Generating Ideas for Writing — Novels

What’s the difference between writing a short story and a novel? The size. Does that mean we should take a different approach? Maybe.

There are two main approaches to writing a story. On one hand you can just start, just take a situation and begin. A great example of this is Stephen King, he talks about how he does this in his wonderful book on writing, On Writing. A person that flies by the seat of their pants is usually called a pantser.

Opposed to the pantser is the plotter/mapper/planner approach. James Patterson is known for this approach (and working with co-authors). I have seen the plan for one of his books before it was filled out. He writes a paragraph describing each chapter (he has lots of short chapters). I am not sure exactly where he starts and what the process is to reach this point.

When Stephen King starts writing he is not sure what he is going to end up with. Sometimes he ends up with a short story, sometimes a novel. When James Patterson’s co-author starts writing they know almost exactly what they are going to end up with. Either plan seems like it could work to me, and obviously both do.

I think there are two basic ways that someone could arrive at an outline like Patterson. One is to pantser the outline. To just start, move fast, and paint the story in broad strokes. The other is to start with the larger plot turns and then keep adding in more and more details, filling the story from the middle or the end out.

I think the majority of writers use some of both, a general idea of where the story is going combined with the excitement (excruciating struggle) of getting it there. I understand and like building up a premise. Let’s see if I can start with a very general plot outline and add to it.

It is going poorly for this guy, then it seems like it is going well, then it goes even worse.

This is going to be a tragedy. What do we need to add next? Maybe a setting or a theme to add some context.

A man is struggling to scrape a living out of the dirt on his farm, alone. On a trip to get some supplies he meets a beautiful woman who is also interested in leaving the city and becoming closer to nature and the land. That night when he arrives home someone has followed him. This man says that the woman is his and sets the barn on fire. When the farmer rushes to the barn to try to save his animals he sees his house start on fire. As the farmer is running towards the house the man from the city hits him in the head with a stick dropping him in his beloved dirt.

That went better than I thought it was going to. Let’s compare that to an idea that I pantsed yesterday.

A dragon defends its nest against a group of people who are seeking shelter in a winter storm. They are traveling through a mountain pass to reach their new home in the grasslands on the other side. They decided to travel in the early spring because of the financial hardship they have been facing. They need a new start. The strong heads of the family, Nathan and Elizabeth, wanted a better life for their son Jackson, but they failed him. Now they have promised him that they will do anything to make sure that his three-year-old daughter Susan does have that better life. Susan’s mother, Martha, is strong willed and initially resisted the move away from her family, but now she is the most enthusiastic because she is pregnant again and doesn’t want to relive the life of her parents. They were attempting to travel light and fast, Nathan had been a scout in the military. With a young child and a pregnant woman they desperately need shelter for the night. As they push further back into the cave to get away from the wind they find they are not alone. To venture out into the storm is to freeze to death, to stay is to risk an encounter with the unknown.

I like both, but I am a lot more confident that the first one is going to be resolved. I don’t know how the second one is going to resolve, and that could be a little scary in the actual writing, a little fear of the uncertainty. Let’s compare one more that I pantsed a few days ago.

A man wants to get milk because his child, who is nursing, is starving because the mother has died. An experienced adventuring power couple they decided to document their trip to inspire families with young children to be more active. While on a mountain in (Columbia or Venezuela) they had a violent encounter with a (drug cartel or starving splinter group or gang). His wife activated her emergency beacon, but the rest of their communication equipment lies with her where she fell two days ago. He and the baby are on the edge of a local ranch, but who controls the ranch? Is it a place that will help? Maybe he should steal some supplies?

This is an interesting comparison. I am not sure exactly which method I like more. Maybe I can combine them, mesh them together in some way. Maybe I will try that next time. You are welcome to join me in the journey at