How to Find Ideas for Your Story
One of the first challenges that budding authors invariably face after deciding to write a book is figuring out how they will generate enough story ideas to fill hundreds of pages. Sitting there, staring at the pristine expanse of a blank page while pondering all of the work lying ahead can be incredibly disconcerting. Without having mastered effective techniques for inventing and embellishing people (characters), places (settings), and plot, it’s easy to wind up feeling frustrated and run out of steam.
But never fear. For I am here to tell you that all of that worrying is totally unnecessary and that the blank page will soon come to represent an exciting frontier in your writing process, rather than a mortal enemy. This is because, whether you know it or not, your brain is a living library. A bottomless reserve of stories, plot twists, and narrative techniques. All you need to do is learn how to connect this fathomless reservoir of knowledge to the task at hand. Then you will be able to reliably come up with ideas for your story through an organic and painless process.
The world of stories
Although you might not have thought about it before, stories are one of the key building blocks of human civilization and our minds are immersed in a vast ocean of narrative at all times. The people, places, and objects you encounter on a daily basis are all infused with vibrant threads of story, elements which you can learn to mindfully contemplate and then incorporate into your novel. Thus, leaning how to spot and draw inspiration from the stories thrumming throughout the world around you will prove to be an invaluable source of raw material as you continue to make progress on your novel.
Put another way, you already possess enough seeds of story within you to grow hundreds of novels, regardless of your age, background, or lifestyle. All of your life experiences, every hour of every day, still reside somewhere within your conscious memories and unconscious mind, and each and every one of them contains elements of story. More, you have been absorbing story from the world around you since the day you were born and by now have witnessed countless tales firsthand simply from living your life. You have also been listening vicariously to the experiences of other people, feeding your narrative-loving brain with another hearty slab of storytelling. In addition to your direct and second-hand experiences, you have been exposed to even more seeds of story through the vehicle of your imagination, along with your fantasies, longings, and dreams. Not to mention the contents of every book you have ever read and movie you have watched.
The heart of a story: Drawing inspiration from everyday life, monumental moments, and dreams
The ordinary drama of your daily life, the important events from your past, as well as your fantasies and dreams, can all be mined and transmuted into fantastic storytelling material. The things that have hurt you, the things that have helped you. Love and loss. Memories of those times that have filled you with anticipation and joy, suffering and dread, even the boredom from your weekly routine, can all be harvested for valuable ideas to use with your plot, settings, and characters. Everyday events as well as monumental moments.
In fact, every fictional story draws inspiration from everyday life in a number of important ways, even those dealing with fantastical subject matter and larger than life characters. This is because carefully positioned droplets of ordinary emotions and universal human experiences are the glue that holds the rest of a story together. Their inclusion in your novel helps to ensure that the events occurring within will resonate with the reader, enabling your story to linger with them long after they leave the last page behind.
I am not suggesting that you literally recreate these events from your past in your stories. However, their emotional significance can be translated into the world and characters of your novel, helping the reader to connect with your narrative by infusing it with a sense of authenticity.
Distilled down to its bare essence, every story is built from:
- One or more main characters.
- A core plot (and often various subplots).
- At least one setting.
Your first task as an aspiring author is to find sufficient ideas for each of these fundamental narrative components. Inspiration is a fickle mistress at times, but in the end, you are going to be drawing on:
- Elements of your everyday life.
- Significant experiences from your past (that helped to shape who you are today).
- Your fantasies, imagination, and dreams.
Virtually every story ever told includes aspects drawn from everyday life, including familiar: objects, places, people, situations, emotions, and events. As you begin to develop your novel, it will be up to you to figure out which of these everyday elements to highlight and blend into your own story, woven alongside your characters, settings, and plot, in order to make your story feel real to the reader, all without stopping to focus too long on any one component.
That being said, these everyday elements are a powerful spice, in that a few well-chosen details can go a long way in fleshing out your narrative. This means that you don’t need to try and cram in every stray experience you can remember. Instead, only include the seeds of story that spark your own interest and imagination and leave other aspects at the periphery of your tale or avoid them all together.
For example, the view from your living room, the warm feeling you get when speaking with your best friend, and the taste of coffee from your local venue, are all potential seeds of story. Bits and scraps of everyday life you could potentially incorporate into a novel, set beside other elements inspired from your childhood memories, your plans for the future, and last night’s dream. As you become more skilled in mining the people and places around you for seeds of story, you will begin to see just how rich the world of story engulfing us truly is. And as you learn to better perceive and appreciate it, your everyday world will become a lifelong source of inspiration for your novels.
