How do writers get ideas for novels? Popular author Neil Gaiman says it’s through daydreaming, which isn’t far off the mark, but he also offers a more active approach: asking what if.
”You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…?”— Neil Gaiman
In fact, a simple exercise using the phrase what if can help you generate a rough novel concept and the beginning of a plot outline in 30 minutes. All you need is your usual word processor or writing implements, your creative brain, and a basic understanding of the three-act story structure (with e.g. a catalyst, midpoint, darkest moment, climax).
But before we get to that, let’s talk about how to handle the influx of new ideas.
Ideas are great — as long as you actually turn them into stories
You might struggle to find good ideas or you might struggle under the crushing weight of them. My own problem has often been that I get lots of ideas. And they tug at my attention.
I’ll start on an idea I like and work on it, brainstorming characters and catalysts and climaxes. Then I get another good idea. The second is as shiny as the first — in fact, it’s a little shinier, because it’s fresher. Which should I stick with? There’s no easy answer to this question.
I have learned this, though: If I drop the first idea in favor of the second, and then a third idea entices me to shift focus again, I’ll likely end up never finishing any work.
If that rings a bell, and you’ve struggled with jumping from idea to idea, please take my advice: Note down all your ideas, keep them safe for later use, but stick slavishly to completing the first one. There’ll be time for the other ideas afterward. Don’t underestimate the difficulty — and importance — of finishing work. It may be the hardest thing of all.
Ideas are great, but an idea means nothing if it doesn’t serve as the foundation for a full-fledged story.
All right, with that out of the way, I’m going to assume you’re reading this because you’d like a way to generate even more ideas that might work for your next novel project (or novella or short story, for that matter).
The benefits of fast-drafting novel concepts
What follows is an exercise I’ve used myself. With it, I’ve managed to create a rough plot outline for a novel within a day. It used to take me days, even weeks, to arrive at a solid, fleshed out novel concept and outline, but now I can brainstorm one in a day or two.
What are the benefits of doing this kind of fast novel planning?
First, by putting pressure on yourself to deliver a concept and plot outline quickly, you can stimulate unexpected creativity. Where a slower, more methodical process may be hampered by your critical editorial brain, this process doesn’t give you much time to be critical. In fact, it postpones the moment when you should be critical.
Second, you will very quickly get a sense of whether an idea works or not. In the past, I’ve gotten an idea I liked, only to take weeks to develop the outline and then realize, to my horror, that the whole concept is weak and not worth pursuing. It’s best to learn that as soon as possible. You might even consider sending one of more ideas to beta readers to see how they respond to the concepts.
Third, and related to the second point, you will be able to generate a whole bunch of story ideas in a single sitting. This provides you with helpful comparisons (“Do I like idea #2 better than idea #7?”). It may also provide you with creative cross-pollination (“Ooh, if I take the antagonist from idea #3 and substitute them for the antagonist in idea #5, the story will work much better!”).
But enough talk. Let’s do the exercise.
How to fast draft a novel concept
Step 1: Set a timer. ⏳
- Set a timer for 20 minutes. Setting a timer on your phone (or elsewhere) pushes you to be creative and shut out your critical voice.
- Get your writing implements ready — e.g. word processor on laptop, typewriter, pen and paper.
- Keep the questions below visible next to you e.g. so you don’t have to flip back and forth between apps. Consider printing out the questions so you can keep them by your side.
- Close down all other apps on your devices. Make sure you won’t be disturbed by phone calls. Put a DO NOT DISTURB sign on your door.
- Start your timer.
Step 2: Answer the ‘what if’ questions within 20 minutes. ⁉️
- What if my main character (MC) is a (profession/identity) BUT they are/have (problem, recent reversal of fortune, curse)
- What if, more than anything right now, the MC wants
- And what if, the antagonist is a (profession/identity) who logically opposes the MC because
- What if, everything changes for the MC when (catalyst/inciting incident)
- What if the MC is reluctant to act upon this incident, but then this happens:
- What if after much effort to deal with the catalyst, about halfway through the story, the MC’s actions trigger this big disaster or triumph: (midpoint disaster or triumph)
- What if the worst thing imaginable happens to the MC, which is: (all is lost / darkest moment before the dawn)
- What if, during this dark moment, the MC sees that what they want is not what they need — which is actually this:
- What if, knowing what they need, the MC can now face the antagonist at the climax, which is exciting because (climax / finale)
- And what if these other things happen, which would make the story fun:
Step 3: Answer three questions in 10 minutes. 3️⃣
- Once the 20-minute timer goes off, set the timer again, this time for 10 minutes. Dive right back in by answering these questions about the concept you’ve drafted:
- Is your main character’s primary desire/want driven by their greatest dream or dread? Make sure their motivation is strong.
