7 Ways to Decide Which Story Idea You Should Write Next

The most important decision a writer will ever make is which story to write. Sometimes that will be an easy decision: the “right” story will be staring us in the face. But sometimes the choices can be overwhelming.

If you’re like me, then you probably have enough story ideas to last you the rest of your life. There they stand, all in a sparkling row, each of them clamoring for your attention, each of them enticing in their possibilities. It’s darn tough to pick just one, when, really, we want to write all of them. So how do you choose?

After finishing my dieselpunk work-in-progress Storming earlier this year, I’m currently in that resting place between stories, and I’m doing my best to figure out which of my ideas is the right one to start on next. I had intended my next book to be a modern-day time-travel suspense story (think The Bourne Identity meets The Time Traveler’s Wife), but I have another idea about a historical superhero (think Spider-Man meets Jane Austen) that is also clamoring for my attention.

Both stories interest me, obviously, but which one is the right one for me to write at this time in my life? Which am I most likely to enjoy writing right now? Which will end becoming the better book?

This is never a decision for any of us to make lightly. Whatever story we choose is one we’re going to be spending the next couple of years with. If we choose the wrong story, we could end up wasting time and expending untold frustration on the project.

But if we choose the right story, we’ll be embarking on an exciting and fulfilling journey that will help us grow as writers and hopefully produce a book we can share with others. Following are the seven factors to consider in deciding which story idea you should write next.

1. Look Beyond the Premise

If your story doesn’t have a great premise, you shouldn’t be writing it. But a great premise, by itself, a great story doth not make. Where do you see this premise leading you? What kind of characters will populate this story? What will they be seeking? Who will be opposing them? What kind of world will they be living in?

2. Realize Loving Parts of a Story Isn’t Enough

Let’s say you have idea for a story set in Rio de Janeiro in the 19th century about two immigrants on the run. You love the setting and the interaction between the two characters, but, frankly, the suspense angle or the reason they’re on the run in the first place simply doesn’t interest you too much. Before you commit to a story, you need to love everything about it. Think through the ramifications of your premise. Are you going to have fun and be able to maintain interest throughout all its logical progressions? Or will you grow bored with some aspects? If you find the latter to be true, then this may not be a story you’re going to want to live with for months on end.

3. Make Your Own Head Explode

If you’re going to have any chance of blowing your readers’ minds, then first you have to blow your own. A story can be a great idea in itself, but if it doesn’t thrill you down to your toenails, then you need to question whether you’re going to have enough passion to see it through. Ask yourself: “Is this a story you were meant to write? Is this a story you can’t not write?” If the answer to either is no, then you might want to rethink.

4. Look for Characters With Strong Voices and Interaction

Not every seemingly great story idea comes complete with the rest of the trappings necessary to make a great book. Think about your characters. Are they already so vibrant in your head that you can sense they’ll have unique and powerful voices on the page? Will they be memorable and definitive? Will they interact with each other in meaningful and important ways? A great premise that lacks great characters is going nowhere fast.

5. Look for a Bigger Story

Most of my story ideas start out with the interaction between two characters. But, by itself, that’s not enough to fill a whole book. Consider your ideas. Can you sense the weight of a bigger story beneath the surface? What are the stakes? Who else will these characters end up affecting through their interaction with each other? If you can’t at least sense the possibility for greater depth, then the idea may not have enough strength to carry itself.

6. Figure Out What Kind of Story It Will Be

You’ve figured out your premise and your characters. So far, so good. But do you know what type of story you want this to be? Don’t sit down to write a story without knowing what you’re trying to create. When I started writing Storming, I knew exactly what I wanted it to be: a fun summer blockbuster sort of story. My understanding of the story’s tone helped me craft it, from start to finish, into a cohesive whole. If you lack that understanding of your story, you won’t be able to create the cohesion and focus you want it to have.

