Come Up With a Killer Story Concept Before You Start Writing

Come Up With a Killer Story Concept–Before You Start Writing

Readers only ever see the words of the novel. They have no insight into the planning process, how the story concept came about, or the number of ideas and subplots that may have been taken out of the novel or replaced. But when you sit down to write a novel, don’t make the mistake of thinking the only work required is that contained within the completed novel itself.

In fact, the process of writing a novel is far more complex. A novel has been likened to the roof of a building: while this finished product is an essential part of the entire construction, it would be worthless, and impossible to construct, without laying the foundation and building multiple support pillars first.

Brainstorming Your Unique Story Concept

The first essential pillar of any novel is a unique concept. This is the basis upon which everything else is built. Characters, plot, and themes will follow. But no concept, no novel.

The concept is the scenario that forms the foundation of your novel. It could be inspired by a real-life event, something that’s happened in the news, or perhaps a dream. It may even be an idea that pops into your head for no reason other than the fact you’re an original and creative thinker, curious about the world around you.

A story concept will often start out as a question, perhaps beginning with “What if…?” What if a natural disaster left the human race starving and close to extinction? What if two people fell in love, then discovered that they were siblings? What if everything we knew to be true was all lies invented by the government to control us all?

It’s important not to get this vital concept confused with a plot twist or the climactic moment of the novel. The concept is the foundation idea that runs throughout the entire story. Two things must always be true about a story concept: it has to be original, and it has to get the writer excited.

The downside of most story concept is that only a few of them take any real shape and become novels. Most writers go through many different concepts before they find one they can write an entire book about. Lasting story concepts only solidify when you look at a couple other important writing pillars.

Find Your Story’s Conflict

Novels form around a central conflict. This conflict doesn’t have to be a fight or a war. It can be a conflict of ideas, between characters or even just within the protagonist, who may have a tough decision to make. A novel about everyone being happy and getting along all the time would be incredibly dull. No one wants to read about an ordinary person’s ordinary day.

Set a Goal for Your Character

Every novel requires the protagonist to have a goal that appears impossible to reach. Think of your favorite novels of all time and identify the apparently unreachable goal at the center of the plot. This can be making a relationship work, fighting a deadly illness, surviving a war, or anything else in between. The goal at the center of The Lord Of the Rings trilogy, for example, is the destruction of the One Ring.

Identify Your Story’s Main Themes and Emotional Connection

The final of your story’s four central pillars is a theme that engages readers’ emotions. The best themes arise naturally out of the story’s conflict. While writing, always stay aware of your central themes, so you can use them in the best possible way to build an emotional connection with your readers.

No matter how killer your story concept may be, if the other story pillars are not there, you have to be willing to put the idea aside and move on. You’re a writer! You’re full of ideas! Don’t flog a dead horse, trying to force a novel out of an idea that isn’t going to work. Run your concept ideas through this simple ideas to identify which ideas are worth acting on and which aren’t.

Tell me your opinion: When you first get an idea for a story, how do you determine if it will be able to carry an entire novel?

Come Up With a Killer Story Concept Before You Start Writing

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About Jess Millis | @MillisJess

Jess Millis is an experienced writer, editor, and copywriter. She teaches writing at James Madison University and at as an essay-writing consultant.


  1. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Jess!

  2. Aften Brook Szymanski says

    You asked: Here’s the sad truth.
    I get an idea, start hammering it down and see if the characters materialize to me with the pillars above. I have gotten over a hundred pages in to a concept and then dropped it because my characters weren’t going anywhere no matter what torture I conjured for them- and the characters are the fun of the story to me.
    I have tried to pre-plan out the entire tale, but find the characters still seem to either develop on the page more, or less, than I intend. Not sure why I can’t control their personalities better before hand, but hopefully my manipulation skills will only increase as I continue writing- and revising- and planning.
    As always, I love your articles.

  3. Marissa John says

    I write romance. The hero of my current WIP Was the sidekick in book 1 of my assassin series & I knew he’d make a dynamic hero for book 2. Coming up with a lady has been hard. She needs to gave the right combo of spunk & sexy & mystery. I’ve gone back to the drawing board more than once. I finally had to alter the premise enough, change the trope, & go back to my Gaslamp/Steampunk guidelines to give get a spark. Turns out I was thinking too mundane. Now, the question becomes Is my hero man enough to capture the heart of a Fay warrior? I believe so!

