How to Test an Idea Before Writing the First Draft

How do you know if the idea you have is strong enough to support a full-length novel?

Is there a way to know the difference between a good idea and one that’s better left in your idea folder? 

If so, can you do this before spending all that time writing the first draft?

The answer is YES!

For most of us, there’s nothing worse than the thought of wasting a bunch time and energy on a story that’s going nowhere. 

But the truth is that not every idea is worth developing into a full-length work of fiction. Luckily, there IS a way to “test” out a story idea before writing the first draft. And in today’s post, I’ve got two different exercises that will help do just that.

So, get out your notebook and let’s dive in!

Exercise #1: Write your storyline.

A storyline is a short summary that gives the gist of your book in 1-2 sentences.

It tells the reader who the main character is, what the conflict is, and what the stakes are. Basically, it’s the WHO, WHERE, WHAT, and WHY of your story, but not the HOW.

Before you write your storyline, let’s take a look at some examples.

Examples:

  • STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE -Luke Skywalker, a spirited farm boy, joins rebel forces to save Princess Leia from the evil Darth Vader, and the galaxy from the Empire’s planet-destroying Death Star.
  • JAWS – A police chief, with a phobia for open water, battles a gigantic shark with an appetite for swimmers and boat captains, in spite of a greedy town council who demands that the beach stay open.
  • RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC – In 1936, archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the US government to locate the ancient Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis, and stop them from becoming the most powerful army the world has ever known.
  • JURASSIC PARK – During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.
  • SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.

Take Action:

Write a 1-2 sentence storyline for your book. When you’re done, ask yourself and others – does this story sound interesting to me? Is it something I’d want to read?

If the answer is yes, move onto the next exercise. But if the answer is no, you either need to re-write your logline to focus on the most interesting parts of your story or pick a different idea to work with.

Exercise #2: Write your story’s elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch is a longer summary of your story—usually, around 250 words—that does not give away the ending of the story but does cover the main conflict and stakes. It’s the summary that sometimes appears on the back cover of a book. Or it could be the summary that you’d include in your query letter if you’re planning to submit your work to agents in the future. 

When composing your elevator pitch, you want to answer these questions: WHO is this story about? WHAT is the situation? WHERE does the story take place? WHY does it matter?

  • The protagonist: WHO is your main character? What makes this character unique? What does this character want at the beginning of the story?
  • The conflict: WHAT is the situation? Who or what is standing in the way of your protagonist achieving his or her goal?
  • The stakes: WHY does it matter? What’s at risk if your protagonist doesn’t achieve their goals? What is the worst thing that will happen? What will their success or failure mean to your protagonist?
  • The setting: WHERE does the story take place? 

Examples:

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before-and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love. (134 words)

THE WAY OF KINGS by Brandon SandersonRoshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soilless ground. Cities are built only where the topography offers shelter.

It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them.

One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.

Brightlord Dalinar Kholin commands one of those other armies. Like his brother, the late king, he is fascinated by an ancient text called The Way of Kings. Troubled by over-powering visions of ancient times and the Knights Radiant, he has begun to doubt his own sanity.

Across the ocean, an untried young woman named Shallan seeks to train under an eminent scholar and notorious heretic, Dalinar’s niece, Jasnah. Though she genuinely loves learning, Shallan’s motives are less than pure. As she plans a daring theft, her research for Jasnah hints at secrets of the Knights Radiant and the true cause of the war. (268 words)

HARRY POTTER & THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX by J.K. Rowling
There is a door at the end of a silent corridor. And it’s haunting Harry Potter’s dreams. Why else would he be waking in the middle of the night, screaming in terror?

Harry has a lot on his mind for this, his fifth year at Hogwarts: a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher with a personality like poisoned honey; a big surprise on the Gryffindor Quidditch team; and the looming terror of the Ordinary Wizarding Level exams. But all these things pale next to the growing threat of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named—a threat that neither the magical government nor the authorities at Hogwarts can stop.

As the grasp of darkness tightens, Harry must discover the true depth and strength of his friends, the importance of boundless loyalty, and the shocking price of unbearable sacrifice.

His fate depends on them all. (138 words)

Take Action:

Write a 250-word summary for your story. When you’re done, ask yourself and others – does this story sound interesting to me? Is it something I’d want to read?

If the answer is yes, then you’re probably ready to start writing the first draft!

But if the answer is no, you’ll need to re-write your elevator pitch focusing on the most important parts of your story. Make sure you’re focusing on the storyline of your global genre. For example, in a romance, the focal storyline would be the romantic relationship between the two characters. 

Final Thoughts

Writers who don’t take the time to flesh out their ideas are the ones who get stuck in the middle of a draft or who never finish the stories they start.

Hopefully, these exercises have helped you test out your story idea so that you can write forward with confidence. But if these exercises were difficult for you, don’t give up!

Check out the descriptions of movies on imdb.com (the internet movie database). There are hundreds of examples that will show you how a 2-hour movie in your genre can be summarized in one or two sentences. 

You can also browse the descriptions of your favorite books on amazon.com. Once you’ve read through a dozen or so examples, you’ll start to see patterns and understand how to apply those patterns to your own story. Doing this kind of work upfront is the first step toward writing a story that works.

Guest Post by SAVANNAH GILBO


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