Finding an Idea for Your First Novel

Maybe you love writing short stories, but your dream has always been to write a full novel. You love to read them, you understand basic story structure, but how do you find an idea to carry you through 200+ pages of text? Finding an idea for your first novel doesn’t have to be complicated.

Where to Find Ideas

New writers often ask me how I come up with ideas for my books. It’s a little hard to explain until you get in the writer mindset. Ideas come from almost anywhere. You just have to be open to them.

I used to recommend new writers keep a notepad and pen with them at all times. While this is still a decent idea, most people have smartphones and you can use those to record your ideas. Either say, “Hey, Siri, take dictation” or open your notes. The great thing about speech software is you can take a note when you’re driving or doing other tasks and the great idea strikes.

There is an amazing book called THE ARTIST’S WAY by Julia Cameron that helped me tap into my creative side. Here are just a few of the ways I’ve found inspiration for my books:

  • A song on the radio
  • Conversations with friends
  • Eavesdropping on dramatic moments
  • Looking at a photo and wondering the story behind it
  • Dreams
  • What if scenarios

Open yourself up to new ideas. You’ll be surprised how many are out there.

Is Your Idea Deep Enough?

You may have an idea of what you want to write but you aren’t sure if it’s enough for a full novel. It’s hard to tell when you first start writing, but some ideas are better suited to a short story.

Ask yourself how complex the problem is. Can the character solve the situation in a few scenes? If so, then you likely have a short story idea. That said, I’ve expanded short stories into novels by upping the conflict and adding to the dramatic effects.

One problem many new writers have is getting all those words down and knowing when to end chapters, etc. I’ll be videoing some lessons and sharing them that goes through all these concepts, but for now, just know that your idea needs to be something that seems almost impossible to solve.

Examples of Novel-Length Ideas

One of the best ways to learn is by studying what others have done. Here are some ideas that were full-length novel worthy. You’ll likely recognize the plots as they come from popular fiction.

  • A young woman tries to avoid getting married off to someone undesirable. A rich neighbor moves in, but is interested in her beloved sister. His friend is unbearable and she keeps getting thrown into situations where she must deal with him. She eventually comes to see his kind qualities (Pride and Prejudice).
  • A young pig is about to be slaughtered and Fern can’t stand the thought. She demands her father let her raise the pig. She soon learns he and the other animals can talk and they all hatch a plot to keep her pet from being slaughtered (Charlotte’s Web).
  • A woman is confused. She thinks she saw a missing woman while on the train. She’s so confused, though. Did she kill the girl? She can’t remember a lot due to her personal demons, which she explores as the book goes on (The Girl on the Train).
  • A couple meet and fall madly in love. Like Romeo and Juliette, they are from two worlds and the girl’s parents don’t want them together. They are ripped apart, find each other again and later ripped apart by health issues (The Notebook).

As you can see, these are all big concepts. There are many layers and issues to resolve. Just as things seem about to get better, they actually grow even worse.

Create a Storyboard

Are you still unsure if you have enough content to write your first novel? Get out a big piece of poster board and divide it into three lines with five sections across each line. That gives you around 15 chapters. Figure for around 10-20 pages per chapter.

Write the main conflict for each chapter and three to four points you’ll cover to move the reader along.

A storyboard works to help you visualize the tale. You’ll be able to spot holes in your plot. You’ll also see the highs and lows of the story. Ideally, you’ll have times when the character is happy and feels as though the solution is near. Then, you knock them back down, harder each time until the climax and resolution.

If you can only fill a few boxes, you likely have a short rather than a novel.

Read Widely in Your Genre and Out

Still unsure what you should write about? Read books in your genre of choice. Pay attention to the types of plots but also what you haven’t read about. You don’t want to just regurgitate another Hallmark channel movie where the heroine visits a Christmas tree farm and falls in love. Make it unique.

Also read outside of your genre. You can learn from any type of writing. You may even pick up ideas and bring them into another genre, creating a unique niche for your books.

Look at the World Like a Writer

I often tell my students to look at their world like a writer. Be open to inspiration from strange places. You never know when the next great idea might strike. My book HOUSEBREAKING A HUSBAND was born from a conversation with a friend where we jokingly said puppies were easier to housebreak than husbands.

My idea for my historical romance DEAR VIKING came from a dream I had of a Viking standing on the crest of a hill and looking down at a village. That book was fully born in that dream, which is quite unusual for me but may not be for you.

Be open to inspiration from unlikely sources. You can easily learn the mechanics of writing, but the creative side is a gift from God and much harder to explain. If you have a dream to write your first novel, never give up. Keep pushing forward. You can do it!

Lori Soard started Word Museum in 1997. She’s a published author and has written thousands of articles over the years for newspapers, magazines and online. She has a PhD in Journalism and lives in Southern Indiana with her husband. They have two grown daughters, both animal lovers their house is always filled with pets.

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