What Are Novel Ideas?

I've said this before, but it is true: novel ideas are funny things...

  • On the one hand, ideas for novels have no value whatsoever (try selling one to an agent or a publisher and see how far you get). Why do they have no value? Because novel ideas by themselves tell you virtually nothing about the novels that those ideas might become.
  • On the other hand, ideas can seem priceless when you are struggling to find one - and let's face it, you are not going to get very far without one. Just as a tree grows from a healthy seed and a fire from a lively spark, so novels begin with a great idea.

The good news is that ideas are easy to find, particularly for us creative types, who tend to be naturally receptive to the new and the promising.

The things which drew us to creative writing in the first place - curiosity, a good imagination, an interest in our fellow man, an inquiring and questioning mind - are precisely the things which make us excellent idea-finders.

Novel Ideas Defined

What are ideas for novels, precisely?

They are probably more complex than you imagine. In fact, they contain within them several individual ideas related to the different elements of the story you want to tell.

I'll be talking about this complexity in more detail in just a moment, but first take a look at these five examples of ideas for a novel...

  1. A zoo keeper falls for a woman he meets in the elephant enclosure and must overcome his shyness to win her heart.
  2. An inept New York detective must solve his final case if he wants to retire with dignity.
  3. A once-great actress has to fight tough to secure the leading role in a West End show.
  4. A bullied schoolboy takes up boxing when a girl he secretly fancies says he has to stand up to his tormentors.
  5. An ambitious female lawyer has to choose between her career and her principles when asked to defend a man who once raped her.

The first thing you will notice is that there is nothing complicated or long-winded about an idea for a novel. In fact, if you can't express the concept in a single sentence, it is probably half-baked still.

And yet, despite their simplicity, the ideas above actually contain all of the elements needed to become novels. More specifically, they contain, a main character, a central plot, a setting, and a theme.

"What things there are to write, if one could only write them! My mind is full of gleaming thought; gay moods and mysterious, moth-like meditations hover in my imagination, fanning their painted wings. But always the rarest, those streaked with azure and the deepest crimson, flutter away beyond my reach."
- Logan Pearsall Smith

And so, in the novel ideas above...

1. A zoo keeper falls for a woman he meets in the elephant enclosure and must overcome his shyness to win her heart.

  • The central character here is the zoo keeper.
  • The plot revolves around his quest to win the woman's heart (so it is a love story).
  • The setting is the zoo.
  • And the theme is about the difficulty of finding love when you are shy.

2. An inept New York detective must solve his final case if he wants to retire with dignity.

  • The character is the detective.
  • The plot concerns his efforts to solve the murder (with the twist to this murder-mystery being that, up until now, he has never been very successful at what he does).
  • The setting is New York City.
  • And the theme is about the universal human need to be respected and admired.

(Themes, incidentally, can be anything you want. This one could be about the effects of bullying in the workplace, for example. But these are my novel ideas so I went with what seemed most interesting to me!)

3. A once-great actress has to fight tough to secure the leading role in a West End show.

  • The character is the actress.
  • The plot follows her extreme efforts to see off her rivals and win the role for herself (I can sense this one turning into a murder story, too).
  • The setting is a London theatre (perhaps a real one, perhaps made up).
  • And the theme is an exploration of how the feeling of worthlessness in old age can lead to desperate measures.

4. A bullied schoolboy takes up boxing when a girl he secretly fancies says he has to stand up to his tormentors.

  • The character is the bullied schoolboy.
  • The plot follows him training to be a boxer, culminating in the final showdown with the bullies.
  • The setting alternates between the school and the boxing club.
  • And the theme is about how we can all triumph against the odds if we are sufficiently motivated (though it could equally be about how fighting violence with violence never solves anything).

5. An ambitious female lawyer has to choose between her career and her principles when asked to defend a man who once raped her.

  • The character is the lawyer.
  • The plot revolves around preparing for and fighting the court case.
  • The setting is the courthouse.
  • And the theme is about power - the power the man held over the woman when he raped her, and the power the woman now holds over her defendant's fate.

Those, then, are novel ideas. (I made them up myself just now, but feel free to steal them if you want. I'm not going to use them. And, like I said, ideas are ten-a-penny anyway.)

Finding Novel Ideas In Two Steps

Like I have said, an important characteristic of novel ideas (or "big" ideas) is that they are actually composed of several single "little" ideas.

The single idea of a zoo keeper as a central character, for example, isn't enough to build a novel upon - you need to make him shy, and set up this fateful encounter with the woman in the elephant enclosure to turn it into an idea containing the potential of a novel.

In other words, you only have an idea for a novel on your hands when you take several plain, single ideas and stick them together. When you get it right, these single ideas form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Now, here is the trouble a lot of people experience when they try to find ideas...

They sit down with a pen and some paper and expect fully-fledged novel ideas to appear magically out of the ether - but it just doesn't work like that. What you end up with instead is a list of single, random ideas, and the result is disappointment.

Here is what you might come up with during a typical brainstorming session...

  • An idea for a character: a schoolteacher with a stammer.
  • An image of a yacht sinking as the sun sets over a waveless ocean.
  • An idea for a great setting: a planetarium.
  • Another character (albeit a dead one): a golfer bludgeoned to death with his own putter.
  • A possible closing line: "In the end, only the past remained."
  • An idea for a theme: an exploration of unrequited love.

Sometimes these haphazard brainstorming sessions can be fruitful. That happens when the random ideas start sticking one to another and they develop into a novel idea with possibilities.

So the stammering schoolteacher murders the golfer. The golfer's wife is the object of the teacher's unrequited love. And so on...

But what happens more often is that you are left frustrated. Not one of the ideas seems to fit with any of the other ideas, and none of them is enough by itself to be a seed or a spark.

I believe that there is a better way, a more structured and methodical way, of finding ideas. It looks something like this...

  • First, you brainstorm for individual ideas - ideas for characters, plots, settings and themes. Not in a random and haphazard way but a purposeful one.
  • Second, you take these brainstormed single ideas and start sticking them together, one to another, trying out all sorts of combinations until you have created the perfect novel idea for you.

Actually, this two-step process for finding ideas should help you to generate lots of ideas, meaning your only problem will be deciding which one to go with first.

And that's not a bad problem to have!

Before I run through the process in detail (complete with worked examples), I first need to talk about where all these novel ideas will come from...