- Is the antagonist driven by their greatest dream or dread? Make sure their motivation is also strong.
- What is the one thing you can tweak that will make the story different or less predictable?
What’s the next step?
Let’s assume you have another 30 minutes at your disposal. Your inclination may be to revise the rough-hewn story concept you’ve come up with. Don’t. Instead, restart the process, preparing a blank doc or piece of paper and setting the timer for 20 minutes again.
If you want to revisit the same concept and characters, feel free to do so, but begin afresh. Going back over the same story but writing out the concept again will help you riff on those initial ideas and, perhaps, improve them. Alternatively, try an entirely new idea. And then another. And another. In an hour, you can generate two detailed story ideas. In two hours, you’ve got four. And so on.
Remember what I said about having multiple story concepts to compare? This is why it’s worth repeating the exercise several times.
Leave your concept alone…but not for too long
Once you’re done doing the exercise, whether you end up doing one or half a dozen rough concepts, you need to step away from them. Leave the story concepts alone for at least an hour. Let them cool off, so to speak. Take a walk. Do some cooking. Iron a shirt.
Whatever puts your mind in a different place.
Maybe you even want to let it sit for a day or two. But don’t wait too long, because, in my experience, that freshness that comes with a new idea can wither if you don’t cultivate it.
I find an hour or two is enough to allow me to look at the idea with different eyes.
All right, now you’ve taken a break and you’re ready to flesh out the concept you like the best.
How to flesh out your concept and create a full novel outline
You’re back at your desk. Have you picked the newly brainstormed idea that you like best? Good. Now let’s dive into the fleshing-out part of the process.
Reread yours answers to the what if questions and the tweaks from the quick 10-minute review you did. You should have the following elements:
- Main character
- Main character’s want and their need
- Act I catalyst or inciting incident
- Transition into Act II
- Act II Midpoint
- Act II dark moment
- Act III climax
- Other details about the story
Basically, you should have much of the raw material to refine and turn into a full plot outline.
Take this raw material and organize it into three sections, one for Act I, another for Act II, and a third for Act III, noting what is the catalyst, midpoint, climax, etc. At the very top of this skeleton outline, write What if…? The answer to this headlining question will be your brief story synopsis or pitch.
With that preparation work done, we’re going to dive into the next stage of the exercise.
Step 1: Set your timer for 30 minutes. ⏳
- The same guidelines apply as with the exercise above — including putting a big DO NOT DISTURB sign on your door (literally or figuratively).
Step 2: Describe your story in 1-2 sentences, answering the headlining question, What if…? 🤔
- Don’t worry about getting this perfect. Perfect is the enemy of creativity in these exercises.
- Try instead to imagine you are telling a good friend what your story is about.
- Write down your summary quickly and don’t worry about how it sounds or reads, as long as you put the gist of the story into words.
Step 3: Add ideas to the gaps in the outline — e.g. the hook at the beginning of the story, complications during Act II, and the lead-up to the climax ✍️
- When that timer goes off, you should have a succinct, if rough, summary and the rudiments of an outline for a story.
The outline will need more work, for sure, but when I’ve used this brainstorming method, I’ve had the rough sketch of an outline, which I could then flesh out, including imagining what supporting characters or secondary antagonists would serve the story well.
Importantly, you do this last stage under time pressure to push your rough concept and outline a little further — far enough so you can look at it critically or share it with beta readers or friends. The point is to have enough of an idea how the story will work to decide whether you want to spend the next X number of weeks, months, or years (depending on the size of the project) drafting and revising the novel.
This is one of several approaches that has worked for me.
In fact, there are many ways to skin a story — and even more ways to add flesh to its bones afterward. The benefit of this approach is that it encourages you to silence your inner critic and quickly put together a concept and a rough outline. It’s considerably easier to determine if a story idea is any good or not when you’ve got a rough version in front of you.