How to Generate Story Ideas

Some writers have no problem coming up with ideas. They’re the folks that take notebooks to dinner parties and groceries stores (!) because they’re always on the hunt for inspiration and potential material. Other writers get an idea, as in single, as in one, then they commit to that story until the cake is baked. Sometimes that takes years. When it’s finally good and ready for decorating, cutting and serving that writer may feel creatively drained, like they’ve got nothing left to give. Without an ounce of creativity left — let alone ideas! — starting a new project may seem like an impossibility.

Perhaps, you’ve held the desire to write for some time, but are struggling to come up with a premise for a story. Maybe you’re thinking “everything’s been done before” or “all my ideas suck!” First of all, there are no original story ideas. So, you can throw that useless concern in the bin… The point is, if you’ve been struggling to come up with a story idea that really speaks to you, the type you’re willing to commit to (possibly for years), consider trying some or all of the tips below.

  1. Unblocking your writers block (mind mapping)

    If you think you have no ideas, you’re just reaffirming this limiting belief and your solidifying that road block in your creative mind. You’re self-fulfilling your own shitty philosophy! The only way to shatter this road block is with a pen and a mind map. Grab a piece of paper (because studies show creative thinking is improved when we use pen and paper gather than screens and keyboards) and start writing down some ideas. Start with something easy, like listing all the story tropes you can think of: boy meets girl, the hero’s journey, coming of age, etc. Then, write down every genre you can think of. Write down the types of things you’re interested in: health, food, video games, music. Some of these points will come in handy later, some won’t. The whole point of this exercise is to get your atrophied idea muscles limbered up. You can even link these story tropes with their complimentary genre. Why not write ten different story premises that combine science fiction and the hero’s journey? Can you combine coming of age with horror?

  2. Preferred reads

    You may think you’ve got a broad literary palette, that you read a good mixture of non-fiction, genre fiction and literary fiction, but chances are there is a particular type of book you read most often. Once you figure that out, write that down on the mind map you started in step one. You may enjoy writing in the same genre as your preferred read, however, you needn’t limit yourself either. In fact, many authors don’t read the genre they write in. Though I personally find this a little perplexing, I’ve come across countless interviews with authors who confess they rarely read within the genre that made them famous. That being said, I’ve recently realised that I read a lot of historical fiction, but I write crime/mysteries. Part of the reason for this is that these genres fits better with the themes I am most interested in exploring. Speaking of themes…

  1. Themes

    In terms of storytelling, the theme is what a story is about. It is the message or topic that the author is trying to convey or explore in their work. Some common themes are: justice, family, loyalty, betrayal, racism, identity, love, suppression. So, grab your mind map again and write down what themes intrigue you. What topics fascinate you? What issues do you find yourself thinking about? My themes, at least in terms of my current manuscript, are trauma, mortality and fear. Thanks, Metallica…

    The benefit of figuring out your themes is two-fold. As previously mentioned, it can take a long time to write a novel, so it’s advisable that you write a novel exploring something you’re interested in. If you pick a topic that isn’t your jam, chances are you’ll get bored, discouraged and never finish it. Secondly, figuring out your theme is a great way to sidestep into a story idea. Once you know what your themes are, you can start figuring out the type of story that would support its exploration. If you’re interested in quest narratives, consider writing a fantasy novel; however, don’t be afraid to stretch your themes. A quest narrative could easily work in a literary novel too, you just need to make the quest element subtler. If you’re still struggling to come up with ideas, then it’s time to consume some content.

  1. Consume content

    Read newspaper articles, journals, blogs, books (fiction and non-fiction), listen to music (analyse the lyrics/look for imagery) or go watch a live show like a concert or a play. You never know what will spark your imagination: a line of dialogue, a weird scientific fact, a vintage photograph or an opinion piece that really pushes your buttons. Look, if you really want, you can go watch Netflix… I’m not even going to unpack that point. Now, you’re not mindlessly consuming this content. While you’re reading, watching or listening to this art, you should have all the notes from the previous three steps in the back of your mind. Pay attention while consuming this art. Is anything sparking your interest? Stephen King comes up with the premises of his novels by joining to unlikely ideas together. Does anything from your mind map link up with an interesting titbit you discovered during this step?

  2. Steal shit

    If all else fail and you still can’t think of any ideas, there’s only one option left: steal someone else’s story. No, I don’t mean— that would be a big no, no. What I mean is take a story you already like and rewrite your own version. If you love Greek mythology, take one of those stories and write it in a contemporary landscape. Love Shakespeare? Craft your own version of Romeo and Juliet. Hell, some people have made a bucket load of cash using this very technique. (Not that money should ever be the drive behind writing). I’m looking at you E. L., James. Obviously, you have to make the story your own. Otherwise you’re not writing, you’re just copying and pasting.

A funny problem that can arise from the above steps is having too many ideas. How do you pick one? Well, if you’re not that interested in working across multiple projects, then my best suggestion is to go with the one that is a little bit scary, but also deeply interesting. Don’t go with the easy option. Easy isn’t easy, it’s boring. And you don’t want to be bored by your project, do you?

Now, open up a word document and get to it. Your idea is waiting to be written.

Image: Thinking by Federico Coppola

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