No Matter the Genre, Many Great Books Start With a One Sentence Idea
The kernel idea is the Alpha and the Omega of many books. By that I mean a single idea starts the author’s creative process and it completes it. It’s what the author begins with and at the end of the manuscript, everything in the book points toward it.
The kernel idea is the foundation of my novels. When I say idea, I don’t necessarily mean the theme, although it can be. Or the most important incident, although it can be. But it can also be a setting. It can be a scene. It can be a character.
It is simply the first idea I had that was the seed of the novel. All else can change, but the idea can’t. It might be a place; a person; an event; a moral; whatever. But I did have it before I began writing and I have to remember it as I write. I have to be able to tell my idea in one sentence. And repeat it to myself every morning when I wake up and prior to writing. Knowing it keeps me on track.
Every new book I begin, I write out this one sentence on a word document as the very first writing I do. I print it out and put it where I can constantly see it.
Idea is not story. Because every idea has been done, but every story hasn’t. The kernel idea is the one thing in my manuscript that cannot change.
One of my latest books: The Green Berets: Chasing the Lost. For that book, I focused on a theme: What if blind loyalty turns out to be a very bad thing?
The second book in the series (and the first book I ever wrote), The Green Berets: Dragon Sim-13 had a rather simple original idea; an action: What if Special Forces soldiers had to destroy an enemy pipeline? That’s it. Not very elaborate, you say. True. Not exactly a great moral theme. Right. But with that original idea there was a lot I could do and eventually had to do. I had to change the target country after the first draft. But that was all right because I still had the idea. I had to change characters, but that was fine too, because it didn’t change my idea. I had to change the reason why they were attacking a pipeline, but again, the original idea was the same.
I have plenty of latitude for story after I come up with my kernel idea; in fact, I sometimes find the finished manuscript turns out to be different from what I had originally envisioned, but one thing is always true: that kernel idea is still there at the end as the Omega.
For my first kernel idea, I made it as simple as possible to enable me to focus on the writing because when I was in the Special Forces my A-Team had run a similar mission on a pipeline. Since I had a good idea what would happen in the story, I could concentrate on the actual writing of the novel.
I’ve sat in graduate literature classes and heard students say: “The author had to have a moral point in mind when they wrote that book.” I agree, but sometimes it is not at the forefront of the story. Many authors write simply to tell a story started by that kernel idea, which indeed might be a moral point, but sometimes is a story that they wanted to tell and the theme developed subsequently.
A moral or theme (screenwriters call it intent) always does appear in a book by the time it’s done. No matter what conscious expectations or thoughts an author has when they start writing, a lot more appears in the manuscript than they consciously anticipated.
After I have that kernel idea, I spend a lot of time wrestling with it and consciously uncover my feelings and thoughts about it. I try to look at my main characters and determine what will happen to them emotionally, physically and spiritually as they go through the story. Who are they at the beginning of the story and who are they at the end?
The reason it is important to have a theme in mind is because people want to care about what they read and the characters. If there is some moral or emotional relevance to the story they read, they will become more involved in the story and enjoy it more. Even if the reader doesn’t consciously see it either.
Let me give you more examples of ideas I’ve used and gotten published:
What if the force that destroyed Atlantis ten thousand years ago comes back and threatens our world? Atlantis series of books.
What if mankind didn’t originate the way we think we did? Area 51 series.
What if Japan succeeded in its atomic bomb program at the very end of World War II and one of those bombs was hidden at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge? Black Ops: The Gate
Another way to try to figure out what the core of a novel is this: What is the climactic scene? This is when the protagonist and antagonist meet to resolve the primary problem that is the crux of the novel. This is what the entire book is driving towards.
Where’s the shiver?
What excited you so much that you decided to sit in the dark and write 100,00 words. That’s not normal, in case no one’s told you. What excites people I talk to about my book? I know I’m on target with an idea if others pick up my excitement when I discuss it.
Remember, as a writer, you are selling emotion and logic. And Kirk always trumps Spock.
A key to selling a book is being able to communicate this shiver to other people. To get them as excited as the authors was when they first began writing.