A Novel Idea: The Big Idea

At the support level of $250 a month, my blogs (Going Reno and What is a Plot) will be self-supporting. It costs money to host blogs, mailing lists, and keep the Internet up and running. Your help lets me start even. Thank you so much!

If your goal is to write a novel, it all starts with an idea. You need something you can boil down to a single sentence, so that when someone asks you what your book is about you can pull that out.

My idea for my first published novel, Viral Nation, was to tell the story of a brother and sister living in a post-apocolyptic Utopian society, who accidentally start a second American Revolution.

Obviously there’s a lot more to my story than that one sentence. There’s a whole band of kids, for instance, that call themselves The Freaks. There’s also time travel, which you can’t tell from that one sentence (and which I didn’t know when I started writing!) But, it’s a start. A seed. I bet you could guess from that one sentence that my story has some adventure and some history in it and that it’s speculative.

The book that you’re going to write needs a big idea that encompasses the same three things that mine for Viral Nation did: character, setting, and situation.


Think about who your story is about. Who is your main, point-of-view character? Take out your notebook and start writing about them. What do they look like? How old are they? Who do they live with? Who do they love? Who do they hate? What do they do with their days? What is their family like?

What do they want? What do they need?


Once you have a good handle on your character or characters, think about where they are. You can start big–with a country (or even a planet!) and then narrow it down. My stories almost always happen in the US, in Nevada. Viral Nation took place around Reno for the most part. The Reno in my book has a wall all the way around it, which really affects my characters and how they do what they do in the story.

Where does your story happen? What does it feel like there? What does it look like? How does the setting affect the characters?


Finally, what are your characters going to do in their setting? Do you have just a tiny bit of a start of an idea for a situation? You don’t have to know exactly what the entire story will be yet, but you need an entrance point. I usually start with a beginning–I’m super linear that way. I know some writers have an idea of where they want their characters to be at the end of the story and work backwards from there.

I love this quote by C.S. Lewis, because it’s so true. It’s important to remember, when you’re thinking about your big idea, that you’re not bound by — anything. You get to use your whole imagination, and that’s a big, grand thing.

You can make anything by writing. -- C.S. Lewis

Where to Start

If your mind is boggling right now, don’t worry. That’s normal. A book is a big undertaking and the thought that you have to have the core idea of it before you even get started can be daunting. Here’s a method for getting to that core idea that might help.

Once you know something about your main character, spend some time thinking about their normal life. What does an average day look like for them? Obviously, this is going to be one thing if your character is a middle-American housewife and something completely different if your character is a serial killer, right? Stay in the head of that character and figure out their normal.

Now, think about the first thing that happens to them in your story that is out of their normal. For your middle-American housewife, spending the day taking care of a baby is probably par for the course (even if it isn’t their baby.) But your serial killer? Maybe having someone knock on the door with a baby they mean to leave with them for the day is their first really strange moment. Conversely, your serial killer sitting in a parked car watching their next victim is probably pretty normal for them–but conducting an amateur stake-out is probably not so normal for the housewife.

You get the idea.

Try to pinpoint the moment when your character does something or has something done to them that’s totally unusual for them. That’s your entrance into the story, and that’s really one of the most important moments in your whole book.

This week

Spend some time this week thinking about your story’s big idea. Also, put your writing time into your calendar or planner and STICK TO IT. It’ll help get you in the habit of writing and will keep the first official week of A Novel Idea from sneaking up on you. I’ve made a Story Idea Development worksheet and put in on the Super Secret Page, which you can access by subscribing to What is a Plot.

* * *

If you’d like a copy of The Writting Planner, you can buy it by clicking the button below. Or visit my Patreon page–it’s one of the rewards.

You may also like


  1. This is a good starting guide. I think once this is done, the characters can sometimes want to move on their own and that makes things easier.

  2. Can’t find the worksheet you mentioned. Am a subscriber, and am starting at the beginning of the novel writing series, and am hoping to catch up. Have visited the super secret page and – no luck. Anyway, a search box for your site would be great, or a tab for any of your printables. Really want to order your novel planner, but ya know how it is…one of these days. Otherwise, I very much enjoy your site, your work, and am hoping your year improves. 🙂

    1. Lesley, I found the page. Go to the secret page link (from your email?) and click on December 2014. Scroll down and you’ll find it. 🙂