I've said this before, but it is true: novel ideas are funny things...
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.
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...
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.
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.
2. An inept New York detective must solve his final case if he wants to retire with dignity.
(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.
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.
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.)
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...
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...
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...