To discover their next big story idea, journalists live, learn, brainstorm and, especially, practice. While finding new stories may come naturally to some, there are easy tactics to apply to overcome any sort of writer’s block.
Original journalism doesn’t mean coming up with fresh ideas on the spot all the time. Finding stories often takes an active effort to discover the untold and the unseen. Tracking important dates and events, receiving press releases or simply reading the newspaper can be helpful when it comes to finding news pegs or inputs, but if you’re still struggling to come up with your next story, we’ve asked some experienced journalists for advice.
From travel writers to investigative reporters, here are a few tips and strategies to help you churn out new ideas.
Listen to people
“I’d say everybody you know has a story in them and you just need to work out what it is,” says Gaby Koppel, a freelance journalist and TV producer based in London, U.K. That doesn’t mean you need to write or report about them specifically, but you might be inspired to look deeper into a topic because of something they said, experienced or told you about.
“I have one friend who is a social worker specializing in adoption,” Coppe adds. “We went away for a weekend and were chatting in the car for ages. Soon after that I got a commission to write a piece about people over the age of 50 adopting children, which was inspired by something she said to me.”
Talk to people about their lives, and listen to them carefully so you don’t miss out on your next big commission.
[Read more: Common mistakes journalists make when submitting pitches]
Look for questions
Even if you don’t find stories based on what people talk about in person, the internet makes it easy to understand what’s on their mind. “I get a lot of ideas from Reddit,” says Los Angeles-based freelance journalist Suzannah Weiss, referring to the popular American website where users can submit content and discuss different topics. “I’ll scroll through subreddits related to topics I’m writing about to see what questions people want answered, and what’s interesting to them,” Weiss explains. It was through her dedicated use of Reddit that she wrote an article about the myth of multiple orgasms, for example.
But much of Weiss’ work is born out of her own curiosity: “A lot of my articles are just me asking experts questions that I personally want answered, and then sharing what I find out with the rest of the internet,” she admits. Like when she wrote about the reasons why she prefers long-distance relationships for VICE.
Cultivate your niche
Lorenzo Bagnoli is a journalist with the Investigative Reporting Project Italy, an investigative journalism center based in Italy that has recently launched an online publication. Much of his transnational work is the result of tips from the global network of colleagues he’s developed through the years, he says, while some stories were prompted by existing investigations.
“Let’s say there is an investigation going on in another country, for example, involving names and companies that I find interesting or that I’m familiar with,” he says. “I would do some research on an open-source website like The Open Corporates , and see if any leads come up.”
Bagnoli also uses business registers and personal archives, including press clippings or papers of police operations, to cross-reference his findings. He adds: “It’s very important to have colleagues to talk to, to mutually help each other vetting information.”
[Read more: 12 tips for writing editorials]
Google Alerts and social media monitoring tools are an easy way to help you keep on top of your beat. However, more specific resources are available too. In his investigative work, Bagnoli says he and his team often use vessel tracking databases, creating notifications about specific ships and locations.
“There was this investigation by the French NGO Disclose about a cargo ship that had been at Le Havre port, in France, that they thought had loaded weapons destined to Saudi Arabia,” he says. One of his colleagues, specializing in online research and satellite images, confirmed that the presence of the ship had been registered by others, too. “I tracked down documents and reconstructed its movements, including stops in the Italian ports of Genoa, Livorno (Tuscany) and Cagliari (Sardinia) Italy.”
With that, he wrote a story for Il Fatto Quotidiano, one of the country’s largest newspapers.
Track official inquiries
Lindy Alexander is a freelance travel and health writer based in Australia, and the founder of The Freelancer’s Year, a popular blog about how to earn a living from freelance writing. She loves trying unusual ways to find stories.
“One that I’ve used quite a bit is by looking at current senate inquiries,” she says. For example, this list of parliamentary inquiries in Australia. “Often you’ll find topics that you’ve never heard of, as well as submissions and potential experts and/or case studies,” she explains.
