How to Outline a Novel – Part II – The Story Idea

Last week, we’ve talked about finding your ideal reader. If you haven’t seen that article, you might want to check this before reading this one.

Where do I begin?

Writers often hear the question – Where do you get your story ideas?

My answer is – I think of a character and a goal. That’s the easiest way to get a story idea and you should do that at the beginning of every story-writing process.

Story idea should be the core of your story. If you can describe the book in a single sentence before you write it down, there is a pretty good chance that you’ve got yourself a story idea. 

What is a character?

A character is a person or humanized animal or a robot or any other conscious creature that is able to have conscious desires. In other words, a character is someone or something, usually a person, whose story we are going to tell. 

What is a goal?

A goal is something that this character wants and we are going to follow him on the journey to acquiring that thing. 

The goal can be outer and inner. If a character wants to blow up a bridge, that is an outer, tangible goal but if a character wants to be happy, that is a personal, inner goal.

Usually, the protagonists in novels have both, inner and outer goals. If they have only one, it is most definitely the outer one, but if they have both of them they intertwine. 

For example, a character wants to steal a diamond, but he hasn’t got any particular inner goal. Yes, getting a diamond would make him happy and rich, but he is not going to go through a significant dramatic change during the story. The inner goals are about psychological change. Both, inner and outer changes, are called character arches.

Let’s see some examples.  What are the story ideas behind the following novels:

  1. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway –  A dynamiter is assigned to blow up a bridge during an attack on the city of Segovia.
  2. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – A Little Boy leaves the asteroid B612 in pursuit of happiness. 
  3. The Shining by Steven King – A desperate writer is hoping to cure his writer’s block while taking care of an isolated Overlook Hotel in Colorado. 
  4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – A socially awkward young boy dreams of becoming a Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and finding a true love. 
  5. Bloody Green by Ivan Bacic  – An autistic colorblind painter is trying to recover from his childhood trauma. 

The conflict is not pointed out

If you take a closer look at these examples, these are very basic, simple ideas but they capture the whole story.

You might also notice that conflict is not introduced in any of these examples. That’s because you don’t need it there. Conflict is something that comes in-between; something that is tripping over your character on her path of reaching her desire.

The conflict can be assumed

In some of the examples, the conflict can be assumed

  • in King’s novel, the conflict is the battle between the writer and the creative block.
  • In Hemingway’s novel, you might assume that there is a party which doesn’t want the bridge to be blown.
  • In the other three examples, you are not able to guess what kind of obstacles are at the characters’ journeys towards their goals, but you know that the things which they desire are not going to be an easy ride and therefore, you are eager to find out more about them. The reason for conflict not being obvious in these examples is pure because these characters are more oriented towards inner goals where conflict usually lies inside the character and in order to find out about the conflict we need to learn how does the character tic and it takes a whole lot more than a single sentence to find out more about that.

Names are not important at the beginning

Another common thing in examples above is that no character names are introduced; except, of course. in the Junot Díaz’s novel where the name is a part of the title. 

  • In Hemingway’s novel, the character is described as a dynamiter.
  • In Exupéry’s novel, the character is just a little boy, and he remains like that through the entire novel.
  • In King’s novel, the character is a desperate writer with a creative block.
  • In Díaz’s novel, the character is a young boy.
  • In my novel, the character is a painter.

We can learn a lot about characters just from their desires which are depicted in a single sentence and by single character traits like profession or personality type.


Before you start writing your novel, you want to be sure that you have the right idea. You don’t want to be stuck in a single project for a long period of time if you are not sure that you have the right idea.

What I would suggest is to take a week and create as many story ideas based on a single character and a singe desire as you can. At the end of the week, pick the best one and start developing it. I will show you how to do it in the next article.