• S.M. Ryan

How to Pick Your Next Story Idea

When you have too many ideas and just don't know where to start -- here's how you can narrow it down.

When you have a lot of unfinished projects waiting for your return or a long list of ideas you want to work on, it can be hard to know which project to pick first.


As someone with a graveyard full of unfinished stories and ideas -- I'm no stranger to the concept.


For some writers, it's easy to decide which idea to tap back into first but for most of us, it's a little harder, and the longer the list the more options we have to sort through. As a pantser -- wild child writing without a preset outline - I know first hand that it's not always easy to know where to dive back in with a story because we're usually referring back to a vague idea or a semi-planned out story.


So I've learned to come up with a system to help me narrow it down and pick which writing projects to focus on first.


I do suggest grabbing your ideas, a drink of whatever makes you happy, and some uninterrupted time to dedicate to figuring it out.


Dig into your idea pile

Or take some time generating your list of ideas if you haven’t already.


Personally, I tend to note my ideas as they come either on paper, in a new document, or even just in the notes app on my phone. It’s not a very cohesive system but when it comes time to pick the next story idea, I gather all of those ideas into one place to make it easier to go over.


If you’re like me and have stories you have started and abandoned and want to get back into, take some time to re-read what you’ve written and write a quick summary of what's already there so it’s easier to add to your list of ideas.


Having all of your ideas laid out in one place can help you not only see how many ideas you have but how much you’ve gotten down for each idea.


I like to work from the most detailed ideas down to the ones with the least amount of detail but sort through your list in whatever way makes the most sense for you.



What kind of story do you want to write?

Do you want to write a full-length novel, novella, short story, or flash fiction? Do you want to write a book of short stories or a series?


In truth, not every idea can be stretched into a full-length novel and some ideas may just be better suited for a short story collection. That’s perfectly okay, we’re writers, we aren’t limited to one or the other. Knowing what kind of story you want to write can help you narrow down that long list of story ideas which will help you in the decision making process.


It’s also important to consider what genre you want to write because each genre does have it’s suggested word count that readers expect. Knowing what kind of story you want to tell and what the expected word count is for that genre will help you narrow down which ideas would suit the genre and story length you want to write.


Writing takes a lot of time and energy.

Choosing between a short story and a full-length novel or series will also be determining your writing timeline and how soon you may be putting your next story out into the world.


Which idea do you want to most spend that time and energy on?



Tap into Your Writing Voice

The best part of sitting down to work on a story idea is how excited you are to work on the idea.


While you can easily pick an idea that you think is on-trend and will be an easy sell, it may be harder to finish if there is a story idea you’re more excited about that keeps whispering in the back of your mind and interrupting your workflow.


When you’re picking your next story idea, it’s just as important that you’re as excited to write the story as you want your readers to be excited about reading the story. That excitement behind a story idea can be the key to helping you get through the process from start to finish.


Chances are if you choose to write a story idea you aren’t 100% excited to write, it will translate in the final product and to your readers. Plus, a finished story idea you weren’t excited to write means dragging yourself through it which also means and you’ll be less excited to dive back into it come editing time.


Picking an idea you’re excited about keeps it from becoming a story that ends up in your graveyard of unfinished and abandoned works.


One way I like to do this to give myself some room and time to play with the ideas that are standing out to me the most.


Play with your ideas

Often I think we as writers fall into this space with our writing where we just want to pick a story and get it out and get it to readers completely forgetting that every single thing we write doesn't have to be for public consumption and we forget that no one is going to see the process, just the final product.


It’s okay to play with our ideas to figure out which one should come first.


For me, I like to narrow down the ideas I'm most excited about as much as possible and then give myself room to expand on them and ask myself questions about each one until I’ve got myself down to the one idea that’s up next.


Sometimes, this looks like writing a quick synopsis or summary of the big picture story elements and if I can name all those big picture elements then that story idea stands a fighting chance at making it. If I can only name a few things here and there and don’t feel like I’d be able to bridge the big gaps in the writing process easily, then I’m okay leaving the story idea to marinate in the back of my mind for a bit longer.


Sometimes, I just set a timer and free-write on the idea and see how far I can make it and then go back and determine if it’s something I can expand into the kind of story I want to write at the time.


Brain dumping within each of your story ideas is great for determining not only how much of the idea you have to work with but it can help you figure out how excited you are —or aren’t — about the idea overall.



Know What You Need to Know

Overall, it’s important to know how much of your story idea you need before you can move forward with it.


If you’re|a planner and you need an outline, start working on outlines for the ideas that stand out to you most, or make you most excited and see how far you get. Remember to be okay with outlining a story and then being more excited to write the story idea you didn’t bother to outline at all.


If you’re a pantser like me, know what you need from each story to be able to expand it from idea to whatever kind of story it is you’re working on and see how well you can set yourself up to write that story. If you end up writing a short story based on an entirely different idea instead of the novel-length one you thought you wanted, it’s okay.



As always, do whatever works for you when you’re picking your story idea and ditch whatever writing advice doesn’t apply.


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©2020 by S.M. Ryan The Writer | Armed With Ink Publishing