How to Come up with Good Ideas for your Novels

In this post, I’ll be talking about ideas. Not just any ideas, ideas in the context of writing fiction. I’ll cover:

  • What’s the difference between a good idea and a bad idea?
  • Where do good ideas come from?
  • How can you produce more good ideas?

What is a good idea and how does it differ from a bad idea?

First, let’s define what is a good idea.

As it pertains to writing, good ideas have three things:

  1. Interesting
  2. Sufficiently original
  3. Has proper scope

What are interesting ideas?

An idea is interesting if it captures the attention of the audience, it intrigues them and pulls them in. It spawns curiosity and imagination. It makes people go, huh, that’s interesting.

A really good example of an interesting idea for me is the movie Annihilation. The premise is this strange bubble mysterious engulfs this part of the world. They try to send in drones and satellites to study it, but the signals are lost. Everyone who goes in never comes out. I won’t go on further in case you haven’t seen the movie, but my point is, that is interesting to me. It has captured my imagination, and it continues to do so throughout.

Sufficiently original — why is it ‘sufficiently’ original and not purely original you might ask? Well, frankly, it’s rare to come up with an idea that’s completely original. In all likelihood, your idea will resemble parts of other stories in more ways than one. And that’s okay.

This is actually an important point to consider. Be original, but don’t get discouraged by the fact that someone before you already wrote a similar story. Unless you blatantly plagiarize them, your story should be fine.

Take Stephanie Meyer for example, she wrote a series of very successful vampire stories. There have been countless other vampire stories before hers, but she added her own elements to make hers sufficiently original. She made her vampires day walkers who sparkle in the sun and who are hunky. So, old ideas with a new twist are okay.

My book The Art of the Hustle for instance — it’s a classic rags to riches story, but it’s uniquely based on my life and the stories within are solely from my own experience.

So while the themes are not necessarily original. It has a unique perspective.

Finally, I talk about having a proper scope. Why is scope important, and what does it have to do with good ideas?

I’ll let you think about that for a minute and we’ll come back to it.

First, we’ll talk about bad ideas. As you may be able to guess, bad ideas are the opposite of good ideas — they tend to be uninteresting, unoriginal, and lack proper scope. An example of a bad idea is boy who receives a fidget spinner for his birthday. And that’s it. That’s not particularly interesting.

I mean, I suppose it’s sufficiently original, but the idea lacks scope. In other words, nothing eventful happens. Can you write an entire story about a fidget spinner? Maybe. I know the movie inception has elements of a spinning totem, but the movie is so rich is interestingness, if that’s a real word, and originality, and it has a ton of scope. It’s not just about a spinning totem, that’s one element in a very complex story.

So you’ll want to explore your idea to determine the scope.

You want to figure out all the plot points to see if you have enough material to write a full-length novel, which is usually around 70,000 – 90,000 words. If not, you can develop it into a novella (30,000 – 50,000 words), or a short story (under 10,000 words).

To do this, you should make an outline and have it as detailed as possible. In another post, I share with you my outline and some techniques I’ve learned.

Great ideas

We talked about good ideas versus bad ideas, but what about great ideas? What constitutes a great idea? There’s a saying, good is the enemy of great. Don’t stop at good.

I would say great ideas are ones that share all the elements of a good idea, but are more interesting, more original, and yes more rare.

So where do good ideas come from?

Good ideas come from exploration. Imagine a house cat, who never leaves the confines of a tiny apartment. All they have is a very and a basic understanding of the outside world. Their experience is so limited. It would be very difficult for that cat to think beyond its experiences. How could it imagine an elephant it it’s never seen one, or a spaceship, or the ocean.

Now consider a bird who flies around all day. It visits the city, the countryside, the ocean. It interacts with other things, has relationships, and overall more rich experiences.

Which do you think has better dreams at night, the cat or the bird?

Similarly, you need to have a vast reservoir of experiences to pull from. In terms of being young, I would say that there’s really no way to gain life experience without time. You can accelerate your knowledge and experience by doing different things, hanging out with different people, listening to podcasts, reading books, watching documentaries, and movies, saying yes to different experiences that you may otherwise say no to (while still being safe).

Perhaps the most important of all is…

Be ready!

Ideas are often fragmented and incomplete. You may have an idea for one part of the thing one day, and the next part of the thing three weeks later. You need to be ready to capture your ideas, store them somewhere, and when the time comes, stitch them together into a cohesive narrative.

Most of us have good ideas throughout the day, obviously some better than others, but we may not always recognize when lighting strikes or know what to do with it when it does.

To me, ideas are like currency, and I treat the next idea that comes into my head as a potential life-changing idea that could garner me millions of dollars, respect, admiration, early retirement, and so on. So treat yours ideas with care.

Today, I read an article that talked about some advancement in technology that gave me an idea for one of my books. I wrote down the idea and emailed it to myself. Had I not clicked on that article, I may never have come up with that on my own.

This can happen not only with articles, but anytime throughout the day such as when you’re walking your dog, watching a movie, talking to a friend, or even dreaming at night. If an idea comes to mind, grab it and write it down as quickly as possible. Don’t ever think, “I’ll remember that.” Because you won’t. If you don’t write it down, ask yourself this, “Am I okay with losing this idea?” If you’re not, take the time to capture it.

The final thing I will say about ideas

If you’re young and just starting to write, you can always write about what you know and exaggerate it. Write about you family, your school, your sports team. Explore alternate ways the scenario you know well could have happened. What if your family had superpowers, what if you were the most popular kid in school, what if you got drafted from your sports team to play with the pros. The more you do it, the better you will be at expressing your ideas into words.

Additional Resources


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