    Lesson is: you have to expand your thinking beyond the pedantic tried & true. You have to take risks.

  4. thomas h cullen says

    Story concepts don’t smack of more strength than The Representative’s: that I assure you.

    Speaking broadly to your topic, so much is just form; the actual quantity of original story concepts and ideas is very finite – so much amounts to how well you can convert one already used.

  5. Amalia Zeichnerin says

    I basically agree with your article, yet I also see it like thomas h. cullen “(…)the actual quantity of original story concepts and ideas is very finite – so much amounts to how well you can convert one already used.”
    There are so many stories out there which are similar to each other and these days it’s hard to come up with something that really hasn’t been there before in one way or the other.

    • thomas h cullen says

      It’s rooted in the nature of life – repetitious, and greatly finite.

      Paradoxically, it’s the more one engages with this level of awareness that they’re able to come up with more and more original ideas.

      I am sincere, regarding The Representative:

      It’s an absolutely unprecedented work of literature.

  6. It varies, of course, but for me it’s the ending. I don’t move forward with a concept until I can answer the question, “how does the story end?” The other “pillars” may fall into place before, or after the answer comes.

    • It’s the same way for me. I start with the ending. If I can’t see the story wrapping up in a way that is satisfying, I let it go very quickly.

  7. I’m very lucky that the concept I’m working with is fresh / original but also relatable within our cultural appreciation of magic / SciFi.

    The reason I believe it will last 3 books is that the fundamental elements relate to spiritual trends I feel very strongly about in real life. The ability to show my opinion on various ideologies while also develop a main character that navigates more practical aspects of how I apply my faith fuels my passion to this writing.

  8. @Marissa John: “Lesson is: you have to expand your thinking beyond the pedantic tried & true. You have to take risks.”

    So true! I sit here with a sequential string of events I thought was a novel. I started too small.

    I am now a big believer in planning it out, and Larry Brooks of Story Engineering and Story Physics fame ( is my favorite guiding guru for this critical upfront process. Truby also has a very in-depth process, most useful if you like planning out your symbols and themes.

    Here is a checklist Larry put out awhile back.

    Lately, he’s put up some extremely useful guidance on developing and exploring, deeply, your concept and premise. Premise is where my story crashed hard, and I am still deciding whether to fish or cut bait.

    BTW, I stumbled upon K.T.’s post, 3 Signs You Should Give Up On Your Story,

    … and it was a blessing. I’ve been moping around, telling myself it’s over, like suffering through a heartbreak, but my concept provided a rich environment, and I’m coming up with some interesting and workable ideas for the concept.

    Jess: Thank you for this article. I needed it, and it’s put fresh wind in my sails (as well as fresh ideas), and I just may be able to salvage my magnum opus!

  9. When I get an idea, it’s often of something that happens in the middle of the story. I then start building around it in my mind, figuring out how the story got to that point. I don’t know if I’ve ever started with a ‘What if?’ My current novel started when I was trying to think of a way to base a fantasy on the story of Esther. But it’s changed so much now that, although that’s still the basic concept, it’s not at all recognizable as being related to Esther.

  10. When I get a big idea, I save it for later. Almost always, I save it for later because I’m already working on something I’ve been working on for a long time. I wait till I get another big idea and see if it fits with the other big idea. If they’re two pieces from two different puzzles, I won’t force them to fit together. But if they feel like they could both happen within the same universe, I consider it. Then I leave them aside again, and wait till more ideas come. For me, it’s like making a snowman. You grab a snowball, then you let it grow and grow till it’s big. Then you make two more. Then you decorate it and make it look like a person. And there you go!

  11. I’ve just spent part of the morning rereading this and diving into the links, and this website is a treasure trove.

    If you’re wandering around trying to firm up your story premise, reading through the linked articles will get your synapses firing, so be sure you have a pen and paper!

  12. I think that is why my second book was so much better than my first book. I had a definite idea of what I wanted with the second one that I didn’t have with the first. Thanks for making me see the light.

  13. I haven’t had all that many story ideas that I actually decided to start writing, but for the few that I have begun to write out, I generally find that they have to meet a few requirements. (1) There has to be a clear protagonist and antagonist already in mind, (2) there has to be some clear conflict already in mind and somewhat planned out, (3) there has to be some deeper meaning to the physical conflict planned, and (4) I have to have been considering the idea for a week at least, otherwise I know it won’t hold my attention long enough for me to write it.

