When I first began attending workshops for writing fiction, there would be a question-answer session after the presentation. Invariably someone in the audience would ask the author-speaker, “Where do you get your ideas from?” The reply was basically “If you have to ask that question, you aren’t a writer!”
At first, I agreed with the assumption that you’re not a writer if you can’t come up with ideas because I never lacked for ideas. Then it dawned on me that the people asking the question of where do you get your ideas from, didn’t know how, or had never been taught, how to look for and be aware of ideas with story potential.
To be aware is to have or show knowledge or understanding or realization or perception. So, in a nutshell, the secret to generating story sparkers (ideas) comes from awareness—either on a conscious or subconscious level.
Awareness is also about sensory perceptions coming into play. For instance, take the sight perception of seeing and reading a newspaper headline at the bottom of page ten: “Bank Safe Explodes.” The awareness factor strikes, you pause and re-read the headline. The mind begins to extrapolate— what caused the vault to explode? Who would put a bomb or chemicals, or explosives in a bank vault box? What if instead . . . maybe after the bank was evacuated because of a wild fire, thieves came in, robbed the safe, tossed in explosives, then got away.
You then read the news item and become enthralled by other possibilities—ones based on the reality of the situation. And so the what-ifs multiply and the idea blossoms and intrigues even more. This is exciting stuff that stories are made of.
As to awareness on the subconscious level, remember the subconscious is always in the background recording and noticing things. Therefore, anything noted by the subconscious might trigger a heightened reaction of awareness that sparks an idea for a story. However, when it comes to outside-the-box concepts and ideas, the subconscious mind is an innovator. The subconscious has a penchant for randomly mixing-and-matching things or relishing in the juxtaposition of elements and concepts. Good fodder for stories.
The hard part about getting ideas is determining if the idea has merit enough to spend the time and energy writing the story. It’s about asking “will this idea sell?” That is, is there a market for such a story? Another problem with vetting an idea is figuring out what kind of length the story will end up as—flash fiction or a novella, novel, or saga. In truth, a story will end up being whatever length it is when drafted. It’s in the revision process that length can be adjusted, or not.
It’s also important to reflect on the idea and ask “Has anyone else beaten me to this story idea? If so, how can I make mine unique and more appealing?”
Even though anything can spark a tale, the bottom line is that to become a producing writer of worth, you need ideas—lots of ideas. Generating more ideas means becoming far more aware of possibilities and to actively look at your environment with “new vision” and a “new sense of touch or taste” or listen for sounds or snippets of conversation. What follows is a list of 12 possibilities for increasing awareness and generating story sparks:
1. reading newspapers, especially headlines on interior pages because truth is often stranger than fiction
2. driving down a road, you see a sign or billboard, logo on a truck, a sticker on a vehicle, etc. that leads to a story spark (pull over to the side of the road and write the idea down, or dictate the gist of the idea into a voice recorder—but avoid texting and driving)
3. beginning with a crime. What is the crime (murder, theft, etc.)? Who would commit such a crime? Why would they commit such a crime? Who must solve the crime or seek justice?
4. looking at a landscape picture (on a calendar or from a magazine, newspaper, Pinterest, etc.) and asking— Would this make a setting for a story? If so, what kind of story? What kind of person or people could live on such a beautiful/harsh/exotic/sparse landscape?
5. reading poetry and discovering a zinger of an image or wording that awes
6. browsing the Internet (searching for something but coming across an interesting aspect that might spark a story)
7. being on the lookout for an animal that fascinates you *
8. being on the lookout for a flower or plant that amazes you *
9. being on the lookout for a fish that astounds you *
* these can be real (alive) or prehistoric, even drawings of the mythical
10. being on the lookout for a little-known ship or plane that had an amazing or unusual voyage in space or underwater
11. listening to snippets of conversation at parties, restaurants, etc. Ask: Who would say such a thing? Why?
12. visiting your local library and browsing the stacks for interesting titles or book covers, or looking through magazines you normally would never notice
Lastly, truth is often stranger than fiction. So, start with a reality and let your imagination ponder a fantasy worthy of a story.
Post Script — the list above is taken from “Story Ideas—32 Ways to Find Them,” which is available as a free “Writers Cheat Sheet“.
As one reviewer put it, Catherine’s stories are “brain candy for anyone liking action and character-driven stories.” Catherine writes lighthearted tales of phantasy realms and stardust worlds (fantasy, paranormal, and space opera/soft science fiction). Her stories are adventure-quests where characters are like real people facing real dilemmas. It’s where their journey (with or without a romance) has a satisfying ending.
Catherine began her writing career as a journalist and earned Pennwriters Published Penn status from articles and short stories. Her short stories have appeared in hardcover and online anthologies and magazines. Many of those short stories are in her anthology ADRADA TO ZOOL.
Her books include JEWELS OF THE SKY (sci-fi adventure), KARMA & MAYHEM (paranormal fantasy romance), and HEARTS AKILTER (a fantasy/sci-fi romance novella).
She has been giving online and in-person workshops and courses for more than two decades. At https://www.WritersCheatSheets.com, she offers free Writers Cheat Sheets and maintains a blog for writers at https://writerscheatsheets.blogspot.com/. Some of her courses are available as 1-on-1 Fiction Writing Courses (information is at https://www.writerscheatsheets.com/1-on-1-courses-for-writers-authors.html
Also available is “Terrific Titles—an all inclusive guide to creating story titles.” Her nonfiction guidebook for writers is REVISION IS A PROCESS – HOW TO TAKE THE FRUSTRATION OUT OF SELF-EDITING.
Join her Reader or Writers Bulletin List.
7 thoughts on “Ideas For Stories. Where Do They Come From? by Catherine E. McLean”
People ask me where I get my ideas. I tell them. They then look at me and ask, Why do you get those ideas!
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Everything around you is timber for a good story. Everyone has one. All you’ve got to do is figure it out.
Your article was very helpful. You mentioned a few areas for me to consider for generating ideas I have not thought of before. My dreams also have often been a source of a story, and
your right about ‘timber for a story is everywhere’ … I’m really good at ease-dropping in restaurants.
Interesting blog post. I’m asked that question all the time!
I guess I’m weird. My characters come to me first. I see them in the periphery of my mind wearing period dress, maybe doing or saying something. When I have time, after they’ve lurked long enough, I start asking questions like, Why are you hiding in the shadows? And when they finally tell me, I ask more and more questions until I find out what they want. The story starts to flesh out from there.
Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
Check out this great post from the No Wasted Ink blog with the topic: Ideas for Stories: Where do they come from.
It’s very true that truth is stranger than fiction! Great list! I’ve been working on a gritty mainstream idea (not my usual HEA ending), and more ideas for it popped in my mind while driving home from a meeting last night. Had to jot down. This one is a slow idea…but it’s percolating at odd moments!
The suggestions were great. Thank you for posting this!