Ask an Editor: Story Seeds

Let’s start with the standard disclaimer: I am not a writer. I am an editor, a reader, and I only write when I have NO other choice. However, I spend a lot of my time talking to a lot of different authors. And, in general, when asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” they fall into three different categories:

• Character creators: A character pops into their head and they write the book by following the character around. A famous example of this is J.K. Rowling, and her story about being on the train one day and basically seeing Harry Potter walk down the aisle.


• World builders: These are authors who find a time or place or some element of world building – like a system of magic – and go, “Ooh! I want to play with that!” Brandon Sanderson has talked several times about how he always figures out his magic systems first.


• Plotters: These are the people who go, “What if?” They start with the hook and build the book from there. Our own A Little Something Different is an example of this. What if we just had a traditional college love story, but what if it was told from the viewpoints of everyone around the main characters? Sandy Hall actually asked a teenage friend what book she wanted to read, and built her story from there.

So now you have your story seed, whether it’s a character, a world, or a good “What if?” question, and you’ve written down everything you know about it. What happens next?

For character creators, you look at your character and think about their wants and their goals, and try to figure out what sort of world they would have the most impact on. (Because your character has to be able to impact the world in some way if they’re going to hold up a whole novel.) If all you know is your character, then explore your character. What do they wear? Who are the people they surround themselves with? What’s their community like? Who is their best friend? Worst enemy? Beloved mentor? So on and so forth.

Looking at that cast of characters, figure out what kind of world or scenario they can have the most impact on. Then, when you have your world and your characters, figure out what the worst possible thing to have happen to these characters could be, and think about doing that. Well, maybe not the worst possible thing… But still. Terrible things need to happen. That’s where stories come from.

If you’re a world builder, the kind of author who fell in love with Regency England, has blueprints of a steampunk airship, or has a deep understanding of the political systems of a new alien planet, then your challenge is different. Despite the number of books where the heroes are saving the world, you can’t really write a novel about a whole entire world. Especially not a romance novel.

What you need to do is narrow things down. Look at your world. What part of it are you most interested in? Are you interested in high society? Politics? The criminal underclass? The military? The local wizards’ academy? Decide what part of the world you want to explore, and figure out all the rules that apply to that part of the world. Who lives there? What are their lives like? And what will throw that world into complete and utter turmoil? Once you’re in turmoil, how do you fix it? (And since we’re Swoon Reads, can you fall in love while you do it?) That’s your story.

Then you have the plotters. You’ve come up with a great concept or a really cool situation. But it’s not enough to have a great hook, you have to follow through with it. For you, you should probably start asking questions. For example, if your great idea is, “What if everyone in the world could talk to animals?” The next question should be something like, “What would it be like if one person couldn’t?”

The thing about a “what if” is that one “what if” isn’t enough. The story comes from the conflict between two or more questions. And you’re not limited to two. Every “what if” leads to another “what if.” Before long, as you answer all these questions, you will start to get a better idea of your world and/or the main characters. Then you can refer to the suggestions above to flesh things out!

And remember, no matter what your story seed is, there’s no one way to develop it. Every author and every idea is different. But, if you have a great idea, and you’re just a little stuck as to where to go from now, I hope that starting with what you know and working your way out can be helpful.

Where do your stories start from?

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

See More