How to Dig for Your Best Story Idea

This post is by Carrie Spencer.

I remember the first manuscript I wrote—after I decided to become a romance writer. Do you? I was forty-seven, had a decent command of the English language, and thought, For as many romance novels as I’ve read, this should be a piece of cake.

I should have thought, a piece of tripe. Oy.

In my book, I had three brothers—it would be accepted as a series after all—and they went to France for their mother’s birthday, and the hotel owner was beautiful and brother number one—a shipping magnate—would fall for her.

I thought it brilliant. When picking out a career for my hero I said, “Let’s see . . . who could be rich?” Well, shipping magnate came to mind. Do I know what a shipping magnate is? Nope. But I was betting he was rich. He would have to have been, because they flew to France in his private jet.

When picking out a scene, I decided on a posh hotel in France. Why France? Dunno, but it sounds exotic doesn’t it? France . . . come on, say it with a breathy sigh. Ahhhh.

Pretty much the rest of the book entailed me picking out scenes, heroes, villains, and crucial story parts simply because they were the first thing to pop into my head.

Drivel. Oh, so much drivel.

Digging for Your Best Characters

But, what if I had dug a little deeper? What if instead of using the first thing that popped into my head, I used the fifth thing? Or the twenty-third thing? What if there had been three brothers—I’m still determined to get that series deal—and instead of being shipping magnates they were:

1. Doctors/Health Professionals

2. Lawyers

3. Cowboys

4. Nuclear Scientists

5. Movie Stars

6. Country Music Band

7. Ship Builders

8. SEALs

9. Circus Performers

10. NASCAR Racers

11. Bank Robbers

Oh ho! Bank robbers? Carrie, you’ve gone crazy!

But wait . . . hold your horses. Why not a trio of bank robbers? They’d be rich, yes. And what if they were highly successful at it? What if they didn’t just rob banks? What if they stole:

1. Diamonds

2. Paintings

3. Antiquities

4. Gold Bars

5. Babies

6. Stolen goods

Robbers who steal stolen goods? Hmm . . . here the brain starts to hum a bit. So they wouldn’t be total bad guys. They’d be helping people get their stolen goods back. Kind of like Robin Hood. Sort of. You know what I mean.

Digging for Your Best Plot

Then expand your ideas a bit. Go for the gusto here.

If they did go to France—ahhh, France—maybe it was because:

1. Their grandma was having a birthday party

2. She’d once escaped from the Nazis

3. She knew where a lot of their purloined goods were stashed

4. The party was just a cover for the brothers to steal those goods back!

Do you see how much easier it’s becoming? If I don’t take just the first idea that pops into my head, I can make that idea grow and grow and morph into a unique idea. Sometimes it can be a bit ridiculous, but when you fork off the straight and narrow path your brain wants you to take, new ideas start to trickle in.

What if the heroine:

1. Inherited the hotel from her grandfather

2. Who hid from the Nazis

3. But knew where they’d stashed their purloined treasure

4. And she just found the map

5. And she needs the money desperately

. . . and so on and so forth.

Now the story begins to take shape. And not one down the straight and narrow path, oh no! But one with twists and turns and conflict galore!

You can play this game with all parts of your story. Use it to turn your setting from blah to ta-da. Turn your hero from a boring man in a beautiful suit to someone who has pizzazz and personality. Take your heroine from a beautiful woman who owns a hotel to one who has multiple secrets about her past and is on the edge of disaster. And she has a pet! What if she has a:

1. Dog

2. Cat

3. Parakeet

4. Monkey

5. Llama

6. Gerbil

7. Bloodhound

Bloodhound? And we’re off and running with a new tangent to our story!

About the Author: Romance author Carrie Spencer works as a restaurant manager, jewelry and website designer, and is learning how to use a flat iron. She lives on a farm in Iowa with seven cats and her English husband.

Tell me your opinion: How many evolutions of an idea did you go through before landing on the one youre using now?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. It takes me several drafts and lots of angst to settle in, but somehow it always happens.

  2. I’m a pantser, from the word go. So I don’t really settle on anything, but if I feel the story moving in a direction that feels blah or cliche I make sure it turns. Seeing where it goes from there is FUN.


  3. I agree Caroline – about halfway through my first draft, that’s when i start to feel I *know* my characters….it’s always in revising the best starts to come out!

  4. Lauren…total pantser here too! *waving*…lol…and i agree with you about the twist! Sometimes you just have to toss away the first idea (or second or third!) that comes into your head to make your story one-of-a-kind!


  5. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Carrie!

  6. At first, I would just take my original ideas and try to run with them. Ran out of gas.. er.. petrol.. pretty quickly. 😉

    Now, though, I honestly don’t know how many times I change out part of my story idea for a better one. Most of my ideas float around in my head and are continually revised until I think I have a good plot-line.
    If I were to take a random and wild guess, I’d say maybe 10-12 evolutions on average.

  7. I love this blog! I’m trying to plot a proposal and book 3 in a contract and now have so many ideas I could kiss you. MWAH!!

  8. Hi Carrie & KM!

    Even after I’ve typed “The End”, I’m still think about deleting/inserting more characters/sub-plots in the story. Maybe that’s why I can’t seem to stop tweaking my stories. I see this as positive rather than a negative because as writers, if we’re not constantly thinking of the “what ifs”, then we’re suffering from terminal writer’s block.

