idea test

You’ve got an idea, but is it “good” enough?

You can get a sense of if your idea will work as a novel by testing it. Here’s how:

1. Do you have a character in mind who the reader will be following for the whole story? That’s your protagonist. It’s okay if the protagonist is a vague “someone” right now.

(“Of course I have a character in mind, Tom!” Good. Not everyone does when they say they “have an idea for a book.” A concept or setting is not a story. Stories are about characters–human or otherwise.)

2. This person has to want something. Anything at all. (In general, a novel or film about a couple of people talkin’ about stuff doesn’t work. There are always exceptions, but again, 99% of novels are about a person actively pursuing a goal.)

Wanting something is good; needing it is better. The more badly she wants or needs it, the better.

Be aware that this Want is in the context of the story. The character must feel as if it is about life or death, even if it isn’t. In a romance, the protagonist might want to marry the Duke of Poldark, with her life at no point being in jeopardy. In an action novel, the protagonist might need to stop an asteroid from hitting earth and destroying the planet. In terms of “want,” neither is better or worse than the other. All that matters is that your character is motivated to go get that thing she wants.

3. Your job is to put things in her way. That’s the “obstacle.” In your romance novel, maybe the Duke has an evil twin who hates the protagonist, and will do anything to sabotage her relationship. In our asteroid story, any number of things can go wrong–and must. If the protagonist succeeds on every page, there’s nothing to cheer for.

I once wrote an entire novel about an asthmatic girl who wanted to run a marathon. The dialogue was snappy, the relationships were warm and sweet, the characters were nicely rounded out. But every time I went to revise, something didn’t feel right. It took me months to discover that everything the protagonist wanted, she got! And without consequence. An asthmatic girl wanting to run a marathon is not a bad idea; it has a want and an obstacle. But if she just runs around the novel conquering everything in her path, it doesn’t make for a good story.

It is your job to get your protagonist into as much trouble as you can, whether it’s actual physical danger or emotional danger. Again, neither is better or worse. It just needs to be in context.

That’s it! A person wants something, and other things get in his way. That’s a story.

Whether it’s a good story, or one you can pitch to an agent or editor…that’s something else entirely. But we’ll get there!


Now that you’re ready to move on, choose the button that describes you best:

Starting my novel    Writing the middle   Finishing my novel