Projects often start with a brainstorming session and a whiteboard. It helps to give a client choices along the way rather than asking a vague “What do you want?” For instance, if developing a website, the choices for the background could be classic white, familiar neutrals, or a surprising color.
When a writer starts a new book, staring at a blank page can also be daunting. The same method can be used to make decisions, similar to building an ice cream sundae with classic, familiar, or surprise options:
Base: banana, cookie crumbles, or graham crackers
Ice cream: vanilla, chocolate, or birthday cake
Sauce: hot fudge, caramel, or cinnamon spice
Topping: sprinkles, chocolate peanut butter bits, or toasted marshmallows
Every book starts with the same base. Who is your main character? Classic character options are a royal, a rebel, a pirate, or a vampire. A familiar character may be more contemporary, perhaps based on yourself or someone you know. Or the main character could be turn out to be a complete surprise, even to you.
The next choice is the setting. Say your main character is a princess. Where does she live? The classic option is a borderline trope, like a princess in a castle. There’s nothing wrong with a timeless classic, but be sure it’s done well. The familiar option is something relatable. Put your princess in a modern city. The surprise option is something unique. Maybe she’s the princess of a biker gang in Florida, and her grandmother is the queen of the Interstate.
From there, choose your main character’s goal. What do they want? A classic goal would be winning a prize, a crown, or someone’s heart. A familiar goal is holding onto the way things are and fighting change. A surprise goal is something atypical and unexpected. Perhaps a young boy who wants to be a garbage collector when he grows up after one recovered the beloved toy he accidentally threw away and became his hero.
Then create conflict by placing something in the way of their goal. Who’s the antagonist? You could do a classic pairing. A detective matching wits with a master criminal, like Sherlock and Moriarty. An underdog against a bully, like Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. Or a familiar antagonist such as an ally who betrayed your main character. Or try a surprise pairing that’s completely weird yet somehow works, like a retiree in an epic war with their mail carrier.
Last choice is stakes. What does your main character have to lose? Classic stakes are the end of the world, or what means the world to your main character. Familiar stakes could be overcoming the loss of someone or something close to them. Surprise stakes are, well, anything.
By giving yourself three options, your brain will start to gravitate toward one of the three. You may find yourself drawn to classic choices with a dash of the familiar. Or there may be surprises all the way through. Once you have the main character, setting, goal, conflict/antagonist, and stakes figured out, more ideas will flow. Then all you have to do is dig in.