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.

Coming 7 May 2013

Coming 7 May 2013

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.

TNDragonSimNew(3)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.

About Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He's had over 60 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs, at Write on the River, TN.

Posted on April 15, 2013, in Write It forward and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 90 Comments.

  1. Contained within the books we love most readers will find the premise & the content of this blog posting – thank you, Bob – really appreciate your insights. LT

  2. Thanks– I go into more detail on all of this in The Novel Writers Toolkit. The idea is also what I start my Write on the River workshops with– we spend a long time simply writing one sentence.

  3. Great post, Bob — polishing one’s kernel will teach every writer how to write really effective blurbs and pitches. It’s never wasted energy. Grab a cloth and get to rubbing — or paring, or slicing, or sanding…

  4. I remember sitting in a small room with about 5 other writers and Bob working on the Kernel Idea. I wrote on the white board (with permanent marker, Bob was not pleased) my idea and then we spent half the morning just on that one idea. After a bit, someone said something and the whole room went, ahhhh.. that’s shiver. Need to finish that story. It’s a great idea.

    • Jen — love your illustration — I can feel it from here, but it kind of creeps me out, too as it harkens back to my days of servitude to focus groups. Whiteboards! Ughhhhh…

  5. Well, the Idea, Conflict Box etc. workshop will be starting up again later this year at Write On the River

  6. Hi Bob, I am reading “Hooked” by Les Edgerton and he talks about the idea too and the impotance of the first sentence of a book. It is easy to digress when writing as we the writers don’t know were the writing will take us. That for me is part of the excitement but I think we need to write that first idea down, as you say so we do what we set out to do.

  7. As always, a great thoughtful read, Bob. I tweeted it a minute ago. I do find your concepts useful with my writing, and I like the idea of nailing a story in one sentence right from the get-go.

  8. Great post. Yes, that main idea is what keeps you writing and evolving a story. It helps prevent writers block too, because you can always go back to your original thought for a spark.

  9. Great stuff here! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Great tip; this notion of the “kernel idea” it seems to reflect the core of the story and the climactic moment and helps to clarify those things as you are working on the story. Thanks, I will use it.

    • For some of us though, the idea isn’t that succinct. At least not a first. Sometimes, the idea can be kind of vaporous and still have enough power to propel us through a first draft. THEN, after the writing, the kernel starts to form and harden into actual questions I can pose myself as I’m working. I suppose that’s why my own work goes through so many re-writes. Is that wrong?

  11. That’s not wrong, Richard. I know many authors who work that way. However, I also think the idea is there from the start, but it’s a case of unearthing it from the subconscious. The first draft is that unearthing.

    • Exactly! If, like me, you enjoy pummeling yourself, what better way to work could there be than doing it all several times?

      • It is pummeling lol, but you know what? It just may be one of the ways that reaps the best rewards. I’ve found that after I’ve done many, many, many, drafts, I begin to become less precious about the writing, more honest and more allowing of happy accidents that weave a level of reality I can’t manufacture.

        And I suggest I’m not that unique. :) I dunno… what am I talking about?

  12. Yes! I love this concept of a kernel idea. I have been trying to write a novel for a few years now and I am pretty sure I have changed everything but this one scene multiple times. Glad to know I ‘m not the only one.

  13. The best advice or ideas often come from the simplest concepts. One sentence. That’s it. I love it! We can get bogged down so much in ideas and getting as much as we can on a page, that sometimes it’s good to just throw one strong sentence out there and see how it holds up. Thanks for a useful and insightful post! I’m going to give it a shot.

  14. I’ve had similar experiences. The novel I’m working on now began with the idea, “What’s the worst experience I can make a character go through and then have them grow?” In class one time, a friend pointed out that if D-Day had gone differently, the Russians may have spread communism all across Europe. That was the basis for a series of books I have planned. You never know what one sentence or phrase will lead to.

  15. Great. Gives you that one sentence to tell all your old mates when they ask ‘What’s your book about?’ I’m gonna need about 4 or 5 different versions of this for different people.

  16. Reblogged this on Replaygiarism and commented:
    I love the kernel in a sentence idea and will definitely be trying it with my writing.

