TESTING YOUR STORY IDEABy 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!