7. Listen to Your Gut

This part is also called “Don’t Be OCD.” I admit it: I like to do things in order, including story ideas. But just because a story idea is the next one in line doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right one to be writing at this time. Get in touch with your instincts. Which story feels right? And, more importantly, which ones don’t feel right? Margaret Atwood wisely said,

 …you know when you’re not ready; you may be wrong about being ready, but you’re rarely wrong about being not ready.

No matter how much consideration we invest in choosing our next writing project, we won’t always be able to predict which stories will be successful for us and which won’t. But by considering these seven factors, we can at least eliminate some of the ideas that definitely aren’t ready to be written.

As for me, although I haven’t made a final call yet, I’m definitely leaning toward the notion that my historical superhero story may be the right one for me to be spending time with for the next couple years of my life. Either way, you’ll be seeing an update to my “Currently Writing” page soon!

Tell me your opinion: How will you decide which story you will write next?

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7 Ways to Decide Which Story You Should Write Next

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is great. You don’t know how much you have inspired me. I think this is the website of the year!

    Now, I have similar problem. So many stories on my mind, fighting hard for my attention. My girlfriend usually makes the calls and she hasn’t gotten one wrong so far; but today, I was going to toast a coin, then I read you! Thanks, dear.

  2. Currently, since I’m writing a short series, that dictates what I write next. I have no idea what I’ll write when the series is complete, but I’m sure something will foment and come together. I have a list of ideas that I can work through, too, so it may be whatever strikes my fancy from that list–or something new and completely different. 🙂 We will have to see. Of course… I have problems working on just ONE project at a time, so I may start two or even three projects to see where they take me. Sometimes, that’s the only way to know for sure for me. 😉

  3. Steve Mathisen says:

    I just made up my mind to lay one project aside since I was not getting enough traction in my head. I had lots of ideas about it, but the actual writing was worse than a root canal. Words would just not come. Then a new idea popped into my head about a reboot of stories I wrote a lot of earlier. The idea seemed right to me and when I started writing it, words flowed pretty freely. That made up my mind, for now…

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      “Traction” is a good word for the situation. I know a story isn’t ready if I just can’t get my imagination to really take off with it. I may love the premise and the characters, but there has to be something for me to really sink my teeth into if it’s going to end up working as a WIP.

  4. L.E. Sheppard says:

    For years, I’ve had a number of ideas in my head for a first novel. One of the reasons I’ve decided to go with one over the others (at least to the point of commencing formal outlining this month) is that one of the characters I’ve been thinking about has kept pushing me to tell his story. Every time I’ve thought about the character, more questions that are crying out to be answered keep popping up.

    But – they aren’t questions that I’d find difficult to answer – they are questions that other characters would want to know the answers to, questions that hint to a fascinating back story. Questions that could lead to multiple stories.

    I’ve started writing a short story teaser piece about the character to test the writing waters – and I like him. He’s enjoyable to write about, and for a first novel, I’ve got to enjoy what I’m writing.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      It can often be a great idea to write a teaser story. It’s a good way to experiment with characters and settings – without committing ourselves too deeply.

  5. I struggle with that all the time. Really good article. I like number 3 the best as the current story I started writing started one way and then made a turn that pretty much made my head explode.

    On another point, you give so much terrific information on this site it’s unreal. I bought your book mainly because I felt I owed you at least that much. 🙂

  6. Very good indeed. I do most of those, but not all. 2 is a good reminder that I’m going to make a note of. I’ve fallen into that trap before. And 4 is vital.

    I’d also add – 8. Is it different? I see hundreds of well-written film scripts that nevertheless don’t stand out in any way. You ask, why would I bother to see the movie?

    I’m currently finishing a draft of a novel that took me over entirely for more than three years, and starting to think of the next. There’s a character who keeps bugging me, but I’m not at all sure I have all your 7 bases covered yet… Thank you for this.

    Charles

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Great addition. We always need to be digging for the unique element we’re able to bring to any story. If we’re basically just rehashing the same ol’, same ol’, then we might as well just go rewatch the movie, rather than spend the next few years writing it.