Painful moments, joyous recollections. Embarrassment, humor, success, and failure. All of us possess key events from our past that involved powerful feelings and significant outcomes. Some of these moments may have even been turning points in our lives, changing how we saw the world and ourselves and setting us onto a different path, perhaps one we never before imagined. It should come as no surprise that all of your past experiences and intense emotions are now potential allies in the novel writing process, even those memories that were awkward, frightening, or painful to live through.
The death of a loved one, getting into a top school, or even a run in with the law can provide the template of a scene that will suck your readers into the world of your novel and keep them turning those pages. As I mentioned earlier, you don’t need to recreate these events from your past verbatim in your story (although do feel free to draw from them liberally), rather focus on the aspects of those memories that still resonate powerfully within you and attempt to translate them into the world of your novel.
Fantasies and dreams
Every fictional story draws heavily from its author’s imagination. In fact, many famous tales originated directly from a writer’s childhood fantasies and daydreams, along with their nightdreams and nightmares. It is not uncommon for a writer to go to bed with a story-related problem on their mind, only to wake up the next morning (or even in the middle of the night) armed with a solution. Writers with particularly active imaginations might begin to frame a scene in their head, only to have it turn into a lengthy daydream, complete with numerous details and events that can be incorporated into their story.
Even if you aren’t the type of person to draw ideas directly from dreams, your imagination is still a vital source of raw material. In fact, once you begin to develop the plot of your novel, your brain will most likely start to think about it off and on as you go about your daily life, often leading to major breakthroughs or valuable embellishments during the planning and drafting stages of writing a book. Additionally, many stories are written as a form of wish fulfillment, the realization of powerful longings and needs that have been denied to the author back in the real world. The robust emotions surrounding these desires and goals are vibrant story elements that you can learn to insert into your novel as well.
Learn to carry a notepad with you
As you grow more skilled at drawing material from your memories and the world around you, you never know when inspiration will strike. And by the time you get back to a desk and write it down, valuable content and momentum might be lost forever.
Thus, as you continue to search for additional ideas for your novel, I encourage you to develop the habit of keeping a notepad (or electronic equivalent) with you wherever you go. Tuck it into your backpack at school, your car as you drive, and near your bed at night. That way, whenever you spot a rich detail in the world around you, you can write it down in your notepad, capturing the essence of what drew your attention to it in the first place while it is still alive within your mind’s eye. In addition to sensory details and other experiences collected from the world around you, write down any memories that come to mind that still have strong emotions and sensations attached to them, as well as any other promising trains of thought.
Finally, whenever you come up with a good idea for your story directly, jot it down in as much detail as possible, fleshing out the thought in the moment inspiration strikes, or as close to it as you can. These can include:
- Ideas regarding the overall plot of your story.
- Inspiration for the next key scene you need to draft.
- Cool ideas that don’t necessarily fit into your novel right now.
- Personality traits and backgrounds for your characters.
- Sensory details for your settings.
These lists, which only require a few minutes here and there to develop, will soon become a valuable trove that you can draw from later on down the road, giving you a head start on future characters, scenes, and settings.
Early exercises for generating story ideas
I am now going to share with you a pair of simple techniques I use for finding good story ideas, ideal for early on in your novel planning process. I will be going over each of these narrative aspects (setting, character, and plot) in greater detail in successive posts, so these are only meant to grant you a view from 10,000 feet up in the air. Don’t worry, we will be zooming in and getting a good deal more granular as things proceed. In these exercises, you will first be brainstorming to discover tiny bits of narrative I call story seeds, then I will show you how to assemble a pile of seeds into micro-narratives that you can sprinkle into your novel. Early on, the secret to generating story ideas for your writing is to use short, targeted prompts to grant you direction and focus.
Finding ideas for your novel part 1: Brainstorming
Start by reading the text on characters, setting, and plot below, then pull out a sheet of paper and start brainstorming (I prefer to use physical paper for this exercise, but a word document is fine). Once you get going, continue writing down whatever comes to mind until you run out of steam. It may take several brainstorming sessions, but you will eventually wind up with a decent list of options that you can use both now and later on in the project. As you ponder each of these narrative elements, whenever you come up with an idea, anything that sounds like it might work in the context of your story, set it to ink along with a few additional sentences to flesh the thought out.
