Hello! So I was scouring the Internet for advice today but I couldn't find any on this topic. My problem isn't that I don't have any ideas (I probably have too many) but the problem is that I don't LOVE any of my ideas. I like them. I think they're all fine ideas. But liking them isn't going to motivate me long enough to finish a novel. How can I give my ideas that extra uumph to make me love them? How can I figure out what's missing or why I don't feel this way about any of my ideas?
Hello, nonny! What a challenging question… This one’s been in my inbox a couple days, just because it’s such a big question. But I’ve thought it over and I think I have some ideas for you :)
The Thrill Is Gone – How to Find It Again
So generally, there’s no one answer or cure-all to this problem. I’ve had this issue multiple times, with different causes. My first novel didn’t have enough meat to the plot; my second novel had been over-planned in my head to the point that it no longer excited me. My third novel had way too much plot, so that by the time I got ¾ the way through, I’d written over 200K words and felt sick of the idea. I started my fourth novel way too soon, and am now going back and planning it more! So there are obviously many different reasons that a story doesn’t take off (or dries up eventually).
The first step is to figure out what’s missing, like you said. There are a few aspects of your story to assess…
I’m discussing plot first because, to me, it’s the most important part of fiction. Plot, conflict, and stakes are foremost to my stories. You could have the most complex and sympathetic characters, but without plot, they’re static and become boring. But for some reason, this is the part of story ideas that new authors neglect most!
So if your story has great characters and an immersive setting, but you can’t get into it, try asking a few questions about your plot:
- What is the point of the plot? What’s the message you’re conveying in the story? Even if your story isn’t an allegory or a metaphor or the next Chronicles of Narnia, there should always be a conclusion to which all plots arrive – otherwise, the story can feel aimless. The best way to find your message is to look at the conflicts involved (e.g. Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, etc.) and find the “winner”. What worldview, belief, or concept “defeats” the other concepts? It can be as simple as Good vs. Evil, or more complex, like Loving the Sincere Drug Addict vs. Settling for the Selfish Dentist (provokes the question “Is love worth danger in relationships?”).
- Does the plot have ups and downs? And really consider both ends of the spectrum here. Stories become dull if they are made up of victory after victory – or if they’re made up of nothing but loss and tragedy. No matter the genre, you have to strike some sort of balance, lest the story become predictable and emotionally non-engaging. Find victories and failures, even in unassuming places, to keep readers invested and hopeful.
- Do you have a satisfactory ending? Or do you have the ending planned yet? I’ve found that I can’t really commit to an idea unless I see a resolution – otherwise I feel too nervous to start. If you do have an ending planned, make sure it’s the right ending. It can feel like there’s one possible conclusion, and once you’ve found it, you stick to it – but question it, brainstorm it. It may not be a happy ending every time, but when you find the right one, you’ll know it.
- Do you have the right plot at all? Look at your story as a whole. Does it start too early or too late, relative to the real meat, the real action? Is it told from the most impactful POV? Does the plot cover too much ground for one book, or is it not enough to fill the pages? Consider all the characters, backstories, and subplots you have, and ask yourself if any of them are more interesting than the main plot. If so, shift your focus. Use them instead.
Maybe it’s not your plot that’s going sideways. Maybe you have it all worked out – the head, the tail, the whole damn thing – but it still doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like it’s coming to life, somehow. It feels flat.
That can be a character problem. It would be like sitting by the campfire and hearing the most fascinating, horrifying story, except it’s told by a man with The Most Boring Voice Who Talks So Incredibly Slowly and Takes All the Fun Out of Everything. An example: The Hunger Games. Those books bored the crap out of me. Unless someone was being killed or Haymitch and Effie were interacting, I just didn’t care. And those books had a great plot behind them!
