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Novel Concept

How To Turn Your Novel Idea Into A Strong Concept (and Why You Need To)

So you’ve got a brilliant idea for a novel. But is that enough? Is having an idea, even a fantastic one, enough to start writing? 

In most cases, no, it’s not. You need to take that idea and turn it into a CONCEPT for your novel.

What exactly is a novel “concept” and why do you need one?

I think of a concept for a novel as an idea that has been expanded and tweaked in a way that will make it appealing to others who hear it. And you develop a concept by taking your initial germ of an idea and adding details to make it more compelling and well-rounded. Those details generally center around fleshing out your MAIN CHARACTER, his or her MISSION, and the CONFLICT.

At this point, though, you don’t want to go into a whole lot of detail and end up weighing down the concept. That will come later as you plan and plot your novel. For the concept, you want to keep things brief and to the point. You should be able to explain your concept to someone concisely—in a sentence or two–and pique their interest. You want them thinking something like, “Wow! That sounds interesting. Tell me more.” 

For the concept, you want to keep things brief and to the point.

Why is this? Because if you can express a compelling concept to someone in one or two sentences and have them think, “I’d like to read that,” you know you’ve got something. If it takes paragraph after paragraph to explain the concept to them, then you haven’t honed in on the key concept of your story and you need to refine it.

Not only that, if you plan to present your novel to agents, editors, or publishers, you must be able to state the concept clearly in one or two sentences. Three at the most. These are busy people who often have many writers vying for their attention. They are not going to hang around and listen to or read a long, rambling description of your planned novel. You have to hook them first–and quickly–with your brilliant, well-thought-out concept. Then you can get into all the tantalizing details. 

By now you may be thinking, “Ok, Ok. I get it. I need a compelling concept and I need to be able to express it concisely. But how do I figure those things out?” There is no right or wrong way to do this. In the pages that follow I’ll explain, step by step, how I do it.

Steps To Take To Turn Your Novel Idea Into A Strong Concept

  1. State the rough idea in one or two sentences.
  2. Expand the idea by adding a main character and giving her a burning goal or mission related to the idea.
  3. Introduce the main conflict for the main character by asking a what-if question.
  4. Flip the what-if question into a statement. This becomes the concept of the novel.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as we go through the steps: 

  1. Genre – If you have an idea for your novel you should know what genre it is. You can read more about genre in my post, The Best Novel Length By Genre. You’ll want to keep the conventions of your genre in mind as you develop the concept for your novel.
  2. Setting – You may also want to consider the general setting for your novel as you work on the concept

State Your Idea Concisely

This is the idea that first comes to mind when you decide to write a novel, or shortly thereafter. You may have gotten it by observing life around you, reading an interesting article, or thinking about a slice of history.  Or some other means.

Person With Idea

If you don’t yet have an idea for your novel and need help coming up with one, head on over to my earlier post on this topic, How to Find Ideas For Your Novel.

If you have more than one idea, the method below is perfect for helping you drill down and decide which to use. Walk each idea through the steps below to come up with a concept. You will probably find that one of them is more compelling than the others.

Now state your idea in one or two sentences. Don’t worry about it being perfect or adding details. A rough, bare-bones idea is fine at this point. 

Examples of ideas stated briefly:

  • A novel about a dead body that shows up in an elevator in a downtown office building.
  • A novel about a bitter, older, single woman who lives alone with her cats.

Add The Main Character and Mission

Now we’re going to take our idea and expand it by adding a main character and give her a mission or burning goal to get this story going. If your idea is based on a character, you’re already partly there. If not, think about who or what kind of character you need to drive your story idea forward. Then give the character a mission or goal in life.

Take the example above about a dead woman discovered in an elevator in a downtown office building. Your main character could be Judy, the twin sister of the dead woman, who is devasted by her sister’s unexpected death and vows to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Using the other example, your main character could be Vicky, a single woman who just turned 40 and is feeling miserable about aging and being alone. She resolves to meet a man and get married and goes online to find one.

Bring On The Main Conflict

So you have your idea and you have a main character with a mission. Things are starting to warm up. But it’s still not enough. Now is the time to throw some fuel on this fire to really heat things up.

And the way to do that is to add conflict. Every novel needs to have one or more conflicts. That is what keeps readers turning the pages. Without conflict, there is no drama and no story. Let me repeat that. Without conflict, there really is no story. At least not one interesting enough to entice anyone to read past page 20.

Typewriter with story

Take the example above about Vicky, a bitter, lonely woman searching for love online. That’s a decent start but not many people are going to want to read a full-length, two or three hundred page novel about a woman going on one uneventful date after another. You might begin the novel that way but by page 30 you’re going to start losing a lot of readers. Maybe even sooner than that.

That’s why you must introduce conflict into your story. Toss some flames into the path of your protagonist. Challenge her. Let the reader see her stumble, fall, and get back up. Again and again if necessary. That’s how you hook readers and keep them reading from the first page to the last.

So how do you come up with conflict? The kind of conflict that can sustain the many pages of a novel? A good way is to take your idea and character and ask a what-if question. 

Using the example of the twin sister investigating the dead body in the elevator: What if the owner of the building tries to thwart or block Judy because he thinks her efforts will lead to bad publicity for his business? Or better yet, because he’s actually the murderer?

Or what if 40-year-old Vicky meets and falls in love with someone she thinks is the man of her dreams but weeks into their relationship begins to suspect that he is secretly married to another woman? 

Turn Your What-If Question Into A Statement

Now for the easiest part of turning your novel idea in a strong concept. Take your what-if question and flip it around into a statement. And there you have it. A strong and intriguing concept for your novel.

Taking one of the examples from above—

“A sad, bitter, 40-year-old single woman named Vicky is living alone in a small town with her three cats when she finally meets the man of her dreams and falls passionately in love. Six weeks into what she thought was the ideal relationship she begins to suspect that he may be secretly married to someone else, and she becomes desperate to hold onto him at any cost, even murder.”

Now that’s a concept.