For example, when brainstorming for a new novel, I might already know that I want my protagonist to be a police detective. Just from having made that initial decision, I can tell that I am going to need to invent a primary suspect as well as a police captain before I can get much drafting done. I think my detective is going to be a serious fellow, so I will likely want to include someone rather more lighthearted in his precinct to use as a foil, but I’m not sure yet who will fit that bill. I also know that I want the story to feature a blistering heat wave that will occur near the climax, as it is important to how the case gets solved.
As you begin to brainstorm, remember not to be too critical or take too long working on any one idea during this exercise, but do come back and keep developing these lists until you have complied an ample set of options that inspire you to write. This early stage of finding ideas might take some time to complete, but this is only natural as you are sifting through your subconscious while seeking out your best ideas, and even early on, this exercise will lead to helpful insights.
Once you have finished your preliminary lists for the people, places, and plot of your novel, divide each of your ideas into piles of hot (really fuels your imagination) and warm (maybe). Keep the rest in a separate cold list that you will want to peek at again once or twice later on, just in case something in there is useful for a part of your story you haven’t gotten to yet.
Finding ideas for your novel part 2: Building story seeds into micro-narratives
Once your initial brainstorming sessions are complete and you have a list of ideas ready for each category, it is time to combine several of these assorted story seeds into miniature narratives (preliminary characters, settings, and plot points with several details attached). Keep playing around with these piles of potential traits and events until you have early versions of your core characters, settings, and plot that are ready to be injected into your novel.
Continuing from the example above, I have already decided that one of my central characters is going to be a detective. Just by trying to picture them in my mind, I can see that he is going to be middle aged man, although I’m not sure exactly how old yet. Looking at my list of character ideas generated via brainstorming, I see that I had considered including someone with a grating laugh and a hidden mean streak. These attributes feel like a good fit for my detective, so I go ahead and slide them over into his description. I also have several names I like resting in my character pile, but none of them feels like a good fit, so I leave my detective nameless for this session.
Next, I decided during brainstorming to use a small town as one of my primary settings. Looking at my list of setting ideas, I can see that I wanted to tell my story somewhere with dry, hot summers and cold winters, so I choose to place my town somewhere in the Midwest of the United States. I don’t want to use a real city for this particular story, so I look at a map and then plot my imaginary town just a little outside of Austin, Texas, which also tells me a great deal about the local climate and culture. Finally, a big parade that occurs in the middle of an unseasonably late heat wave is the one clear scene I have in my head thus far, and so I make sure to note that my fictional city always throws a massive celebration for homecoming, setting things up for a climax occurring in autumn.
At this point, even though my fictional detective and town are still largely unexplored, they now possesses enough traits to begin to fuel my imagination. I will continue to add to and revise their descriptions as I complete the more advanced exercises detailed in the following sections of this guide.
Finding ideas for the characters in your book
I want you to stop and ponder for a moment the sheer number of people you have known over the course of your life. From the thousands of individuals you have met on a casual basis while going about your day… to the hundreds of people you have had meaningful interactions with at work, school, or recreation… to the dozens of friends and family members you have known well for many years. Now to this already impressive pile of individuals, stack on top the thousands of people you have heard about from others, along with the countless characters you have read about or watched in television, books, and movies.
The point I am attempting to help you understand, is that you already possess a goldmine of knowledge regarding the personalities, choices, appearances, and behaviors of many thousands of people. Not to mention their speech patterns, posture, habits, preferences, fears, prejudices, and more. In fact, you already contain sufficient raw material to generate more characters than you could ever hope to write about, lounging around somewhere in your memory and unconscious. All you need to do is learn how to draw from this massive repository to create the characters who your present story requires. Of course, there is one person that you have more insight into than any other. You yourself, the greatest resource for building characters that a writer could ask for!
Now, you probably already have an idea or two regarding your characters, but this exercise will help you to flesh them out further, as well as grant you some additional options for later when your novel calls for a larger cast. Using my two part technique detailed above, all you need do is take the various physical, psychological, and emotional attributes of the people you know and use them to generate unique fictional characters for your story. While brainstorming, focus more on capturing these traits in broad strokes rather than embellishing fine details (which will rise to the surface organically as you draft scenes involving your characters).