    • thomas h cullen says

      Everything you said just spoke my own mind. Completely, someone here who concurs with you – especially on the “deeper meaning” component.

      Croyan’s my protagonist – Krenok my antagonist.

      The best part of two years: I assure you of The Representative’s substance being heavy enough for me to have committed to it for this long. (Despite only ending up with a text 4,459 words.)

      • Have you ever tried doing NaNoWriMo? I now have a rough draft of just over 100,000 words and I wrote over half of it during last November. NaNoWriMo forced me to commit, forced me to get an actual plan for thr plot, and inspired me to keep writing (seeing the word count going up day after day is exhilerating).

        • thomas h cullen says

          No, and I wouldn’t – thanks however for the encouragement.

          In the first reply, it was the assurance I gave you that The Representative was worthwhile enough to pursue creating it for the best part of two years:

          Now, in this second reply, it’s my assurance to you that not only, is The Representative not in any undermined by the such short count of 4,459 words…….it’s actually why it’s in fact so emotionally deep and powerfully.

          The Representative’s a brand new entity of literature (one literally never before encountered, anywhere in the world).

          • It sounds interesting. I’ll admit I’ve never tried writing a short story. I’m a novel reader, so that’s what I always aspire to write. I’ve been thinking of dabbling in the short story world for a little while now though – I think it would be a challenge for me to write a full story in a much shorter length.

          • thomas h cullen says

            It’s not a short story; the text in fact spans over 1,000 pages. (Brand new literature!!).

            By extreme love, is what’s provoked it as a literary form; I haven’t narrated The Representative this way to be different – for the sake of feeling unique:

            I’ve written this way because that’s how my emotional regard for Croyan and Mariel told me to type. (After the fact of telling their story, my life’s complete).

            I can now literally be content living the rest of it with nothing but their existence and history in my mind.

            Does this resonate with you?

          • Yes, of course! It sounds like you’ve put a lot of passion into it, and passion is very relatable. The whole thing sounds very intriguing – more intriguing than my own projects.

          • thomas h cullen says

            I’ve just been watching a BBC programme – The Pity Of War, by Niall Ferguson:

            It’s purpose, was to dissect the rationale and consequences of the First World War.

            Put your whole faith in me, when I now make this assertion:

            ‘The Representative’ transcends it entirely, reducing it to mere beginners level.

            The Representative is finally that sort of text which is equally for every person around the globe – including you!

          • You sound like a salesman ;). Is it published?

          • thomas h cullen says

            It is published, yes. (Self-published, on Lulu to be precise).

            Forgive some of the form of expression, if it does perhaps come across as too strong (You suggested that The Representative must mean a lot to me – yes, it absolutely does!!)

            The truth about The Representative is that there is much it does transcend – so very much. On sincerely many levels, it is a pinnacle text – especially, peaking with regard to its being about the link between status and power.

            On final terms, The Representative is about a Representative’s attempt to use his status to help the disempowered.

            Helping the powerless – at a pinnacle level.

          • I’ll be checking it out. 🙂
            Congratulations on getting your work out there! That is one of my writing related goals I still have to accomplish.

          • thomas h cullen says

            Have someone read it to you; I recommend this with fervent enthusiasm.

            Finally, I assure you this: having The Representative read to you is to spend the hour in which it’s read in an absolute best possible way.

            (Even saying that, I don’t feel I’ve done the text satisfactory justice.)

            At a final level, the link between status and power, and that between a father and daughter:

            There – that’ll do.

            Good luck with your own endeavour (perhaps tell me a bit about it).

            The Representative – a final of situations.

          • I wish I had thr confidence in my work that you seem to have in yours :).
            Taken is about a selfish, pragmatic, and hardened orphan boy who lives on the streets as a thief but gets caught up in his country’s unjust invasion of a neighboring country. Along with his flamboyant but shady partner in crime he sets out to stop the slaughter of an invasion in order to get back home to the only person who has ever looked past his gruff exterior to see the lonely boy he is, to make sure that she stays safe.
            I’m just working on the edits now. 🙂

          • thomas h cullen says

            Thanks for sharing that. Based on my own experience, editing accounts for as much as 90% of the overall process.

