Daddy, Where Do Books Come From?

“How do you think up the ideas for your books?”

It’s got to be the most common question every writer is asked. It’s certainly the question I’m asked the most, and let’s just assume for a moment that every writer in the world is just like me, because that will help me feel less alone. Thanks for humoring me.

Anyway, how do you think up the ideas for your books?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are books in the world. I don’t think anyone thinks up ideas the same way, and I don’t think any author thinks up ideas the same way for every book.

The truth is, if you want to tell stories, you probably have a ton of ideas. But you may never have started on any of them. There’s probably a reason for that, and more than likely the reason is because you don’t have a real book concept, you just have a whisper of an idea. Like, “what if a plague killed everyone on the planet over fifteen years old?” (Gone, by Michael Grant) or “I want to write a book about a guy who ages backward” (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, by F. Scott Fitzgerald).

The problem is that those are not book ideas. Those are vague story ideas that need to be fleshed out before they’re ready to be put down on paper.

I can tell you the things I think every book idea needs to have:

  • Genre
  • Hero(es)
  • Villain(s)
  • Conflict
  • Hook

Sounds simple, right? Actually, it kind of is. Sound too simple? Surprisingly, I think this is all you need to get started.

GENRE: The same story can be told in many different genres, but you should figure yours out before you get started. Otherwise you may have things like magic or dragons show up in your supposedly literary fiction novel. You’ve got to establish some rules to provide your groundwork, and those rules are at least assisted by genre.

HERO(ES): D’uh. This is your protagonist. But rather than just a name or even a description, you’ve got to figure out what’s special about them, and what problems they have that your reader can relate to. And you should try to figure out why those problems will be resolved in the course of your book.

VILLAIN(S): Again, you’veprobably already got so many ideas for villains that you’ll never be able to write enough books to contain them all. But here’s what your villains may be missing: Humanity, or something that makes them at least somewhat relatable to your reader; Motivation, or a real, primal reason to be bad—in other words, they can’t just be evil to be evil; a quality I shorthand as Antipathy, or an “opposite” quality to your hero. Their conflict with the hero can’t just be physical, but philosophical as well. They must be fundamentally wrong about something that the hero is fundamentally right about. Every book is, after all, an argument about life.

CONFLICT: Conflict is more than “the hero wants the treasure, and the evil necromancer wants it, too.” That’s more of a setting around which your actual conflict takes place. Every hero, in fact every character, should learn something in your book, but no journey of discovery is more important than your hero’s and your villain’s. This touches again on that Antipathy quality I mentioned above. What great truth is your hero going to discover that the villain is hell-bent on keeping from him, or denying? The physical conflict between the hero and the villain must always begin pretty close to immediately, otherwise there’s no action to keep the reader’s interest. The actual conflict, however, may not be apparent at first, and may only be revealed to the hero (and the reader) in layers, as one curtain after another is pulled away from it.

HOOK: Not all books have what I call a “hook,” but my favorite ones do. I first started thinking in terms of “hook” when reading Blake Snyder’s excellent book on screenwriting, Save the Cat. He discusses the “hook” as it relates to loglines, which are one-to-two-sentence descriptions of an entire film. And a hook can go a long way toward making your book attractive to a reader. Here’s some famous books and their hooks, with the hooks in bold:

Lord of the Rings: A party of adventurers must destroy a ring to overthrow an evil overlord, but the actual heroes of the story are the hobbits, the smallest and weakest of the main characters.

Game of Thrones: Multiple families of aristocracy vie for power as an army of undead sweeps down from the frozen north, but the heroes of the book can and will die at any moment, heightening reader tension.

Ender’s Game: A soldier is trained to become the best admiral the world has ever seen in order to save humanity from an alien threat, but he and his fellow soldiers are less than ten years old.

You get the idea. It’s a “something special,” something different, that extra element that makes people go, “Oh, wait, what?”

I don’t always make a conscious list of these elements when I’m putting a story idea together, but I always check back over them when I think my book’s ready to begin.

So, for example, on Realm Keepers, I’ve got:

  • A young adult fantasy novel…
  • …about six high school kids from Earth, who are happily living their normal lives and trying to find their place in the world. One day they’re magically transported to a magical world called Midrealm, where out of nowhere they discover they have magical powers that they have to use to save a kingdom from…
  • …Terrence, a mysterious and evil figure who seems hell-bent on killing them and destroying the kingdom for reasons they don’t quite understand. But it’s clear that everyone around them knows who Terrence is, and isn’t telling them. The kids don’t have time to inquire further because…
  • …Terrence has the armies of Chaos behind him, and he is actively trying to rally some of the other kingdoms to his cause. Terrence sways opinion by claiming that the Realm Keepers and the kingdom that harbors them are a class of ruling elitists, protecting only themselves at the expense of others. The kids must find a way to defeat Terrence despite the fact that…
  • …every night, when they sleep in Midrealm, they come back to Earth. Every time they sleep on Earth, they return to Midrealm. Now they must find a way to save one world while trying to maintain normal lives in our own. And it gets worse—if Terrence conquers Midrealm, he can open a portal to Earth….

Match up the bullet points, and you’ll see how the idea has everything I need to tell the entire story. Of course, this entire premise didn’t spring into my head all at once. At first I just wanted to write a fantasy story about six kids who went to another world when they slept. Everything else was fleshed out over time and with the help of my co-author, Z. C. Bolger.

Those are the five things I think a book idea needs. And if you have a “story whisper” like I described at the beginning of the article, I hope this helps you flesh it out into an actual book idea.

Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at garrettbrobinson.com.

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2 comments
Simon Cantan
Simon Cantan

Personally, if I want to figure/flesh out a book, I go for a long walk/cycle. It's weird, but I don't know where the ideas come from. I'm just walking along and suddenly I think, "What if...". It's important to write it down then at once, or you'll lose it for good :) I think rule one is that you don't stop at the clever idea, like you say above Garrett. You get one clever idea, then you need to get 200 more to go on top of it :)

Garrett Robinson
Garrett Robinson

That's a great idea. Walking and directing your eyes at points farther away than your computer screen is good for the mind and attention span. Too bad I rarely get to do that these days... :-)

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