every morning at 4:00am.

 
At 9:42 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

The book I've finished is one I literally dreamed. I woke up with the opening scene in my head. I knew I had to write this story, now. I flew to the computer and wrote my cp's to say I was shelving my current project to write this book.

So I guess the only criteria I have now is that I'll only write stories I can't "not" write.

Thanks everyone for the great advice and a special "hi" to Bonnie V.!! I love Egypt, and adore her books!

 
At 10:33 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Wow, great blog! All of those questions are something to consider when picking which story to write. I was ten chapters into a book when the number of characters I had in it began to slow the whole thing down. One of my CPs said "Do you really need all of these people, honey?" I realized I didn't so, I went back and started the whole book sans one entire branch of the family. My CPs called it the great relative massacre! But it worked. M My GH entry, which I am just tying up and revising and well, you know, obsessing over, started out as a writing exercise, but I fell in love with the characters, not as they were, but as they could become once they went through a little tempering fire.

 
At 11:09 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Norah, I am also someone who does not have a flood of story ideas. My ideas dribble in, and then, they often need a lot of revising.

I love GMC, but I'm terrible at figuring it out. My crit partner, Darlene Gardner is masterful at it.

 
At 7:29 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Isabel,
4:00 am??? Wow, lady. I don't think my imagination could yield up a idea exciting enough to get me out of bed at that hour! Seriously, I admire that so much. I hope you find that idea!

 
At 7:30 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Gillian, that just gave me shivers to read how you dreamed that new idea and put your WIP aside to pursue it. That is such a gift, to have that kind of passion for your story. I hope it stays with you as you blaze your way through it!

 
At 7:32 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Whoops! Forgot to say, Gillian, that I agree 100%. Bonnie V's Eygptian historicals rock! Now you have to try her Nocturnes. :-)

 
At 7:39 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Doglady said: ...started out as a writing exercise, but I fell in love with the characters, not as they were, but as they could become once they went through a little tempering fire.

More shivers here. That's what it's all about. Peeling the onion. Exposing your character's true character, which only reveals itself under pressure. Don't you LOVE it?

 
At 7:42 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Diane said: My ideas dribble in, and then, they often need a lot of revising.

We must be soul-mates, Diane! I sometimes feel like an imposter in this world of wildly creative writers. :-)

 
At 8:54 AM, Blogger Isabel said...

LOL, Nora, um, after two years of scribbling I find the mornings work better for me. Then it's off to the day time job. I reserve the evenings for research.

The books you've mentioned are worth their weight in gold. I'd like to add Ansen Dibell's (sp??) book called PLOT.

 
At 9:45 AM, Blogger Chelle Sandell said...

Good morning! Yes...real name is Michelle but everyone has shortened it to Chelle and pronounce it Chell or Shelley.

I love this site because of the wealth of info...but I stay in lurk mode most of the time.

 
At 11:49 AM, Anonymous Alice Gaines said...

Great advice, Norah. Especially about having a passion for your story. If you don't, why should anyone else?

Lately, I've become convinced that I need a concept first. I recently became re-obsessed with Jane Eyre to the point that I feel a compelling need to write my own Mr. Rochester. But, I didn't plan the story at all until I had a "hook" to hang it on. I finally hit on "Jane Eyre meets the Tin Man."

Not a man made out of metal, but a man who's convinced he has no heart. That's a guy who's damaged and needs the tender love of my heroine (and me, lol) to recover.

So, what started as a concept became a hero I crave, and there was my passion.

 
At 1:43 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I think I need to print this out.

 
At 5:40 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Alice said:
Lately, I've become convinced that I need a concept first.

Thanks for popping in, Alice. Ladies, Alice knows a thing or two about passion. She writes the most fabulous sensual fiction for Red Sage and other pubs.

Great idea to find a hook or high concept to hang that story on. You're so much farther ahead of the game if you can.

BTW, I can't wait to read your "Mr. Rochester". My question is, whom shall I picture when I read it? Ciaran Hinds? Timothy Dalton?

 
At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Alice Gaines said...

Norah said:

BTW, I can't wait to read your "Mr. Rochester". My question is, whom shall I picture when I read it? Ciaran Hinds? Timothy Dalton?

Timothy Dalton, but he's mine, mine, mine!

 

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