How do you know if your story idea is good enough?

I suppose, given the headline here, the short answer would simply be: You don’t. But that would make for a short and depressing post. I can do better, I think.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about inspiration. If you’re a writer worth your salt, as I’m sure you are, idea generation isn’t a huge problem. Ideas hit me daily. They’re all over the place. A place I’ve been, a comment from a colleague, a meeting at work — all fertile ground for imagination.

The trick is figuring out which ideas are worth it.

When I’m mulling over an idea for a story or novel, I tend to have three filters I use to determine whether the idea has legs. In all honesty, I really didn’t codify this until someone asked me about it recently, but now that I have, I thought I’d share.

First, of course, is whether the idea excites me. I know that if I keep coming back to the idea in my head over the course of several weeks, I have something I need to say about it. But if I just go, “Huh. Sentient sloths,” write it down and then never come back to it, then the sentient sloths aren’t likely to result in a story. (Or maybe they’re really taking their time.)

We know when an idea lights our fire. We know the difference between yeah! and meh. Again, if you’re a writer (and perhaps, if you have Gemini characteristics like me), you get distracted by the new shiny ideas all the damn time. It’s both exciting and frustrating. Seriously, I’m not gonna get to them all in this lifetime.

But excitement isn’t really enough, especially if you want to sell your work. So the second filter is: Has it been done before? The obvious answer is, of course it has. And if you take that at first blush, then you’re gonna be depressed about how all your ideas are utterly derivative. So let’s refine that filter: Has it been done the way you want to see it done?

There have certainly been some science-fictional Cold War espionage stories out there, and if I simply accepted that, I would’ve never written MJ-12: Inception. So it took some research and some discussion with knowledgeable folks to see whether my take on this sub-sub-genre had been done before. It hadn’t. So that’s good.

It’s really about what you bring to the table, your hack at the idea, that will tell you if the idea is original enough. I would love to write a secondary-world epic fantasy some day, for example. A big, sweeping epic with swords and magic and perhaps even a dragon. But I don’t have an idea yet that’s different enough for me to pursue it seriously. For now, at any rate.

So you have an exciting idea, and your take on it is at least moderately fresh and different. Super! Now…can you build a plot around it? There’s the rub. I suggest a simple exercise to see if you have enough there to flesh out further — give it the Hollywood three-act treatment.

The basics of the three-act treatment are setup, confrontation and resolution, but I tend to look at it slightly differently. Act 1 is establishing the conflict, not just setup. You have to ensure that there are serious stakes going on here, so right off the bat, if your idea doesn’t lend itself to conflict and stakes, you have a rather large-ish problem.

Second act: Not just confrontation, but stakes-raising. Can you think of a way to heighten the tension, make things worse, really put the screws to the (at the moment theoretical) characters? You don’t actually have to think of those characters, but you should be able to see how your idea could not only have stakes, but increase them over the course of a story.

Finally, yes, there’s resolution, though I think neatly tying everything up is kind of lame. Some things need not be resolved; if you want your idea to go beyond a single story or novel, then you don’t want to resolve everything. So let’s call it the climax, then. Is there a conclusion, and can you see beyond it to what’s next?

Now, this three-act treatment takes work, and before you’re done you may have a character or two, some setting bits, even a moderately fleshed-out plot. That’s a good thing, probably because the idea is still inspiring enough and exciting enough for you to have done all that work, right?

And you’ll have the start of a story.

Now, how you prioritze it, that’s your problem, man. Always remember you’re going to have to put your butt in a chair to finish something. File those story ideas away carefully and backup the files. It’s not enough to have ideas — you have to put in the work to turn them into fully evolved stories.

But that’s a post for another time.


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