Exercise: One powerful way of going about this is to take a person you know well and write down their memorable attributes (appearance and personality, strengths and weaknesses). Since you already know this person in real life, you can use these observations to create characters who are both realistic and engaging. In general, try not to simply recreate intact people from your life into your book (although in certain cases this has been done to great effect). Rather, mix up these traits and shuffle them together to invent new, original individuals organically. In my novel, a given character might possess the personality of one of my friends, the appearance of an acquaintance from school, and the life circumstances of one of my instructors. However, don’t feel like every element of your characters needs to be based on a person in the real world, and of course, you will be injecting many elements of yourself into all of your characters. See my entry on planning characters for more extensive exercises.
Finding ideas for settings
Just as you have met and heard about thousands upon countless thousands of people in your lifetime, so too is your memory filled with myriad locations that can be transcribed to create realistic settings for your novel. Foreign countries, historical monuments, as well as the mundane reality of your local grocery store can be all mined to create settings that will resonate with your reader. Even if you have not traveled much, you have still clocked thousands hours of observation of potential settings, simply from going about your daily life in your home town.
Remember that you don’t need to try and reconstruct these settings brick by brick. A favorite bar could inspire a realistic facsimile set in the distant future or past, or even a fantastical realm not of this earth. There is something that resonates when you share aspects of environments that you have lived in and known well, and your reader will pick up on these details if you use your personal experiences as the starting point for your settings.
Of course, you should always feel free to make up settings that are very different from anything you have experienced firsthand. You don’t need to visit the rainforest to be able to write about the jungle, or the desert to write about an oasis. Still even in these exotic locations, you can incorporate details from the places you know, set alongside those you have researched, to develop settings that will speak powerfully to your reader. Be sure to see my entry on planning setting for advanced exercises that will help you to bring your fictional environments to life.
Exercise: To start discovering ideas for your settings, begin by asking yourself where your characters will be at the start of the novel and write these various locations down in a list. If you make it comprehensive enough, this list is guaranteed to include some of your early settings. If you know that your cast will be spending lengthy periods of time in certain locations by the middle of the book, you can list these and begin to develop them as well. Some of your settings might start off vague (e.g. the desert or a bar), while others that are based on real world locations you know well may already possess a wealth of vibrant sights, sounds, and inhabitants.
Finding ideas for the plot of your story
At this stage you are not trying to develop the entire plot of your novel, rather to find a handful of key events that you will structure the rest of the plot around as you begin to draft text and ponder your story in greater detail. Again, here we are looking for seeds of story to plant and nourish, not the complex pacing and plot twists that will arise naturally later, as you become more familiar with the world and conflicts of your novel.
Exercise: To begin finding ideas for plot, start by writing down any key events you already have in mind. Then add to that list the motivations of the characters you have created thus far, as their wants, dreams, and desires are fertile ground for developing your main plot points and various subplots. Don’t worry if many of the events you come up with seem small or are not directly related to the overall scope of your story, as they can still help when coming up with ideas for scenes and chapters. Keep this list of potential plot elements with you, as it can provide raw material to use later on. See my post on planning your plot for additional, in-depth exercises.
Ideas for fantasy and sci-fi stories
I plan to cover fantasy and science fiction stories extensively in a later installment of this guide. But to help you get started on finding ideas for your fantasy or science fiction world, here is another simple exercise. The idea at this early state is to get creative, knowing that many of the ideas you come up with will ultimately be left in the scrap bin (but who knows when they might be useful later down the road in this or a following project).
Exercise: Find what is cool, exciting, and makes your curiosity tingle.
For this exercise you are going to make a list of every fantastic element (technology or magic) that might find a home in your story. These can be inspired from your favorite works of fiction, daydreams, or anywhere else story that resides (refer to the above sections for more detail). Just like the earlier exercises, you are going to separate these ideas into hot, warm, and cold piles.
Dragons, wizards, and fairies. Spaceships, aliens, and killer AI’s. Over time you will add to and flesh out these various elements, deciding which to incorporate into your own tale. These will eventually form the base ingredients of your unique worlds, which you will enrich and blend in later stages of writing your novel.
That’s it for today’s lengthy entry, if you haven’t already done so, I suggest checking out my prior post on overcoming writer’s block for even more tips on how to keep your writing momentum going strong.