Hello, Write Owls! Welcome to Day 2 of Storytelling 101. Today’s lesson is on brainstorming. You can’t write a novel (or any story) without an idea, so today we’re covering various ways for you to find inspiration.
Ideas can start with anything. A setting, a character, an event, an image. They all matter. So, what can you do to get ideas?
1) Read: If you want to be a writer, you have to read. Almost everything you learn about storytelling will come from reading other people’s stories. Think about your favorite books. What do you love about them? How can you incorporate that in your own story? You never know what story might give you an idea. Just be careful not to copy anything too closely or plagiarize.
2) Take inspiration from the world around you. This is a great reason to take a walk—or a run if you’re so inclined. Observe your surroundings whether they’re natural or manmade or both. Observe people. People-watching is a perfectly acceptable hobby as long as you’re not weird about it. There are so many stories lurking behind small interactions and snippets of conversations. A few weeks ago, my downstairs neighbor suddenly—at least it was sudden to me—yelled at someone, “Get out of my house! Get out of my house! How dare you ____ my ____?” I didn’t catch two of the words. Then someone ran down the stairs. Some of the other neighbors poked their heads out of their apartments to investigate the disturbance, myself included obviously. Then a car sped past in the parking lot. Now what was that about? The last word he said may have been “cat”, which is an interesting word for me to think I heard. “How dare you touch my cat?” What’s the story behind that? People-watching—and listening—can provide fantastic story ideas.
3) Give your left-brain something to focus on, so you’re right-brain can do all the talking. Ever wonder why you get your best ideas when you’re in the shower, walking, or driving? It has to do with the brain hemispheres (Lenard-Cook). If you have pieces of story ideas rattling around in your head, try doing one of these activities and see if you can find a way to put some of the pieces together to form a story idea.
4) Dreams can be inspiring. Ever have a dream where something really interesting is happening; and then your alarm goes off, and you’re left wondering what would’ve happened if you had stayed asleep just five more minutes? See if you can use a setting, an event, or a person from a dream to spur a story idea. If you’re one of those people who can’t remember their dreams—trust me, you dream even if you don’t think you do—I suggest keeping a dream journal. As soon as you wake up, write down anything you can remember about your dreams. Don’t be discouraged if it’s not much. Over time, you should be able to train your brain to remember them better.
5) Writing Prompts: Writing prompts are a great way to get the creative juices flowing. You never know what might spark a story idea. A resource one of my professors used is the novel Writing Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. This book has sixteen story shapes, which are basically generic writing prompts. For example, there’s the “visitation” story shape. Write a story where someone—or something—shows up, disrupting the character’s normal life. You can find writing prompts all over the internet. Try them out and see what happens.
Say you already have an idea, but it’s been done before and you need to make it more original. Or perhaps it’s too simple or obvious, and you want to complicate it. My favorite thing for this is to play the “What if?” game. Ask yourself what would happen if you changed the time period or the location. What if you changed the main character’s age or gender? What if you subvert a trope you’re using instead of using it the same way it’s typically used? You can also use this with history. What if a historical event turned out differently? What if something had intervened? This is where some of my best ideas come from. I highly recommend giving it a try.
Now, how do you know if your idea is a good one?
I think all story ideas are good ones and worth exploring; but if you’re dead-set on having the best idea out there, here are some things to consider according to Donald Maass in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:
A good story idea is plausible, has inherent conflict, has originality, and has gut emotional appeal. The story will sweep readers away, have unforgettable characters, and have dramatic and meaningful events. If your story idea can meet all of those criteria, then your idea has a solid foundation. I’m not saying it’s a guaranteed success, but you’re off to a good start.
Those are my tips for finding story ideas. Try them out and see how they go. If you have any questions about this topic, please leave them in the comments; and I’ll try to answer them either as a reply or in my Q&A on Saturday.
Feel free to answer these in the comments if you want to chime in!
1) Do you have a hard time coming up with story ideas? Or do you have so many you can’t possibly use them all?
2) What do you do for inspiration? Have you tried any of these suggestions? Did they work?
Lenard-Cook, Lisa. “Chapter One: Fictional Seeds.” The Mind of Your Story. Writer’s Digest Books, 2008.
Maass, Donald. “Chapter Two: Premise.” Writing the Breakout Novel. Writer’s Digest Books, 2001.
Stern, Jerome. “Part One: The Shapes of Fiction.” Making Shapely Fiction. New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 1991.