Testing a Novel or Short Story Idea

How to See if Your Idea Will Work

Writers spend a lot of time alone, and because of this, there is always the danger of losing perspective. It is always a good idea to "check in" with your peers, attend a writing workshop or retreat, or even join a writing community online. However, be sure that you are choosing the "right" readers for you. This means doing your research, reading their work, and understanding their sensibilities. Make sure their critiques and responses make "sense" to you, that their writing also speaks to you, and that their insights into your work do not inhibit, but inspire you.

Don't feel badly about not taking certain opinions into account. So often I have heard from my students that they feel overwhelmed by all of the different responses from their peers. The trick is to tune out the responses that do not pertain to you, and to recognize when that is. Just because someone has a strong opinion does not mean they are correct; just because someone is a good writer does not mean they understand what your story needs. There are many voices in a room of writers looking at a piece, but only the people who you feel understand YOUR story, and who have similar obsessions and passions to you; only the people whose critiques of others make sense to you, should be listened to. This is an important lesson to learn before making revisions or edits. In the end, you need to trust your own instincts and be able to differentiate between good and bad advice.

Try an Experiment

Robert McKee, in his book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting,has this tip for testing out a new plot.

Next time you meet up with your reader, ask him or her if you can tell them your new story idea. Halfway through, make an excuse to leave the table. When you come back, start talking about something else, as though you've forgotten all about the story. If your friend interrupts to ask you to finish, you know you have a winner.

If your friend instead seems relieved, definitely think twice about your story idea.

This strategy is especially important for novelists, who can spend several years on a single novel, but it can be effective with stories, too.

For more tips on the subject especially for novelists, see "Is Your Idea Novel-Worthy?". And for more on what we can learn from screenwriters, see this exercise on back story.