  9. This was definitely the case when I wrote my novel. I had the idea for a long time, but when I put it on paper, I realized that it could use some shaping. A year and a half later, I had my finished novel, and while the original idea was still incorporated, it evolved a lot over that time.

  10. Thanks for having me KM! We’ll be looking forward to having you at RU sometime soon! =)


  11. Terri…lol…..I think a heroine who owns a hotel and a llama could be the next hottest thing! =)You go girl!

  12. Jennifer…I don’t know how many times I’ve walked away from a scene and thought there…that’s perfect! Then about 2am my subconscious says ….but what if she took the subway? And what if while on the subway she met a nice old lady who handed her a lottery ticket? And what if……

    It’s definitely keeping my brain creative ..but also explains the dark circles under my eyes! =)


  13. Evolving is a great word Karoline! You can have a great plot, but I think sometimes just a bit of time spent away from it and your brain says oh hey! What if? And while all the what if’s won’t always work, sometimes there’s that little gem that makes your story stand out!


  14. I love this post, Carrie! I love your “what-ifs”, too. I’d love to read this story some day! As to my own stories, I don’t just go through what-ifs, I tend to rewrite the whole gol-dang story over and over again. I hiss like a cornered cat when I hear about authors who get their stories right in one draft.

  15. Thanks Becke! I never get mine right in one draft! I’m a definite re-writer – and my story is MUCH better for it!

  16. When I was planning Conquest of the Heart, which will be out soon with Breathless Press, I wrote down every cliche I could think of dealing with books set during the Norman conquest of England. I turned them all around and came up with my plot! He isn’t a Norman. He’s a Saxon. Etc….

  17. Writing is the one area where I’ve learned to trust my indecisiveness! I always start out with what I think is the perfect plot, setting, characters, etc. but then a little bit into the rough draft, I start to feel that niggling ‘something’s not right’ feeling. In my current WIP I ended up moving the setting from Idaho to Utah and changing my MC’s profession. So I like your brainstorming idea. I think I’ll try that first next time and possibly save myself a ton of rewriting!

  18. Let’s see. I have probably written nearly a million words to get to this final draft, a story the went deeper and further than I first imagined. Yep, dug deep, dug far and wide. 🙂

  19. My first novel was based on 600 pages of online short stories. I thought: no problem, merge stories, polish for a wider audience than originally planned, and go! Well, surprise surprise, the basic premise remained, but almost the entire plot changed. So I`m somewhere between a planner and a pantser. I need a solid premise to start from, and an end point in mind for the story. How I get from A to Z, however, often undergoes significant revision as I, like Gideon above, reflect and revise in seemingly endless cycles.

  20. Michele…oh I love Norman/Saxon historicals! The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss? Awesome/spectacularness. The dig deeper idea is one that gets me out of countless cliches….gotta love it!

  21. Shannon, definitely do the “what if” list before hand! Not that it won’t change later in your story (I swear mine always do!) but you come up with SO many interesting options you never would have thought of before…..such fun.

  22. Cecilia…lol…I feel your pain. I swear I write 5 times more than anyone else, just to get the “whole” story. Dig, baby, dig.

  23. Scott and Gideon (My apologies Gideon, for missing your original post!) …you also at some point have to stop. digging. deeper. Revise, yes. Polish, yes. But you can overdo the digging deep too.

    If I went back through my manuscript, and changed my calico kitten to a llama? Yes, it might be more hysterical, might have that “edge” to it. But again, it might be overkill. Because what if she not only had a llama, but it had mange, so she couldn’t use it for wool? And then, what if it only had one eye? Or a limp? At what point (and this is what YOU have to decide!) have you gone from “oh, this is certainly more interesting!” to “holy cow, I’ve really over done it!”

    You can dig too deep, you can overdo the “unusual”. You have to decide at which point you’ve got just enough? or gone too far…

  24. Thanks for the post, Carrie! Really interesting. I once read something similar from a list of Pixar´s advice: Don´t settle for the first idea, or the second, the third, the fourth or the fifth. Get rid of the obvious.
    And it´s a pretty good thing to do!

  25. A brilliant system, Carrie! When I’m reading my first draft and decide some of it’s boring then I’ll keep this in mind.

  26. I am having the problem that I have to many ideas, and get lost in the details before I start to write.
    Lately I just start to write and adjust while I am doing so.
    Great article and I like the way you write

  27. Maybe thats my problem, picking the first idea. I need to try this experiment

  28. Yeah! So close to my current WIP. I just started with an idea of a girl going to city to start off a new life. At first, I just thought about a small career life, cute family and stuff (it wasn’t meant to publish, just a mean to practice)
    But as I started to dig deeper, I found her father had died in her childhood. Her mother was an alcoholic, and she also died just when the story started. It is kind of a trigger point. Now, she is finding out that her father was murdered and he was a mafia man. And her mother had escaped with her so she won’t be vulnerable in front of them again. Her childhood incompleteness has made her so greedy that she willingly joins the mafia. And on and on, funny when compare your current WIP with its initial seed.
    They are so different. And as far as I know, finished product will be even more different.

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