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Not Sure What to Write? Create an Id List to Jumpstart Your Novel

We’ve all been there: You want desperately to write a novel, but you’re not sure what you should be writing. As creative people, most of us are brimming with ideas, but we often struggle to find that idea that really has legs — an idea that we can stay interested in long enough to write a full-length book.

With my coaching students, I can see it on their faces when they are truly passionate about an idea. Their eyes light up, and their prose shines with something that can only be described as joy.

There are lots of ways I test-drive new ideas for myself to see if I want to write an entire novel (or an entire series) around a premise. Sometimes I’ll try to hammer out a rough plot outline; other times I’ll dive right in with a scene or chapter during my morning free-writing. If a character starts to speak through me and the world unfolds with dazzling clarity, I know I have a winner.

But what if you could start off knowing that the idea was gold? What if you already knew that this was the sort of idea that had the power to keep you up at night? What if there was a secret to homing in on the ideas that you were really passionate about?

Friends, I think I have found that secret.

Recently I was listening to Joanna Penn’s NINC roundup on her podcast, The Creative Penn, and she spoke about a session by Dr. Jennifer Barnes based around the idea of an “Id List.”

Dr. Barnes is a psychologist, cognitive scientist, and — interestingly — a YA romance author. In her session, she discussed how there are certain universal pleasures that humans are hardwired to find alluring, such as power, wealth, beauty, sex, competition, and danger.

Unsurprisingly, certain genres (and even specific blockbuster books) are perfectly designed to trigger our brain’s pleasure center. Think The Hunger Games (competition and danger), Fifty Shades of Grey (power, wealth, sex, and danger) or Twilight (power, wealth, beauty, danger, sex…or lack thereof).

In addition to these things that we’re all supposed to like, there are things that are specific to you: characters, places, scenarios, and tropes that you as a reader find particularly yummy.

The Id List, named for Freud’s pleasure principle, is a list of tropes, archetypes, places, or scenarios that you personally find irresistible.

Not sure what you should be writing? Take 10 minutes and jot down all the things that make you pause when browsing for a book or a show on Netflix.

What are the things that really ring your bell? What does it take for you to automatically be interested in a book — even if you’d never otherwise read a certain author? What would make you watch that movie even though your least favorite actor plays the starring role? What things are cool enough for you to dismiss all the other elements you don’t like out of sheer intrigue?

When I made my Id List, there were some dystopian elements that popped out, but I was shocked by how many elements screamed supernatural thriller or urban fantasy.

Here’s my personal Id List:

  1. Cities in destruction

  2. Secret societies

  3. Forbidden romance

  4. Wartime romance

  5. Cults

  6. Conspiracies

  7. Rebellion (any kind)

  8. Prisons of the future

  9. Self-sufficiency/survivalism

  10. Supernatural occurrences in small towns

  11. Small town secrets

  12. Newcomers to small towns

  13. Ancestry

  14. The Occult

  15. Hauntings

  16. Energy fields

  17. Sages

  18. Artificial intelligence

  19. Robot takeovers

  20. Epic battles

  21. Outcast

  22. Being hunted

  23. Old texts with supernatural powers

  24. Hidden magical objects

  25. Two unlikely people stuck together

  26. A mysterious illness

  27. People with repressed powers

  28. Government experiments

  29. Urban legends/curses

  30. Secret bunkers

  31. Corporate conspiracy

  32. Genetic engineering

  33. Deserts

  34. Old houses

  35. Modern people cut off from modern life

  36. Tough characters with a good heart

  37. Quirky best friends

  38. Secret sanctuaries for magical people

  39. Fight scenes

  40. Tattoos

  41. Caste systems of the future

  42. Thought crime

  43. Special people that threaten the government

  44. Fish-out-of-water stories

  45. Romance in battle

  46. Hero’s vulnerability

  47. Government propaganda

  48. Diners

As I wrote that, I just got a little shiver. I’m dying to delve into a few of those topics — even though many of them don’t fit neatly into my genre. Some of them I’ve already written on — a few of them multiple times. Nearly every series I write has some kind of diner in it. I’m not sure why. And government conspiracies and forbidden romances never seem to get old.

Now create your own Id List. Remember, no one has to see it but you. Write down whatever comes to mind — no matter how silly, how overdone, or how oddly specific these elements seem. Pay special attention to the ideas that make you tingle with excitement, and put stars next to those.

Sometimes the best ideas come from combining several Id List elements into one story idea (e.g., a sage tells a tough character with a good heart about a secret magical text hidden in the desert). You can steal that idea if you want, but this is my Id List. What’s intriguing to me probably isn’t as intriguing to you as, say, spaceships and wizards or an uptight city girl who gets dumped on a farm in a small town.

When two or more of these Id List elements seem to resonate together like the perfect chord, draw arrows between them and worry about how they’ll go together later. You can mull them over in the shower, or you can set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes and make yourself write uninterrupted about three of those things until the time is up. Don’t worry if your story comes out absurd! This is just to get your creative juices flowing.

Remember: You are the master of your own universe, so populate your writing with the ideas that make you swoon. They don’t have to be fancy or literary or important. They can just be fun.

What are the three weirdest things on your Id List? What are the three most surprising?

Photo by Jan Kahánek

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