  17. Thank you for this! As I sit trying to figure out how to start the story I want to write, I am going to spend my writing time tomorrow coming up with my one-sentence kernel idea that WILL NOT CHANGE and go from there.

  18. This is so helpful! Thanks a ton!

  19. Nice insight actually, The idea remains the same even though the other elements change, point of writing it remains the same but the way of unfolding it may change, quite a good thought if someone wants to start writing a book, focus on the idea and everything else ll come to you when you dig deeper into it. :) Good post (y)

  20. Very insightful article. I think I’ve been using the kernel idea throughout my work without knowing ^_^
    And as other said before me, for me it wasn’t at the beginning of the writing. It was more od a discovery journey. It is still a discovery journey and this is what keeps me so exited about it.

  21. Ah, so is this another name for the “What if” question? I’ve often heard about that technique and keep forgetting about it! I think that one question can help with your creativity!

    Great post, and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  22. Reblogged this on girlwithravenwings and commented:
    This is really great.

  23. Thanks for this. I just write short(ish) posts about what annoys me, I wasn’t aware of a sentence, more an idea or theme. But, like you say; “it may be subconscious”.

  24. Awesome. As I am considering writing a book, this is a great lesson for me. Thanks for sharing.

  25. That’s the way most of my stories start too. I see the whole story when it pops in my head and I write down a few words to capture the idea.

  26. Hm…I always have trouble summing up my books, because I’m kind of a long-winded person, even if my long winds can still be interesting should my listener have the time and/or patience to hear me out to the end. I think my kernels tend to, therefore, be run-on sentences.

    No…if I work at run-ons, I can par them down to something manageable. I think where I have trouble is when I’m using multiple kernels. Making a hybrid plant. I think the story I’m working on now is not a hybrid; I had a character I met, and I wanted to make a story, just for him. It’s funny because the story was in third person, is now in first person, and the narrator is NOT that kernel character, although he is still a main character.

    You’ve given me food for thought. What are my kernels? Do I really only have one? How can discerning what they are help me write better? Hm…

  27. Thank you for this insight into your world of writing. I can see what you’re saying about holding true the kernel idea to the end. I think it’s similar to marketing a product – keeping the Unique Selling Proposition from start to end. Good to hear from you.

  28. Though I did not know about ‘kernel’, I have been basing my story ‘Colors’ on a central idea. “The most powerful hero ever” is my kernel. This is related to the character. But I have another one, a scene.

    Hero kicks a villain and he breaks through a bullet-proof glass-window at the top-most floor of a building and ends up in a trashcan 200 meters away. Sounds crazy, but possible. I wanted to write a story and I loved this scene so wanted to include this in that. But how do I? So, I started framing the story around this scene.

    Why did he kick? How could he kick that hard? Why didn’t the man escape? Who are they? And these questions gave the story a head, tail and a middle-piece (No, I’m not talking about sperm-cells here) to my story.

    Thanks! Your article was helpful, at least in knowing that my way of coming up with stories isn’t weird. But I tend to rewrite the story a lot of times when using this method.

  29. Reblogged this on Lucifer Miles and commented:
    Though I did not know about ‘kernel’, I have been basing my story ‘Colors’ on a central idea. “The most powerful hero ever” is my kernel. This is related to the character. But I have another one, a scene.

    Hero kicks a villain and he breaks through a bullet-proof glass-window at the top-most floor of a building and ends up in a trashcan 200 meters away. Sounds crazy, but possible. I wanted to write a story and I loved this scene so wanted to include this in that. But how do I? So, I started framing the story around this scene.

    Why did he kick? How could he kick that hard? Why didn’t the man escape? Who are they? And these questions gave the story a head, tail and a middle-piece (No, I’m not talking about sperm-cells here) to my story. But I tend to rewrite the story a lot of times when using this method.

  30. So could this be considered an effective way of querying a novel?

  31. Thanks Bob for the post. As an aspiring author it gives me heads up as to what to do. Thanks once again.

  32. Is it true for most authors? I really never thought it that way.

    • Every author is different. Some have no clue and write themselves into idea. But I think the more you consciously know your idea, the more options you have with story.

  33. As a new author this served me well; especially when you said “as a writer, you are selling emotion and logic; and Kirk always trumps Spock.”

  34. That’s an interesting way of writing, Bob. Do you find you are full of these one sentence ideas and all you need is more time to develop them?

