Stuck Between Two Ideas For The Same Story

torn between two story ideas

When I started sharing the research that’s going into my novels, the first strange tidbit I talked about was robots who love you back. This was for a science fiction novel I was working on, and those of you who have been keeping up with me might have noticed that there hasn’t been so much as a cricket chirp about it since.

Sadly, I’ve put that story on hold.

The premise, which started as “an AI raises children,” got a tad convoluted to the point where I had two vastly different story ideas starring the same characters. I had no clue which idea I wanted to go with because I loved them both.

What do you do when you’re stuck between two ways of telling the same story?

torn between two story ideas
Image by Elīna Arāja

Here’s some problems I was running into:

  • I wanted my to put my characters through a variety of scenarios I found exciting, but not all of these melded together.
  • I wanted my story to be told from the POV of one character, but the story ideas I had worked better in another POV.
  • There was no cause-and-effect between the two ideas I had, but I was reluctant to separate them because I was scared that I would lose the heart of what made the story special.
  • These ‘two’ ideas I had where already derivatives of earlier works I had shelved because me, being me, could never quite let them go.

It’s Never Just Two Ideas

As you can see from that bullet point list, technically speaking I wasn’t stuck between two ideas for one story, I was stuck between two dozen, probably more. It’s just that these ideas could easily be grouped into Story A and Story B.

That’s the thing about writing. One idea sparks a hundred more. It’s the writer’s job to be able to parse these out, to know which one to develop and see through to completion, and sometimes that can be very difficult if you are attached to them.

Combining two or more unique ideas can make for a great story but what do you do when the combination doesn’t quite work? When the story becomes so convoluted that you don’t know which way is up?

I wish I had the answers. For now, this is something I struggle with. The best thing I’ve come up with is preventing the problem from happening.

How Does This Happen?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve found that this problem starts when I feel insecure about what I’m writing. For whatever reason, I begin to doubt that my story is any good so in an effort to make it more exciting or more like someone else’s work, I start to make changes. These changes become so radical that two, or more, very different stories start to evolve out of the original, like a stressed tree desperately sprouting a thousand roots.

How to prevent this? Well, I hate to sound cliche but…

Kill Your Darlings

Photo by Daniel Watson on

Prune the tree.

It’s over-growing. It’s a mess. It needs to be cut back.

Limit yourself.

Yes that scene you wrote is well-written and exciting but it’s in the wrong POV, or tone, or genre. I’ve had this issue so many times. Just the other day I was stuck between two very different scenes in my dark fantasy WIP, A Path Of Roots. Both scenes essentially conveyed the same information, but in two different ways, and I liked elements of both but by choosing one I would have to sacrifice most, if not all of the other.

Solutions for Figuring Out Which Idea To Go For

  • Make a list of pros and cons
  • Seek an outside opinion
  • Separate ideas that don’t sit well together
  • Trust your instincts

Deep down, I knew which scene I preferred but half of the battle was admitting that and cutting the rest.

That, of course, was just one scene. What about when it’s the whole book?

This is a hard question to answer. Regarding my science fiction novel, I knew that the ideas weren’t going to work together, so I decided to pull them apart and try again. That way, I can tell both stories – just not in the same book.

Only then the problem becomes: I’ve separated these two ideas and neither one is complete enough or exciting enough to be one story.

Both ideas need something else added to them. Something that wasn’t present when they were together, something that gives them new life.

Only I don’t know what that is yet.

So, for now, the story is shelved.

When To Shelve An Idea

Ultimately, this decision lies with the individual. What I’ve found in my experience is that I tend to shelve an idea when I’ve lost whatever the heart of that story was or I can only seem to follow shiny ideas that lead me away from the heart of the story.

I also get this problem when I outline my novels. I am a discovery writer at heart and have given up outlining for good. Whenever I outline, I become so overwhelmed with story beats and plot clutter that the whole process becomes a frustrating mess. The ideas I get naturally while writing by the seat of my pants don’t fit with the book I’ve outlined, and when I try to work them in, I get this kind of fragmentation of two or more potential books trying to exist at once. Neither idea is working, and both cause frustration, so onto the shelf they go.

…And When To Return To It

Shelving an idea isn’t always permanent.

While I was writing this post, I came up with the exact ingredient missing from a steampunk fantasy I shelved years ago.

These things take time. Inspiration strikes when we least expect it. Sometimes while trying to work on one story, the muse demands to work on another. Ideas are never truly abandoned. One day I’ll go back to my sci-fi novel about children raised by AI, but not yet. I’m working on a dark fantasy/potential horror book right now and after that I will probably work on that steampunk fantasy.

It’s okay to wait. Only with a little experience can we approach the problem from a different angle.

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