Two Questions That Transform Your Meh Fiction Idea To One Readers Rush To Buy

Most story ideas, even the coolest of them, are just ideas.

Here’s an idea I grabbed off a random plot generator I found online:

An action thriller set in New York in the 1980s about a dying cop with a secret, trying to do a heist.

Now there’s some intriguing ideas in this one.  More than one.  It’s not just a cop, it’s a dying cop.  And he’s going to break a lifetime of law enforcement habit and commit a crime of his own.  Already the questions are circling:  Why would he think he has to do this?

The 1980s setting is sorta interesting (all that hair and Lycra!) and means that super-advanced high tech detection and crime prevention won’t be a factor (no DNA records, manual fingerprint comparisons, analogue filing systems where things get lost, rampant gender and racial prejudice).

The vast difference between ideas and concepts.

But this is not a concept. 

For a start, there’s no conflict.  A concept has three essential elements:

  1. A character,
  2. In a setting,
  3. With a problem

Our dying cop has no problem.  Yes, he’s dying, but that’s not a story problem.  Not yet, and not unless you decide to make it the major source of conflict in the story.

But there’s a danger, there. By making the cop’s terminal illness the central problem, you’re taking away all external conflict.  Why make him a cop at all?  Most story cops’ problems are other people.  And this is supposed to be an action thriller, remember.

Here’s another example:

A beautiful southern belle experiences the Civil War and its aftermath.

It’s an idea. It’s even somewhat intriguing.  There’s a person in a setting, and there’s an implied conflict (the war). 

However, the person is not yet a character.  She’s a trope, a placeholder.  She has no character, no flaw, nothing that could be developed into a character arc.

Also, she can only feel the effects of the war from a distance, unless we mess significantly with historical fact.

She needs a problem, and she needs…well, character.

As a fully developed concept:

A wilful, selfish but beautiful southern belle can use her charms to get anything she wants, including avoiding the worst effects of the Civil War and its aftermath, but she cannot win the heart of the man she thinks she loves.

  • We have a character (wilful, selfish, charming),
  • In a setting (the Confederate south during the Civil War),
  • With a problem (she can’t get what she really wants).

There is a lot more conflict, many more storylines, multiple hundreds of thousands of words and dozens of characters that drive Scarlett O’Hara’s development from self-absorbed beauty to the woman who finally learns how to truly love another human being, but this concept is the core engine driving Gone With The Wind.

Two questions that will develop your idea into a compelling concept.

Back to the original idea:

An action thriller set in New York in the 1980s about a dying cop with a secret, trying to do a heist.

So where do you go from here?  This is cool idea with lots of promise, that is not yet a concept.  Laid out flat for the reader like this, the idea will make them shrug and mutter “who cares?” as they move onto the next book.  There are too many NY cop action thrillers out there, and all of them are more compelling than this, even if the cop hero is dying.

There are two questions you can ask yourself that will build any idea into a fully rounded, highly compelling concept that will have readers scrolling up for the buy button.

Question One:  What’s the worst that could happen to this person/these people?

This idea already has a person in it, our dying cop.    Some ideas don’t have even that much. 

The Scottish Highlands shortly before the Battle of Culloden.

Deep space on a long-haul interstellar freighter.

Neither of these ideas has a hint of a character in it.  For ideas like this, you need to move onto question two, and start your concept development there.

Your idea could also be all about a person, with no setting or problem in sight:

A brilliant young figure skater with Olympic ambitions.

A boy who can see the future.

This first question will help build these very basic ideas into full concepts.  As you ask the question, the setting and the story problem will suggest themselves.

Let’s not forget our dying cop.  He happens to already have a setting, but this question works even if he doesn’t.  Yet the story problem needs to be developed.

What is the worst thing that could happen to our dying cop (short of actually, you know, dying)?

  • The heist he tries to commit goes horribly wrong
  • The heist he commits is executed flawlessly and now crime lords are insisting he work for them.
  • Yet-to-be-determined factors mean he can’t schedule the heist until after his terminal date.
  • His grown daughter is an ADA and learns of his plans.
  • A vicious drug king learns of his plans and holds him and his team captive until they pull off the heist and hand over all the money.
  • An anonymous antagonist uses the cop’s heist plans to extort him into assassinating a government official or the President.

These are all possibilities.  Depending on what genre you’re writing, some choices will be better than others.   

Note that the question isn’t about what might happen in this situation.  It’s “What is the worst that could happen?”  If you keep reaching for the worst, then you’re building a compelling concept with every step.

Question Two:  Who would suffer most in this situation?

This is the question you ask when your idea doesn’t have a character.  It might have a person, but there’s no potential character arc in the idea:

The Scottish Highlands shortly before the Battle of Culloden.

Deep space on a long-haul interstellar freighter.

Who would suffer most in either of those situations?

  • An English girl in love with a highlander
    • Better:  The daughter of an English Army officer, in love with a highlander.
  • An apprentice ship mechanic woken from cryosleep.
    • Better:  an extrovert apprentice mechanic who has failed at three different careers so far, and now has zero confidence in himself.

Both play upon the situation.  The question isn’t “who would find situation uncomfortable?”  It’s “who would suffer most in this situation?”  They don’t just suffer, their core characteristics mean they’ll suffer the most.

In our working example, we already have a person; our dying cop.  We’ve played around with ideas that would make the situation really bad for him.  Now, even though we have a person already, we need to dig deep and determine why his character makes him the worst person to be in this situation:

  • He has a spotless record that will be ruined if he’s caught.
  • His adult daughter’s career will implode if he’s caught.
  • He feels like his spotless career means nothing to no one and his life has been wasted.  He’s angry.

I could keep going, dreaming up ever more interesting ideas, but you get the point.

Keep asking the questions.

Once you have an interesting answer to one of the questions, take that element back to the other questions, and fill out your story concept.

For example, we have a character: The daughter of an English Army officer, in love with a highlander.  Take her back to the setting: the highlands just before the Battle of Culloden, and ask the first question; what would be the worst thing that could happen to this character?

  • Her highland lover dies.
  • She learns she is pregnant with the highlander’s child just as he leaves for war.
  • Her highland lover is caught selling secrets to the English.
    • Or the French.
  • She learns her father is conspiring to murder most of the highland officers on the eve of war.

And so on.

Now that we know the cop’s character (he’s angry because his life has been wasted), we can go back to the story problem and expand on whatever problem we chose. 

I like the drug lord scenario:

A vicious drug king learns of his plans and holds him and his team captive until they pull off the heist and hand over all the money.

And now we have a character for our dying cop:  He’s angry because his life has been wasted.

Put them together, with the three elements of a compelling concept:

In 1980s New York, an angry, dying cop who feels his life has been wasted, is forced by a vicious drug lord to execute for real a daring heist plan the hero developed for fun, using his law enforcement skills.

Now you have a story concept, and it’s compelling enough that readers who love action adventure yarns about cops will want to know how the story plays out badly enough to buy your book.

Don’t settle for the first answer you get.

You’ll have noticed that when I was coming up with answers to the two questions, I didn’t just reach for one answer.  I kept asking the question and coming up with more and more answers. 

This is a deliberate technique that helps you develop original and unique concepts.  The first answers you write down will always be banal, cliched and boring.  (Mine certainly were!) 

The next few will be derivative—cobbled together from stories you’ve consumed lately.  You have to keep reaching. The rule of thumb is that you need about five answers before you come up with original ideas.

Don’t settle for quick answers. Your concept will suffer if you do.  So will your sales.

Write More, Faster Than Ever Before

Are You Prolific?

The Productive Indie Fiction Writer Workbook now available for pre-order!

Scroll to Top