When I first started writing, I wrote the types of stories I loved to read–science fiction and fantasy–but it took a while for me to figure out the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. My early attempts were never the right stories, even though they fit with what I liked to read and watch.
In contrast, a good friend of mine knew she wanted to write, but had no idea what kind of book she wanted to write. She read multiple genres and was uncertain where to start, or what type of book fit her voice and style.
Another friend wrote what he loved to read, but never felt satisfied with any of those stories and never managed to finish one. The early excitement faded fast and left him looking for new and interesting plots.
Not knowing what to write (or being unsure if you’re writing the right book) can take on many forms, and most writers encounter it at least once in their careers. Perhaps you’re facing one of these situations now and feel frustrated because you don’t know what to do next. If so, try stepping back and taking a look at the kinds of stories you enjoy. This can often lead us to the types of stories we want to write.
1. What kinds of novels are you drawn to?
Odds are your favorite books have similar elements that might be good things to explore in your own work. You might discover you love books with dark, troubled characters, or stories about hope and redemption. Perhaps you’ll see the perfect detail or theme that will make that “not quite there” manuscript suddenly become the novel you always knew it could be.
Try This: Make a list of your favorite books. Add what you love most about those books.
2. What kinds of movies or TV shows are you drawn to?
If you love reading dark, moody novels about spies, but can’t get enough romantic comedy movies, then maybe it’s time to give writing a comedic romance novel a try. You could be more suited to write one of your more visual entertainment likes versus your literary likes.
Try This: Make a list of your favorite movies and TV shows. Add what you love most about them.
3. What similarities do you see? Is there a clear common genre or category?
If all of your favorite books and movies carry the same concepts, that’s a pretty good indication that those elements resonate with you. Perhaps it’s a genre or market, or type of plotline. If there are a lot of action-packed thrillers, you might be a natural thriller writer. If they all focus on underdogs overcoming great odds, try writing a novel about an underdog.
Try This: Make a list of the common genres or categories. Include subgenres or specific details.
4. What recurring story or themes do you see? Do these elements spark any ideas?
If you enjoy writing in multiple genres, but can’t seem to find the right story no matter which genre you try, perhaps the theme is holding you back. Try looking for recurring themes in your favorite books and movies, and see how you can apply those same themes to your work.
Try This: Make a list of the themes in your favorite works. Pay particular attention to which are character arc themes versus plot arc themes.
5. Is there a recurring type of character?
You might discover you enjoy writing about a particular type or person or character, especially if you’re a character-driver writer. If your favorites all include a fish out of water type, or a feisty yet lovable rogue, you might look at starting with that type of character and building from there.
Try This: Write down common traits in both the protagonist and the antagonist.
6. Are there recurring plots?
For the more plot-driver writer, if you’re drawn to mysteries you might be a mystery writer, or prefer an element of the mysterious in your stories. Or maybe it’s plots with lots of twists and turns or plots that put your characters in impossible situations.
Try This: Make a list of the types of plots you enjoy. Focus on the bigger picture concepts, not the details, such as revenge plots, or romance plots.
Don’t be afraid to mix and match as well. Maybe try your favorite type of plot with your favorite type of character and see where that takes you. Or toss in a recurring theme and add it all to your favorite genre for some inspiration. Feel free to take chances and mix the craziest ideas, because you never know where you’ll discover the perfect combination for the right story.
While you don’t want to copy a book or movie, analyzing what details you enjoy can spark ideas and help you pinpoint the type of stories you want to write.
What kind of stories do you like to tell? Or are you still searching?
Looking for more on planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that will help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.