If you’ve paid close attention, you’ve likely seen a hint of despair in an author’s eye when asked where their story ideas originate.
Authors are asked this again and again, so it’s no wonder they grow weary of attempting to answer the question. And the spark of inspiration, that seemingly mysterious interaction of genetics and environment, of brain and experience, can be difficult to capture.
Nor is there a cache of story ideas that a successful author can lead you to, as though revealing the hidden switch that opens a secret passageway to the Idea Vault.
But for the aspiring writer who burns to release words onto the page, the question lingers. While there is no one answer for every writer, strategies can be formed, and a conducive environment can be cultivated.
Can the Question Be Answered?
Creativity is at the heart of humanity. Ideas have led to agriculture, cities, the works of art that reflect and inspire our very lives. Also, sadly, to war and weapons that threaten our existence on this planet.
Whatever the complex evolutionary processes at play, we undoubtedly enjoy the thought of divine inspiration, of that lightning bolt that strikes, and of the writer furiously releasing the story onto the page.
But lightning doesn’t always strike, and the question of how to capture story ideas might be a better avenue than the more nebulous concern of where they originate.
Don’t Lose Your Story Ideas
Farther down, we’ll look at places to mine ideas, but know that story ideas are all around you. And a good first step is ensuring that you don’t let them get away.
Write down your ideas when they occur. Write them in a journal. Write them in a notes app. Email them to yourself. Leave yourself a voice mail. Write them on the back of a napkin.
But record them somehow, even if you have to back-burner them for a while. Some ideas will be ready to address right away, and some will need to simmer in your unconscious. Finding the right time to explore the idea is another thing entirely, but that’s a good problem to have.
(Also beware those messages you leave yourself that are so cryptic you have no idea what on earth you meant. You know the ones I’m talking about.)
The Idea Is Everything (But Also Not)
A great story idea can inspire your writing and lead you on a wonderful creative journey. But remember that the “Die Hard meets Runaway Bride”–style pitch isn’t everything. It’s been said there are only seven basic plots, so keep in mind that the telling of the idea is every bit, if not more, important.
Tell the story that only you can tell. Practice your craft. Hone your voice. Develop ideas in a way unique to you.
Finding Your Story Ideas
The stories, as they say, aren’t going to write themselves (though, um, the AI community sure seems to have something to say about that; but I digress). Let’s look at some ways to fill your thoughts with ideas that lead to successful stories.
Unfortunately, the harder you try to force story ideas, the more elusive they become. The trick is to make your mind into a landing pad for ideas. Thousands of thoughts fly through your mind every hour, and the ideas are already there. But they may get lost among all the buzz.
Reward those thoughts that lead to ideas. Direct your attention at them when they pass through your consciousness. The more you do this, the more your mind will train itself to prioritize those thoughts.
The germ of your next great story idea may be found right in front of you. Observe your family. Observe your friends. Observe strangers. Imagine what is happening in their heads, in their lives. Create an unexpected scenario for them:
What would happen if your spouse were to receive a singing telegram (yes, I’m bringing back the singing telegram) from an anonymous suitor?
What if your best friend were to tell you he’d been abducted by aliens?
What if you found out your best friend was an alien?
Change your scenery
As an offshoot of the above, get out in the world and people watch. Sometimes nothing shakes a story idea loose like a change of scenery. Get to a coffee shop. Watch the comings and goings in an airport, grocery store, doctor’s office.
All around you are people living lives, walking about with their hidden mysteries, their aspirations, their loves, their betrayals, their hopes. Follow one of the infinite number of potential plot lines for those before you. See where it leads.
We’ve all heard the advice: write what you know. We are all storehouses of experience. Look back on your childhood, on your relationships, on your struggles, your successes. What were your goals, your conflicts? What tension has played background music to the passages of your life?
Journaling can help you access areas of your life you’ve closed off but could benefit from exploring, from telling it slant, on the page. Pain and release could take equal parts here, so, as always, be kind to yourself when exploring your inner terrain.
Mine your entertainment
What better source of story ideas than stories themselves? Writing the kind of story that you yourself would like to read is a hard strategy to argue with.
Take notes when reading and when watching your favorite shows or movies, when viewing a stunning piece of art. How did it affect you? What structure and technique was involved in its creation? What worked for you and what didn’t?
Imitating another’s style can also help propel your development toward achieving your own distinct voice. Write, and write some more.
Answer a writing prompt or submission call
Here’s an easy one. Check with publishers and markets for submission calls, or take up one of the many writing prompts found all over the internet. Activate your writing mind, and see where it leads.
Check in with your subconscious
Often the wildest dreams drift away, lost forever, even moments after waking. But you can train yourself to remember your dreams by creating a dream journal. Record them upon waking, and you’ll develop a greater ability to access them.
Think about the meaning of your dreams. Bask in their bizarre logic, in their strangeness. Follow them and incorporate them in your stories.
There may be no map to a mythical Land of Ideas, but winning story ideas are nonetheless within and without, waiting. Be open. Be intentional in your thoughts. Record your ideas, cultivate them. Share them with readers, and exalt in your writing journey.
Once you’ve tapped into the wellspring to ideas, other readings from the Fictionary community can help you develop your stories:
- How to Improve Your Plot with Story Editing (https://fictionary.co/journal/how-to-improve-your-plot-with-structural-editing/)
- Improve Your Story’s Setting with Story Editing (https://fictionary.co/journal/improve-your-storys-setting-with-story-editing/)
- Scene-by-Scene Editing Makes a Story Come to Life (https://fictionary.co/journal/scene-by-scene-editing-makes-a-story-come-to-life/)
James Gallagher is a Fictionary-Certified StoryCoach, copy editor, and proofreader. James has worked on more than 250 books and particularly enjoys horror and romance. An active member of the editing community, James loves to help authors bring out the best in their stories.
More about him can be found at https://castlewallsediting.com
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