One of the most frequent questions I (and authors in general) get is: How do you come up with your ideas?
And the truth is, I have absolutely no idea.
Usually, I come up with my best ideas when I’m away from my writing area (which has been the dining room table lately)–of course, it’s Murphy’s Law–and I’m doing something decidedly non-creative. Like washing the dishes or running cars in circles around the carpet until I get so dizzy I want to puke. Definitely not creative.
If you’re someone who struggles to come up with story ideas (or what you think are great story ideas), I have a few suggestions for you.
[And if, like me, you seem to be drowning in ideas and can’t pick and stick with one, stay tuned because you’re next.]
- Survey your thoughts.
Find a topic you’re passionate about or weirdly interested in. For example: I’m fascinated with Tarot cards, mythology, and strange happenings that other people don’t think of as strange. What about those topics interest you? What compels you to learn more about those topics? Who else might be interested in those topics? What kind of people are they?
I truly believe that the best stories aren’t about plot but about people. If you focus on the who of a situation, you’ll find your story.
See if you can write a story that incorporates your interest. The bonus? You either won’t have to do as much research or, if you do, you’ll enjoy doing it. (Just be careful to not get caught up in the research that you forget to write the story. *Guilty*)
- Play the what-if game.
This is one of my favorite ways to generate story ideas, and it’s so simple. (That’s probably why it’s my favorite.) Usually, my imagination turns toward the darker what-if thoughts, but they’re springboards to a story idea.
What if I boarded a train and never went back home?
What if someone stole my kid in a crowded venue, but nobody came to help?
What if someone could heard a random, constant ticking? What could it come from, and what is it ticking down to?
What if an Amish teenager on their Rumspringa was arrested for murder?
And so on and so on. Often, when I people watch, I’ll imagine elaborate backstories for them and try to guess what their next move will be. The what-if questions from these scenarios (such as: What if the shifty-eyed person in front of me suddenly sprouted wings and incinerated us all?) border on the ridiculous, but I get a kick out of them in the moment.
Will all your what-if questions turn into story material? Not likely, but while you’re making a list of what-if questions, see if anything jumps out at you that you want to develop further.
- Read a book. Or two. Or twenty.
I find I’m much more creative and imaginative when I’m reading a book. I combine this with the what-if game and ask what if the character behaved a different way, or what if this minor character were the protagonist and how that changes the story. Ideas come from other ideas, and the corollary to this is if you write more, you’ll come up with more ideas too.
Reading the backs of book covers (especially those you’ve never read) can be a powerful exercise. You could use it as a means of inspiration, or you can tweak a few of the major details (hello, what-if game again) and create your own story from it. If you can’t manage to swing by your local library or bookstore, check out Amazon. They display the backs of books on there. (And you read them in your PJs on the couch!)
- Take a trip down memory lane.
Your life is a series of stories woven together to create who you are today. What were some of the bigger ones that had a lot of impact? What were the smaller ones with lesser impact? What if one of the smaller ones never happened or happened differently? Would you still be the same person, or would your entire life trajectory have changed? This is commonly called the Butterfly Effect, the idea that small actions influence the bigger things, and everything is connected.
You can explore one of your alternate trajectories through fiction. (And if you dig parallel universes, you can explore several of them all at once!)
- Check out writing prompts.
It seems the internet is comprised of half cats and half writing prompts. Okay, I may have fabricated that statistic, but there are tons of writing prompts online. And they’re free! I’ve seen prompts in every genre imaginable, and you only have to do a quick Google (or Pintrest) search to find thousands of prompts. This also includes plot generators, but in my experience sometimes these can get wacky quickly. [Here are some plot generator links.]
And here’s a screenshot of Pintrest. The secret to Pintrest is that it’s a visual search engine, like Google. You can make the search as vague (like I did) or as specific (include terms such as your specific genre or “novel ideas”) as you’d like. Check out different formats of prompts–dialogue, first lines, general synopsis, etc.–and see which ones resonate with you more. Then search for those types of prompts specifically.
If you’re struggling to come up with a solid idea, try your hand at a few prompts. Even if you don’t find anything you’d like to continue further, you’ve put in the effort and got some good practice.