      • Thank you, and well put. I wish more writers knew this.

        I think in TV and film the problem stems partly from writers thinking producers want another version of what they’re already making. It’s not wrong – but they’ve got reliable hacks to go to for knock-offs.

        What they want from newcomers is something special and different (and which they’ll then spend the next two years trying to make bland and safe, like everything else, but at least by that point you’re getting paid well…)

        I suspect it’s similar in publishing. (Possibly without the getting paid well bit).

        • K.M. Weiland says:

          I agree. Nothing wrong with revisiting material we know and love. Many of us start out wanting to write fiction because we were inspired by a great story and we wanted to explore some of the same elements. But the best thing any of us can bring to the writing table is ourselves – our unique views, interests, and experiences. This is what is going to enable us to write new and unique stories.

  7. I can’t believe I found this in my e-mail today: I just said to myself that I have to buckle down and decide what I’m writing NOW. It’s actually driving me totally batty. I guess there are people who can decide on a whim what to write, but I’m not one of them.

    I’ve been kicking around 3 story ideas for a while now, and each one has something I like about it. They all seem to have their pros and cons, and I could see writing any one of them.

    Part of the problem is that this is my first novel, so I can’t figure out what genre I’d really like to write. And since I read in so many genres, the adage “write what you read most” doesn’t really work for me.

    Maybe it comes down to not letting the fear of not writing the world’s next bestseller.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Definitely don’t let fear of what others will think psyche you at this point. Write this story as if it’s just for you – as if no one else will read it. And have fun with it. You’ll write a much better book that way anyway!

  8. I so appreciated this post! 🙂 Deciding which story to begin next is a huge undertaking… I actually came up with my current story a number of years ago, but after a little while I started realizing that what it was–and what I wanted to do with it–was just too huge for me to handle at the time. I needed more life experience. It needed to ripen a bit. So I set it aside, not really sure that it would ever come together–so many plot threads and loose ends (not to mention characters!). It took a good while–and a rambling start mid-way through the waiting period–but then–somehow–it all fell into place. (Not to say there aren’t still times when I end up sitting blankly staring at a computer screen topped with a new chapter heading–or madly shaking a character to try and get at what really makes him tick), but the big picture all came together. I’m now so glad I set it aside. Besides simply avoiding a lot of frustration, I can now see how changes in my life, books I’ve read and cogitated on during those years, the editing of a previous story that I hauled out and went over while waiting–have all contributed to my experience and maturity not only as a writer, but as a person, and have helped prepare me to take this on.

    And yes, even while I’m crazy about my current story, I have another tucked away–with a wonderful cast, but still waiting in the background as it tries to puzzle out its pivotal conflict. 🙂

    So, thank you again for the post…and I wish you great success as you begin your next adventure!!!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Choosing the first book we write is often a no-brainer. It’s often the *only* story we have to tell at the time, and it’s usually a story we’ve lived with and been passionate about, in one form or another, for most of our lives. Later stories don’t always have that weight of “rightness” behind them, so they can take longer to decide upon.

  9. Great post, K.M! I particularly agree with point 2. It annoys me when I read books where the reader is promised one thing at the beginning, and then halfway through another angle becomes the focus, and the first one is more or less ignored- just as if the author had become bored with it. Anyway, I’m eager to read Storming. It sounds great!

  10. I’m currently writing short stories (though I’ll go back to a novel eventually), and really, I just decide on the story by following the ideas. I pick a setting, write a description of it that pulls a character in and see where it takes me (that’s the idea, by the way). Sometimes it doesn’t do anything for me, so I let it sit and revisit it later. Other times, it catches me and I want to do more with it.

    But I’m also a pantser. I often don’t know anything more about the story than that beginning. I don’t know who all the characters are, what happens next, or how it ends. I only know this moment in the story.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      One thing about pantsing (for better or worse) is that it gives you more room for error in choosing a story. I like to be pretty certain a story idea is going to work before I start prepping it.

