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How to Generate & Test Story Ideas

It's hard enough coming up with good book ideas. But which will actually sell?

When you’ve been publishing books for a while, it’s easy to find yourself in an echo chamber. Surrounded by bestselling authors online, you normalise their marketing strategies, five-figure months and USA Today runs. Their goals seem like “average” author goals. But do they really reflect the pressing concerns for most authors? In short, probably not. After all, according to a 2021 Written Word Media survey of 1,000 authors, 45% consistently make less than $99 a month from book sales. And they’re the engaged ones who fill in surveys. In reality, most authors write part time and only a fraction of people who write actually publish.

Many fiction writers dream about becoming the next Stephen King or EL James, but few see writing for a living as anything more than a pipedream. And while some regularly rack up 10,000-word days and release a book a month, earning an above-average income, they are the outliers in an exponential curve. Most authors aren’t in a position to think about jumping from a six-figure income to a seven-figure empire. Nor are they looking to double the amount of books they release per year. A huge number are yet to release a book. And a considerable subset struggle with even coming up with ideas they deem worthy enough to expand to fill a novel.

There’s a reason why readers frequently ask authors, “How do you come up with your ideas?” It might come naturally to some of us, but many consider the process a complex puzzle. Fortunately, producing strong ideas is easy once you understand how many productive authors work. To prove this statement, in this blog post you’ll learn not only how to generate fiction ideas but also how to test them for their potential to keep your attention and succeed in a commercial arena. Using the following tips, you’ll no longer struggle to come up with good ideas. Your biggest challenge will be finding the time to explore the abundance of gems at your disposal.

Fill Your Well

A common difference between prolific and less productive authors is how they manage their time in relation to producing and consuming content. On average, prolific authors prioritise production over consumption. Rather than spending five or six hours each day watching TV or scrolling social media, as is the case for many readers, they spend their free time mapping out projects and producing intellectual property assets that expand their publishing portfolio. Admittedly, many can only do this because they’ve spent years consuming content in advance, analysing every detail, squirrelling ideas into a notepad and giving them time to incubate.

In comparison, many new authors haven’t built up a reserve in this way. Doing so, though, is important as prolific indie author Joanna Penn suggests on The Creative Penn website. In a 2015 post, she explained:

“I often find things in museums that end up in my books, or I am at an event and get an idea, or I’m watching TV or a film and something springs to mind. […] I just write stuff like that down. I don’t have to do anything with it now, just log it and I trust that I will come back to it another time.”

It doesn’t matter where you get your ideas. TV, movies, documentaries, comic books, travel — as long as you’re using them as inspiration rather than plagiarising, all are fertile lands ready for harvesting. If you’re stuck, start looking at the work of others with inspiration at the forefront of your mind.

Ask, “What If…?”

Humanity is gifted with the ability to wonder at the future. Yes, that ability often blocks us from living in the present, but it has unique benefits for storytelling, empowering us to digest information and twist it into hypothetical scenarios. Using it, we can consider not just our own futures but also the futures of others, even fictional characters. It’s often automatic. Stare at a couple on a bus and you can’t help but speculate over their lives. One’s holding a wedding ring. The other looks disgruntled. Are they heading for divorce? Watch a horror movie and glance into the dark at home. Did you imagine movement? Storytelling is a reflex that lives in us all.

The trick to generating powerful ideas is to learn how to fire up your imagination at will. Asking “What if…?” often helps. Imagine, for example, you’re watching a movie about Merlin. He’s a wizard but you never see him learn his craft. What if there were a school that taught him — and still teaches magic in the modern day? Cue the birth of the Harry Potter franchise. Similarly, what if we could use genetics to recreate dinosaurs and someone built a zoo? That’s Jurassic Park. What if a renaissance genius embedded clues in his paintings that led to a church secret? The Da Vinci Code. Asking what if is a simple exercise anyone can use to create original ideas.

Let Ideas Rest

Having pledged to write a book, a lot of new writers will jump on the first idea they encounter. Infatuated by a novel concept — in both senses of the word — they either write into the dark or outline at speed and begin work on their first draft within the day. It isn’t until they’ve invested several days or weeks, however, that they wonder if the idea was any good in the first place. Did it really have legs or was it a fleeting anecdote, better suited as a short story? Now that the shine is gone, they can see the cracks and flaking paint. They’ve put in too much work to start afresh but hate their premise and feel the pull of a better one.

It’s worth noting that many authors use shiny object syndrome to procrastinate, abandoning a project when they’d be better off sticking with it. However, this concern is valid in some cases. Blinkered in their haste, some authors start fundamentally flawed books, peppered with shallow issues or serious plot-holes. Sometimes, this error results in an unsalvageable manuscript. But there is a way to avoid ending up in this situation: store ideas as they emerge and let them rest. Doing so deters shiny object syndrome if you’re already working on a strong book. But it also gives ideas time to lose their novelty, separating the fools’ gold from the treasure.

Track the Industry

Say you’ve filled your creative well, generated original ideas and let them rest, but you’re still undecided on which to choose because you want commercial success. How do you compare those ideas based on their earning potential? This isn’t an easy question to answer because a book’s success depends on hundreds of factors, including how you package, publish and market it. If you could gauge how much titles would earn based purely on the ideas inside them, publishers would always select winners from their slush piles. Alas, it isn’t possible to predict success accurately. That said, there are tools you can use to inform your idea-choosing process.

One such tool is Amazon. You can learn a lot about the relative selling potential for books in different genres by inspecting its top 100 subcategory book charts. Look at the top 10 titles on each chart page, for example, and you can typically gauge how well the high performers in each genre are selling, based on Kindle Store sales ranks. Alternatively, if you want a more comprehensive view, you could pay for a K-Lytics report. The company scrapes Amazon data and offers macro statistics which entrepreneurial authors can use to find underserved or growing audiences. Analysing the market might sound too commercial for some, but it can help you settle on fiction ideas that are more likely to deliver a good return on your investment.

Create Story Starters

There is one final idea-testing strategy that leads readers to prove which of your ideas they would purchase, without speculating or leaving anything to chance. Beware, though; it involves a lot of work and starts with you creating what Derek Murphy calls “story starters” in a 2016 article at the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Self-Publishing Advice blog. In the article, Murphy explains that the process kickstarted his business, stating:

“I published a bunch of story starters to see which was the most popular before committing to a full series. So now I know which writing projects will generate the most income […]. I’ll keep testing the market this way before I invest too much time in them.”

In essence, the idea is to write quickly and rapid release first-in-series books to test the market. In doing so, Murphy lets real readers vote on which series they want to read with their dollars, and only extends high-earning series.

This strategy can require lots of time, effort, and expense, particularly if you want to give early readers a world-class experience even while testing. But as long as you can keep up with the pace, you could create your own covers, forego a professional editor and publish on Wattpad, or a competitor, to run an initial test with minimal investment. Readers tend to be more forgiving of errors and amateur covers on sites like Wattpad. Therefore, it can provide a good testbed to compare real reader demand for ideas. Working to this playbook isn’t for everyone but it can be an excellent way to split-test ideas and fast-track your way to a winning fiction concept. As your reader community grows, you will gain access to more sounding boards off which you can bounce ideas, your email list being a prime one. Remember, though, that a winning idea in the market won’t necessarily be a winner in your head. Commercial success is fantastic, but you’ll only stick with your author business long enough to see some if you also enjoy want you write. Keep that in mind if you want a long-term publishing career.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.