How do we get story ideas? We all want an idea so great that we can’t put down the pen. But all writers sometimes feel like the muse has left them. If you’re like a lot of my fiction students, you might love words and language and get pleasure from putting together sentences, but struggle to find a story to structure your writing. Sometimes you might feel like you have to wait around for the angel of inspiration to bless you, but it turns out, generating new story ideas is a skill like any other. It can be honed and practiced.
This blog post is not going to be a list of prompts. There are endless web pages containing lists of prompts. These don’t always solve the problem of inspiration. It’s not uncommon to get a prompt, and still have no idea what to do with it.
Instead, I’m going to be talking about ways you can mine your own experiences and interest for story ideas. Unlike prompts, which might feel random or unrelated to you, these methods will generate story ideas for you that are already connected to powerful memories and the things you feel most passionate about.
Have A Writing Practice
I’ve talked a lot about the importance of having a writing practice. However, I don’t think everybody has to write every day. We all have different lives and schedules and what’s important is finding something that works for you.
The reason why this helps generate story ideas is the practice of writing will change how you see the world. When I was a teenager, I used to write poetry, and because I was in the habit of writing poetry, I would see things that would give me ideas for poems. I don’t write poems anymore, and I never get ideas for poems.
If you don’t know what to write about, you can start keeping a regular journal. This could be your day-to-day activities, your observations or your dreams. Eventually, you’ll start to notice what you like to write about, what’s interesting, and what could be expanded.
Write One True Sentence
This is how Ernest Hemingway always broke his writer’s block. For him, “one true sentence” is a simple declarative sentence, not something overly flowery or philosophical. His first lines usually have concrete physical details and introduce both a setting and a character. Here are some examples:
- It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. — “A Clean, Well-lighted Place”
- It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened. — “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
- He came into the room to shut the windows while we were still in bed and I saw he looked ill. — “A Day’s Wait”
What “true” sentences can you think of? You might want to imagine a person who caught your eyes somewhere, or an event from your real life. You can still feel free to use this as a jumping off point if you write fiction.
Listen to Music
Appreciating another form of art can help us reach creative breakthroughs. I often use paintings, photographs and music during writing exercises in my classes. Of course, you can get inspiration from dance, sculpture, film or any work of art that you’re passionate about.
When I use music prompts in class, or to inspire my own writing, I tend to favor songs that have cryptic lyrics. Some examples that I’ve used are “Birthday” by the Sugarcubes, “O Children” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan. I feel like this inspires nonlinear thinking as it is easy to free-associate from the images without pinning you to a single narrative. Or you could ignore the lyrics altogether and focus on the emotions that the music produces for you.
Of course, if you have a favorite narrative song, you can also try to expand the story. Maybe there is a minor character in the song that you’ve always wondered about, or you expect the lovers in the song are bound to break up.
Take Inspiration from Books
Part of being a writer is being part of the literary tradition. Writers have been taking inspiration from their fellow writers for thousands of years. Even Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was based on an Italian poem, which in turn was inspired by the Roman writer Ovid’s book Metamorphoses.
One exercise that I like to do with my students is to use opening lines from famous novels to begin our own stories. A good opening sentence can evoke endless possibilities. This works best if you use a sentence that’s unfamiliar to you, which is why I didn’t provide the titles which might introduce bias. Here is the list I use in class:
- “All children, except one, grow up.”
- “It was a pleasure to burn.”
- “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
- “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
- “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
- “A screaming comes across the sky.”
- “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”
- “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.”
- “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
There are many other ways to find inspiration from your favorite books and stories. There are published novels about the Pride and Prejudice characters fighting zombies and Sherlock Holmes during World War II. Being inspired by your favorite books isn’t just for online fan fiction, though you’re basing something directly on an existing work, make sure it’s in the public domain.
So you might want to give it a try. What happens when you put your favorite characters into a new situation or exotic setting? What would Romeo and Juliet’s marriage have been like if they didn’t die? What if Odysseus was an Iraq War veteran? All great books from the past can be updated a multitude of ways.