      • Actually, the reverse is true for me. If I try to outline, it makes more room for error on a story and is more likely it will derail the story. They don’t work for everyone.

        • K.M. Weiland says:

          Totally. “Room for error” in this instance being a good thing, since it gives us room to color outside the lines without getting our hands slapped.

  11. Jack Tanner says:

    Great post! I’m having trouble getting it to play as a podcast though. I tried several different podcatchers. No dice. It might just be on my end.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Hi, Jack! Thanks for reading. Sorry you’re experiencing difficulties with the podcast. Are you having trouble listening to it here on the post page – or through iTunes? I recently changed the podcast’s name from Wordplay to Helping Writers Become Authors, so it’s possible that the problem may be connected with that.

  12. Thanks for the tips! Definitely something very hard to do! And we can so easily get it wrong :O

    Well, can´t wait for Storming and the superhero story too! I do have one of my one ahead too ^^

    Hugs,

    M.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Here’s to both our upcoming WIPs! Fun times ahead.

      • Yes! Fun times indeed! I already have a book title even, just need to work more on the structure itself before I dare to start.

        Cheers and good look 😉 I see a cross-over coming soon!

  13. Oh this is a difficult one. Like you I have so many ideas and usual the character voices are quite strong and there are a few scenes in there that surprise even me. However while I do pick one the other ideas will still stay stuck in my head at the same time. It slows me down but has always been that way 🙁

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Too many stories, too little time. It’s both the blessing and the bane of the writer’s existence.

      • You can say that again, on moments like those I always wonder why I write but then there is simple nothing else for it. Not writing is just not an option, now only if those ideas would stand nicely in line and wait their turn.

  14. My next novel or story hangs out with the rest, in the part of my brain that is always writing, describing the world around me as I would put it on paper. It’s been hanging out there for as long as a few years, but when it’s ready it knocks on the door to the rest of my brain and says, “Hi. I’m that one you were thinking about, you know, with the sandwiches? I’m ready now.” Then I write that one. My brain is a weird place.

    Thank you for writing this blog. I’ve found some really useful things on here. 🙂

  15. Fortuna says:

    This article is the guidance that I really needed today! I have had the same idea for my first novel for about the past five years, and then I changed it to add more action, then changed it again to add more subplots, and now it is a completely different story than what I had intended.

    I tried writing it and it was just like pulling teeth to get the words out. I was getting frustrated and even wondered if this was worth writing. So after reading your post, I think I’m going to go back to my original idea. That is the one that I feel I was meant to write!

    Thanks, this really helped!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve murdered stories irrevocably by letting them slip too far away from my original vision. It’s great that you’ve been able to catch it before it’s slid too far!

  16. This was just what I was looking for right now!
    After publishing my collection of short stories a couple of months ago, I’m ready for my next project, and decided to give my last abandoned novel a chance. So I’ve started going through what I’ve got so far – but I’m not sure about it. I like the characters (especially my thief/anti-hero) but the main plot feels weak and constructed. Your list above nailed one of the problems: the main plot bores me!
    I will try and see if I can use the subplot about the thief instead (and turn it into a completely different story). If not, I guess I’ll just pick one of those other shining new ideas waiting in line!
    Thank you so much for a great blog!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Boredom is such a great barometer for measuring the potential of stories. If we’re not excited, why think we can make our readers excited? And more importantly, why would we want to spend all that time with a story we’re not crazy about?

  17. Gina McCune says:

    Thanks for these suggestions. Sometimes I feel that I generally live “outside” of my head floating about 2 feet above myself. The creative juices definitely flow up there, but they can be tremendously hard to manage. What I garnered the most from your post is the need to pull myself back into a rational thinking pattern and only float away when I actually have a mission up there in the stratosphere. Seems like it would surely keep me more focused. Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Writing is so much a balance between the organic flow of the subconscious and the rationality of the conscious. Too much of one or another and a project will never get off the ground. We need to harness both aspects of our brains to get the most out of any story.