            Taken – interesting title.

          • Yes, I know. It’s going to take a few months to finish at least.
            Thanks. I’m considering other options, though. I think it may have to change if I want to get it published.

          • thomas h cullen says

            Artistic sincerity v commercial viability. (Only change what you sincerely feel doesn’t take away from your story’s meaning.)

            The only way to have gotten an agent on board for The Representative (presuming they were fine with the story content) would’ve been to have fundamentally revamped the format of the text in its entirety:

            It’s a mere 4,500 words spread across 1000 pages – how unprecedented is that!

          • Yes, of course! Well to be honest, the title was simply a convenient one that took next to no thinking when I first began writing the book. I want to find a more artistic title. 🙂
            Well I’ve seen some pretty interestingly formatting books out on the bookstore shelves. It’s great you got into self-publishing, though. That will be the route I’ll go if I can’t find a traditional publisher.

          • thomas h cullen says

            Between the two of us, now almost 20 posts – is this a record?

            If you do, you’ll have been the first person to have purchased The Representative (without counting family).

            In the event you do: sincerely – have someone read it to you. (That’s where it’s magnetic power astronomically increases.)

            This’ll be my last post on this strand. Hopefully see you on another of Katie’s discussion strands.

            (Remember: only what it is that doesn’t undermine your story’s emotional truth allow yourself to alter.)

          • Maybe. 🙂 Thanks for the conversation and for the advice!

  14. I always get discouraged when I try to get some momentum going on an ambitious (at least for my skills) work of fiction. I have the story, characters, tone, and themes that I’d like to tackle. I have a fairly clear idea of the symbolism and foreshadowing but I worry myself to death over not getting the factual things right. I dread writing a book that has glaring historical inaccuracies, and I’m not sure how many years I’d have to force myself to study the period, politics, and dialect of the time that my WiP takes place in. To finish a tremendous labor of love and then realize that some handful of errors made readers completely disengage from it would be devastating. This has crippled me from making progress on the story that I feel I HAVE to one day finish. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of great short stories and I was wondering if you ever got into writing them yourself? Do you think they can/should be used like jogging or something to exercise your voice on less ambitious and intimidating pieces? One in a farmhouse of the period and another in some wealthy landowner’s estate, ya know, to get a strong feel for the language, habits, and lifestyle of the time? To learn story by story how to write a period piece novel before I get back to work on my WiP. When I think of established writers I tend to assume that they just think “okay, my next book will be set in 19th century Russia!” then start blasting through pages.

    • thomas h cullen says

      Short stories need not necessarily be lightweight, nor insubstantial. In my own honest opinion in fact, the “short” story has more inherent artistic value than the novel:

      ‘The Representative’, my very own artistic work, is a mere five thousand words long, yet in terms of its theme and plot’s weight I’m more than convinced of its being impossible to go deeper.

      It is possible to think of the short story as a final endeavour.

  15. You’re right. I didn’t mean to suggest that short stories were incapable of achieving great depth and/or philosophical weight. What I meant by ambitious and intimidating was more referring to the amount of characters and character arcs, the length, the staggering amount of research (depending on the story you want to tell and your familiarity with the territory) and the need for continuity over a couple hundred pages or more.
    But, you’re very right. I feel inspired to start writing my own collection of short stories now, if only for my own enjoyment. I’ll have to check out “The Representative” some time, too. 🙂

    • thomas h cullen says

      You communicated yourself perfectly well there. (There’s a vast separation between the just knowing of something and actually typing it clearly out – thank you.)

      Actually, The Representative is like no other work of literature – literally.

      Its plot. Its theme. Its literary form. (Five thousand words, across one thousand pages):

      The history between a child and her father, and a final of political situations, The Representative is a most truly unheard of kind of literature.

      (Good luck.)

  16. Excellent post! I like how you talk about how authors get story ideas and how to ensure that they will make it past simply being a good idea. Personally, I get a lot of my story ideas from my dreams or, most recently, from a series of ideas that mesh together. A majority of my story ideas will get their own notebook and make it to page ten or so before fizzling out. Only two have been finished with a few more making it to a significant page amount. If I’m passionate enough to continue the story over a series of months, I stick with it. The revising and thought come later- I’m a big pantser.


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