Inspiration is a fickle beast. She strikes at inopportune times (3 AM, anyone?) then disappears for months on end. She doesn’t call, she doesn’t write. Or maybe she treats you differently, pouring on so many ideas that you can’t tell the golden nuggets from the stinky ones.
Finding and prioritizing story options can be a frustrating process, but it’s easier if you approach it from the right angle. Here are a few possible starting points.
Start with Genre
What do you like to write? What do you like to read? Which kinds of stories are you passionate about? We know that emotions are transferable, from author to page to reader, so writing something that gets you excited pays off in dividends.
Do you like fantasy? Which elements? Think dragons, portals, evil wizards, shapeshifters—then consider how those elements might be reimagined.
Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series gave us a whole new take on dragons, turning them from marauding villains into loving creatures that impress upon humans at birth and use their fiery powers for good.
Then, twenty years after the first book was published, she released the dragons’ origin story and how humans first came to Pern. While the previous books were straight fantasy, this one was also science fiction, showing the settlers traveling to the new world and using their technology to establish communities and bioengineer full-blown dragons from foot-long fire lizards. Dragonsdawn is an innovative blending of the sci-fi and fantasy genres in a way that was new and entirely fresh.
So think of the genre you want to write, then tweak the standard conventions to create something new. Or blend your preferred genre with another one and see what ideas come to mind.
Start with Character
Everyone’s process is different. It’s one of the things I love about the writing community—the vast diversity of thought and method that can birth uncountable stories. Maybe you’re the kind of writer who’s drawn to characters. They come to you fully-formed, or you have an inkling of who they are before you have any idea what the story’s about.
If this is you, start by getting to know that character. If you have a good idea of their personality, dig into their backstory to see what could have happened to make them the way they are. If you already know about their troubled past, use that to figure out which positive attributes, flaws, fears, quirks, and habits they now exhibit. What inner need do they have (and why)? Which story goal might they embrace as a way of filling that void?
Characters drive the story, so they can be a good jumping-off point for finding your next big idea.
BONUS TIP: For an easy-to-use, comprehensive tool to build your character from scratch, check out our Character Builder.
Start with a Story Seed
But maybe it’s not characters that rev your engine. When I’m exploring a new project, I have no idea about the people involved. Instead, my stories typically start with a What if? question. What if a man abandoned his family to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush—what would happen to them? What if all the children under the age of 16 abruptly disappeared? What if someone’s sneezes transported them to weird new worlds?
If story elements, plotlines, and unusual events get your wheels turning, brainstorm those areas. If inspiration strikes when you’re neck-deep in research for your current story, write down those potential nuggets. Use generators to explore concepts you wouldn’t come up with on your own. Keep a journal of any possible seeds for future stories so you have options.
Start with a Logline
If you’ve got a vague idea of something you might want to write about, a great way to explore it is to create a logline—a one- or two-sentence pitch that explains what your story is about. Here’s an example you might recognize:
A small time boxer gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fight the heavyweight champ in a bout in which he strives to go the distance for his self-respect.
Writing a logline for a story idea enables you to flesh it out and experiment with its basic elements. The process of test-driving your idea with different protagonists, goals, conflicts, and stakes can turn a boring or already-done concept into an entirely new one that you can’t wait to write.
BONUS TIP: For more information on how to write a logline, see these posts at Writers Helping Writers and Screencraft.
Start with GMC
Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (affiliate link) teaches authors how to use these foundational elements to plan and enhance a story. But the same principles apply to fleshing out a story idea. If you’re thinking about a certain goal (it’s a story about someone who has to stop a killer/find their purpose/plan a wedding), play with various conflicts and motivations. Throw ideas into the hopper and see what pops out. Keep turning the handle to produce concept after concept until one of them strikes your fancy.
Listen, we all know the importance of writing what we’re excited about. Without that passion, writing becomes a slog and our stories end up partially finished on a back-up hard drive instead of filling people’s bookshelves. So when it comes to story ideas, let your imagination run riot. Consider all the options, no matter how far out they are or uncomfortable they make you feel. Don’t stop ’til you find the one that gets you going.
Then get going.
BONUS TIP: For a comprehensive guide on brainstorming ideas and planning your story (as well how to draft and revise it), check out the One Stop for Writers’ Storyteller’s Roadmap.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Thanks for all these great ideas, Becca! I love the Idea Generator–especially looking through quirks, trying to figure out how they started. The same with fears!
Joy V Spicer says
Interesting post, Becca. I always start with a story seed, and have ideas in a notebook. I’ve not tried the Idea Generator on One Stop, might give that a go and see what comes up. And I might play around with the GMC method too. 😊
BECCA PUGLISI says
I love that there are so many ways to come up and play with story ideas. We all have our preferred methods, but it never hurts to give something new a try—especially when our way isn’t quite working :).