  18. Stephanie says:

    Okay. Wow. As I was reading this I was already starting to answer the questions and sort out the ideas in my head. For a long time I’ve been torn between writing a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story (Think Half-Life or Fallout meets Knights of the Old Republic) and a fantasy story full of magic and conflict and whispers of dark things awakening. For a while I thought I should start with the sci-fi because a lot of what I’m into right now is along those lines, but I don’t think I’m /ready/. Plus, the characters for the fantasy idea have been floating around longer, and thus I have a clearer idea of how their voices sound, and how they would interact. I think I have a starting point now, at least. This 7-step process may have been exactly what I needed!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Awesomesauce! Glad the tips were helpful to you in figuring out the right story to start with!

  19. Katie Franke says:

    Thanks! This has really helped. I am an aspiring writer who has had some short creative nonfiction published, but what I’ve REALLY always wanted to do is write a novel. I’ve been doing it since I was 11. I’ve never written a manuscript that I thought was even remotely worthy of being considered by any publisher, but I’m still writing. Right now I have two “main” story ideas in my head and I’ve been struggling for months to figure out which one to start writing. The one I’ve been forming in the back of my mind for years, and recently it has really taken off. I’ve done a lot of research, I’ve written a full outline and I’m really excited about it, but…it’s going to be a hard book to write. I know it will be. It’s incredible and I love it, but being as inexperienced as I am, I just don’t think I’m ready to tackle it. But my second story idea is great too. I love the idea, I love the characters and I feel it will be better for me to start with because it is far less complex and the end that I have in sight for it is much clearer than the other. So…that’s what I’m going to do. Anyway, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to turn this into a novella. I’m just really happy to have finally made my clear choice. Thanks for all the helpful advice! 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s great! Glad to hear you have a clear path forward. As Margaret Atwood says, “You don’t always know when a story is ready, but you always know when it’s *not* ready.”

  20. Kinza Sheikh says:

    This post popped into my vision right when I finally finished my first novel. 😀
    And interestingly, during reading all the tips, one of my future idea which I had saw in a dream kept popping in my head. It was like everything in that project already fall into place.
    But, I will still take a month off for editing and look around on other shiny ideas. Who knows if another one end up being better and again my actual writing process start faltering because I start feeling the urge to write that one. 🙂
    This post will remain in my bookmark at least until Jan when I actually start working on my next novel.
    Thanks for always being there when writers need ya. 😀

  21. Thank you for this post I can always find help somewhere on your site. Currently I am at that cross road of which story do I work on. Nano’s was a rewrite of last years and neither version feel right.

    I am trying to figure out which of my many stories to now work on, after counting them all both first draft completed and just beginning there are 30 such stories. Of these I can not figure out which one to work on after nano. And not writing isnt an option either. I am not myself when I dont write. I write mostly suspense mystery ghost with a hint of romance. The one… well two stories I keep going back to amonst them all is “Camera’s View” and Patricia( the working title as of write now) . They are both ghost stories where the lead characters need to solve the mystery of the ghosts that appears to them, now to figure which of these two to work on and how not to feel guilty that I didnt choose the others .

  22. What if we have the reverse problem? I began my WIP because it was my only story idea, and by the time I decided I wanted to be a novelist, the plot was fully developed.

    Now, 3 years later, I still have no ideas for the next story. I have a character backstory for a love interest, but I’ve been straining my brain for months and still haven’t come up with any kind of premise. My list of “what if” questions hasn’t sparked anything that intrigues me!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Don’t pressure yourself. Try to find the step in the process that you’re in alignment with right now–whether that’s *not* writing until you have an idea that excites you, or just freewriting to see what happens. It’s also useful to pursue other creative interests. Seek out great movies, books, music, art, etc. Soak yourself in it and see what happens.

Trackbacks

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