  35. This is a great post.
    As had been said by several other readers. I love that you share so much of your process here. It is a major assist for those of us just beginning a novel or size able work.

  36. Reblogged this on Strike A Spark and commented:
    Bob Mayer makes an excellent point here, that the kernel idea can be super-simple and still be effective. Many authors (myself included) try to make it too complex, with the result that changes are more difficult than they should be. I’m going to try distilling some of my existing stories down into a simple one-sentence idea, and maybe that will help me break out of the block I’m in.

  37. Yeah I agree. A bad writer with a good idea can still make a novel somewhat interesting, whereas a good writer with a bad idea probably isn’t going anywhere with his novel.

  38. gotcha. As I plod through my doctoral dissertation (qualitative case study) what you describe is/are my research question(s). Beyond the core research question, those that follow simply ornament/groom the tree.

  39. I always remember the first line of 1984, “The clock struck thirteen.”

  40. Reblogged this on koneoguns and commented:
    read kernel books here books here, as we have known that he his the alpha and omega of books, all kind of story you want

  41. I like your writing process. The same might be said of art. It starts with a single mark and expands from there. It allows you to be very present to the story (or illustration) and it unfolds very naturally.

  42. I like the idea of writing down that core idea every time you write. Thanks for that, I’m gonna use it!

  43. Excellent post here. I’ve become a troll on it because it excited me so much. Just wanted to see what others were saying. This idea of the kernel reminds me of a log-line. It feels like the same concept, but why did I discover it after seven years of writing? I would map out the characters, develop backstory, research my idea for the story then jump right into structuring (screenplay).

    I just discovered the idea of the kernel/log-line recently. And I have to tell you, your post is better than the book I am currently reading on the matter. Wish I could take your workshop…

  44. Reblogged this on The written Word and commented:
    This is something that new authors and would be authors lose sight of.

  45. Reblogged this on Esteepens's Blog: Pens and Analysis and commented:
    Awesome Great Fact!

  46. great post I cant help reblogging!

  47. Reblogged this on All Around The World In Science Days and commented:
    This is so true, Creativity is so important also….:)

  48. Like your kernel idea statement and the fact that you write it down. But what hit me was the reference to Star Trek. I’ve always been a Spock fan; and I just realized that has affected my writing and my life! Kirk trumps Spock! I got to write from my gut, or from my heart, allow my emotions to pour over the page.
    Thanks so much for the insight. Omg, I feel this is a transcendental experience!

  49. One Girl: One World

    It’s my dream to write a book one day…

  50. Reblogged this on Archaic Sugar and commented:
    *Novelists, screenwriters, short story writers… this is great.* Click to read – you won’t be sorry!

  51. I’ll heed to your tips. Good post.

  52. Thanks for the help. Just starting out as a writer so i appreciate any help i can get

  53. That kernel idea is more than the first brick. It’s like the first foundation. Everything else builds around that. I knew when I came up with that idea for the novel I’m working on now that it would guide me through. It’s a long process but I’ve never felt burdened by it. I think some people feel burdened by the fact they don’t see results as soon as they would like to. The best thing is to keep faith with that initial idea that got things rolling and, bit by bit, see it through a variety of versions and refinements.

  54. Yeah that’s true, though I am not a novelist but I can say my stories start with one idea mostly a character or a scene, that pulls me to start writing. But I would keep this advice and make a note of that kernel idea and put it somewhere visible to me everyday when I think of writing a novel.
    And yes for an authot writing is not everything, but conveying the emotions is very very important. A very helpful and good post.

  55. Very interesting and insightful article on the art of writing a story. It really focuses on getting a new story off the ground and going. Thanks for writing this article, I am very glad I found it.

  56. Thanks for this nice post. Recently I got an idea, and it has been on my mind ever since. Maybe I should do something with it, before I regret it. Thanks for the motivation.

  57. emiliamueller

    I love this article. I am a beginner in what concerns writing. My main focus is now in writing stories for children but I can only write short stories and I was always curious about how awesome is to write a novel and I tried to write a longer story but I got stuck at the point where the whole action begins and it’s like I can not finish it. ;)) Can you help me with any tip? Did anything like this ever happened to you?

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