- Visit the forums.
In my last NaNo prep post, I dropped some forum links for you to explore. One of these is the adoptables thread. If you’re struggling and nothing is coming to you, despite all your efforts, the adoptables thread is a great place to find abandoned plot bunnies. (Plot bunnies, by the way, is the cutesy moniker for story ideas. It’s absolutely fitting because–you may not see it this way just yet, though–story ideas propagate like bunnies, and before you know it you’re drowning in hundreds of them.
Truly, you have more ideas for stories than you’ll ever be able to write. Stories are all around us, regardless the genre you choose to write. The trick is to pay attention and always have a pen and notepad ready to capture the seed of inspiration before it vanishes. (And it will. Never trust your memory when you could write it down instead.)
Once you become open to the idea that you are a creative and imaginative person, you’ll find you have too many stories to tell, and the well will never dry.
Which brings us to the second camp of people: the ones with overflowing wells and who try to write everything at once and never manages to finish anything. (Guilty, again.)
So, there you are at your computer, mulling over which of the thousands of ideas to pursue this NaNo, and you decide to just do them all. (I’ve been there.) But before you do that and burn yourself out by day three, it might help to narrow things down a bit.
- Love is all you need.
If you’re like me, not all of your ideas are made of the same stuff. For me, some are just quick jots about characters or a plot point or two. Others will have just a premise. And there are those that came to me so wholly that I wrote everything down and have characters, plot, theme, and setting.
It makes sense, if you put all those ideas next to each other, to choose the last one. After all, it’s the one that came ready-made, but there’s a big chunk missing.
Before you jump the gun and choose a story because of how complete it feels, ask yourself if you love the idea.
Writing a novel takes a ridiculously long time. It’s an investment, and you wouldn’t invest in something you don’t love. If you’re jazzed about the topic, the character, the story, then you’ve got a winner. Even if it doesn’t follow any of the marketing trends right now. (Trends change.)
Maybe love isn’t all you need, but it’s a damn good start.
- Conflict and stakes make a story.
When I set out to write this post, I didn’t intend to talk about love and war, but here we are. I’ve already covered the love part, so let’s talk war.
Which of your story ideas has the highest stakes for the character? Which has the most conflict? (It’s a good idea to choose this story.)
And this doesn’t always have to be external conflict. Some of the best stories I’ve read lately are ones that have deep internal conflict, wars inside the protagonist that requires significant change. Or else.
Conflict doesn’t always have to mean staring at the barrel of a gun. It could mean conflict between ideas (or ideals) the character has (also called cognitive dissonance), conflict in a relationship where the protagonist has to sacrifice something meaningful to keep something else, or conflict between the character’s mental reality and outward reality.
If your ideas have no conflicts, don’t despair. (They do. You just have to find them.) Ask yourself: What does my character want the most in the world? What motivates him/her? What are the barriers for the character that prevent him/her from getting the thing they most want in the world? (Pro tip: Their “thing” doesn’t have to be a physical object. It could be abstract, such as companionship, understanding, or hope.)
You can build an entire story around a character’s conflict and motivation. Try it!
- Three isn’t always a crowd.
This is something I do quite often, and I love the challenge of it. So, I managed to narrow down my list of possible stories from five thousand to five, but there’s no way I can choose between them.
Depending on similar the genres are, you can combine the story bits to make a more complex and layered story idea. Often, it’ll be something you never would have imagined. (I once combined a ghost story and contemporary and realistic middle grade story together to create something unrecognizable from the story nuggets I had previously.)
Try different combinations to see what you come up with before you settle on something. When I know I’ve found The One, I can’t help but think: “Why didn’t I think of this before? Of course this is the story and couldn’t have been told any other way.”
These days, I try to let my ideas ruminate for awhile before writing them. I find when I do this, invariably either another idea will come by that fits so well with the original idea or I’ll find an existing idea that pairs perfectly.
But in the heat of NaNo, this waiting time isn’t always possible, so I just dig in.
What’s your biggest struggle? Do you find yourself overwhelmed or underwhelmed with story ideas? What’s one suggestion from the post you’ll try? (Be sure to come back and let me know if it works for you!)