Story ideas

Not every idea turns into a fully fledged novel. Some of them die after three chapters. Others sit in the ideas box, waiting for time to write. Still others sit in the ideas box waiting for another idea or character to click with before we can use it.

Ideas and characters are everywhere, but it takes a combination of things to decide to write a story about them, and other factors to decide to write that story now.

The third chapter death

I find that if you can’t write past the third chapter, you don’t want to tell this story, or at least you don’t want to tell it right now.

This often happens when one of us doesn’t like the idea.

It also happens on those rare occasions when we decide to write something for commercial reasons. Analogous to the “Everyone can write a romance novel, let’s do it.” We don’t quite do that, ours is more, “We read lots of mystery novels, why don’t we write a whodunnit? They’re shorter than a fantasy and we’re more likely to sell it.” Maybe one day we’ll do it, but I can tell you now that at the rate we’re going our whodunnit is also going to be a science fiction (RAINBOW) and it will likely run to well over 100,000 words.

Whilst you can keep up the enthusiasm for pretty much any story for a couple of chapters, I find that you usually know by the end of the third chapter whether or not you are prepared to live with the story for the next couple of years.

The ‘I want to write it now’ great idea

Ideas don’t wait until you get to the end of the current book. You might see something, overhear something, dream something. You can’t just say, “Hold on. I don’t want to know about you until the middle of next year. I’m writing a different novel right now.” You’d forget it.

We write the idea down, and add it to our list of story ideas. If it’s a truly persistent idea that comes fully visualised (a la SATISFACTION) we’ll write a rough version of the idea that’s demanding to be heard, and put that into our ideas box as well. We have the first ten or fifteen pages of a script for Satisfaction, plus lots of notes on who, what, why and how. It’s all handwritten in one of our writing notebooks, and it’s not going any further—and definitely won’t be typed up —until we get to it. Unless another part of the story demands to be told, of course, in which case we’ll write that down in our notebook as well.

We have a number of great story ideas where we have the start written down, plus some rough notes about where it is going. Stories we’d love to write, when we get the time.

Sometimes too, these demanding ideas are just procrastination. You hit a block in the story you are currently working on, and rather than fix the problem you come up with all these other stories you could write instead. There’s no easy way over that except to recognise the procrastination for what it is, and somehow, if you can, get back on track with the current story.

Just don’t let yourself start writing that second story properly though. You need discipline to write a novel. As soon as you start being lenient on yourself you make it harder to finish.

If you hit a slump half to three-quarters of the way through a novel (and we always do) , try at least to finish the draft before you throw it away. If you liked the story enough to get that far, you’ll probably find that once you get over the hump you’re able to continue with enthusiasm.

The really great idea that isn’t a story yet

You need more than one idea to make a story. These ideas seldom arrive all at the same time. You might start with an idea or a character, but he’s going nowhere without something happening to him.

The origins of BARRAIN, our on-line novel, are hazy now, but I do know that long before Scott arrived on the scene Jacob was there (only he wasn’t called Jacob then), watching Caid—a member of his own team—saying to his companion, “Such a pity we have to kill him.”

We have some great ideas tucked away in our ideas box. Right now that’s all they are. Ideas. A single idea is not enough to build a story on.

If you start writing these ideas too early the story peters out, and you have a third-chapter graveyard for what could have been a truly great story if you’d given it more time.


We go through the ideas once or twice a year. We dice an occasional one that was obviously a fad at the time, but most of them we put back into the box. (It’s a figurative box, not a real one. A pile of notebooks, and a directory on the PC.)

It surprises me occasionally, how enthusiastic I get just reading some of the ideas. I want to write about them.

It’s an interesting thing, though, that it’s never the ideas box that sparks the final decision to write a particular novel. The ideas are obviously there, and we choose one or more of them, but I don’t know what it is that makes us say, “This is the time to write this story.”

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