So here’s what you need for a good cast of characters:
- A solid protagonist. Solid = three-dimensional,
empathetic, and relatable; having a goal, an internal conflict, a self-image,
and fears or shame. They should have different facets of themselves –
their head and their heart, their desires and doubts, and that little voice in
their head that says, “Give up on that. Be realistic.” Give
them strengths, weaknesses, and a couple of bad habits, for kicks.
- A variety of supporting characters. You don’t
have to have thirty characters + six secret characters stuffed under your
trench coat; but with however many characters you have, make them as different
from each other as possible. Give them some similarities, of course, so
that they can relate to each other – but never make them so close together
that you have to decide, “Who should say this line? Character A or
Character B?” Make them unique enough that the words come out of their mouths,
instead of you having to decide where to put the words, yourself.
- Relationships, relationships, relationships. And
I’m not talking about romantic relationships. I mean, sure, those too –
but there are many different kinds of relationships to explore.
Friendships, enemy-ships (?), parent relationships, sibling-ships, silent
alliances, “annoying friend-of-a-friend”-ships, “my-ex’s-little-sister”-ships, “you’re-the-ruler-of-the-galaxy-and-a-Sith-lord-but-also-my-dad-please-stop-being-evil”-ships…
You get the idea. Make them unique, make them strong, and allow
them to evolve over the course of the story.
- Diverse morals, interests, and personalities. My first short stories focused on white middle-class people who were culturally and politically identical. They lived in one house, usually, and watched the same TV shows and made the same references. They had the same sense of humor. They rarely disagreed on anything that wasn’t clear-cut (e.g. “You drank the last Pepsi!” “I was thirsty!”). So do yourself a favor and don’t make my mistakes. Give your characters unique ethics, cultures, backgrounds, personalities, goals, appearances, and conflicts. You’ll be more invested by then, I’m sure.
Lastly, I’d like to add that while your characters and plot could be well-developed, there’s always a chance that they’re placed in the wrong setting. This is why many story ideas can seem great, but won’t get off the ground – maybe they’re set in a pre-made universe like Middle Earth or Panem when they could be their own story. Maybe your tragic romance is set in the middle of apocalyptic war, when instead, it should be drained down to a period piece. Maybe your story is perfect, except you’re writing it too close to home – in the real world, in the present year. There are a million factors to picking the right setting, including:
- Applicable history and culture. If you’re writing a story about someone who’s oppressed, or someone who’s a politician, or someone who’s a witch, you’re going to need to back that up with history. Develop a history for the oppression or politics or witchcraft – where these things began, how they developed over time – and a culture for them now – how oppressed people survive and how witches in your world interact, etc.
- Imaginative scenery, influenced by the characters. Even if your story takes place in New York City in 2017, allow your characters’ living spaces and workplaces to have a unique touch – colors and quirks that your readers can see in their mind. If even you can’t see what you’re writing, inspiration is going to be difficult to find.
- A lifelike background. Just because the plot focuses on your characters does not mean everything going on behind it should be quiet and dead. Anyone who looks out a window in a city building can see other people living – people on the highway will see other cars taking other people other places. Everyone who has a friend will hear a little something about their friend’s siblings, their friend’s friends, their friend’s neighbors. Life and stories exist outside of your plot; make sure you’re not writing about a ship in a bottle.
- An aesthetic. That sounds gross and teen-tumblr-y, but let me tell you personally: I don’t feel truly ready to write (and love) my story until I can hear the music for the future movie adaptation – until I can see the kind of clothes the people wear, the games they play, the places they eat and shop. I think of the colors and themes in my scenes (e.g. my first novel was set primarily at night in a grunge/city setting; my current novel is very green and outdoorsy and gives me that feeling of bonfires just after sunset). Once you get that “feeling” from your story, you’ll know it.
Anyway, this reply took me like three days to write because I really wanted to get into it. I hope some of this helps you to fall in love with one of your ideas, so you can get started :) If you have any more questions, be sure to send them in!
(I have 26 questions in the inbox, though, so be patient with me…)