It was through that database that she found out about an inquiry into transvaginal mesh impacts, which are used for pelvic organ prolapse and are thought to have caused chronic pain and persistent bleeding in up to 100,000 Australian women — and thousands more worldwide. “I pitched a story to The Saturday Paper and was commissioned,” she says. “This is the resulting story, and one I’m very proud of.”
Are you ready to write but don’t know what to write about? Prepare to kick your writing into gear by browsing through our list of 200+ short story ideas. New prompts are added each week, and you can search by genre. But don’t let our categories stop you from putting your own spin on a writing prompt: if you find a short story idea tagged as sci-fi, but you think it would make a great romance plot, run with it! For tips on how to come up with your own story ideas, scroll to the bottom of the page.
We found 236 stories that match your search 🔦
You're sitting at your desk eating candy hearts. You start to realize the notes on the hearts are trying to give you a message.
A team of scientists have successfully teleported an apple. It reappears with a bite taken out of it.
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After the crash, he vanished. Some say he moved to a compound in Africa, some say he went off the grid. But the Silicon Valley genius who engineered the greatest stockmarket disaster in history is hiding in plain sight
Amazon has invented time travel and introduced pre-emptive shipping. Today, you receive something completely unexpected from your future self.
August 30, 1946: The date of the one and only time travel convention. You attend every year.
Every day, you visit the same moment from your past.
In the closet of your new home is a portal through space and time. You accidentally travel to Mars.
Top 10 story ideas. just for you!
Want a story idea right away? No problem! Here are our top ten favorite story ideas for you to use:
- A group of villains go on a team-building retreat.
- You are granted one wish. But you have to use the wish for someone else.
- Instead of trying to get a man on the moon, every nation raced to be the first at the very bottom of the ocean.
- Money really does grow on trees and is heavily regulated by governments.
- A plane takes off with 81 passengers. It lands with 82.
- You are home alone watching TV. A character dials a number on their phone. Your phone rings.
- You open a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant. Inside is a handwritten note.
- A magician, a troll, and a college student walk into a bar.
- It is the year 3000. The sun starts to flicker.
- An optimist becomes a pessimist. Why?
Top 10 short story ideas. also for you!
Every short story author out there knows that short stories are different — and not just because they’re, well, shorter. So if you’re seeking a short story idea, we’ve got you. Here are our favorite bite-sized short story ideas:
- Turn one of your grandparent’s old stories into fiction.
- A romance told through a series of texts.
- Two people are playing chess. One person can read minds, the other person can see the future.
- Write a story that draws from a moment in your life where you wish you’d made a different choice. Have your protagonist make that choice, and then see what happens.
- Amazon has invented time travel and introduced pre-emptive shipping. Today, you receive something completely unexpected from your future self.
- Write about the way the sunset looks from the perspective of two characters. One is sad, the other is happy.
- A wand-maker goes to the forest ready to work, only to find a group of environmentalists camped out in front of their favorite hemlock tree.
- Pick a genre and then write about a long walk home after school.
- The last person on earth celebrates their own birthday.
- A team of scientists have successfully teleported an apple. It reappears with a bite taken out of it.
How to come up with short story ideas yourself
We get it: writing prompts are an excellent resource, but you want to know how to come up with your own story ideas. Here are four of our go-to tricks when thinking of interesting things to write about.
1) People-watch: Hands down, this our favourite way to come up with story ideas. All stories, even ones about robots or plants, have some element of humanity at its core. There are therefore a countless number of stories to be found by observing human nature. 90% of the prompts included in our writing prompts newsletter are inspired by simply staring out a window and watching people go by.
2) Forget what you already know: Have you ever become trapped in a “but why?” loop with a child? It’s enough to make your head spin or an existential crisis occur. But if you can return to this sense of curiosity and wondering you had as a child, you can find a treasure trove of short story ideas to be found. Take in your surroundings and ask yourself why things are the way they are. What if they were different? What would that look like and how would it work?
3) Use your day job: If you feel like you have the most interesting job on the planet, well, perfect! It shouldn’t be hard to use it as plot-fodder for a great short story. On the other hand, if you find yourself yawning a lot at work, ask yourself: What could happen to make this work day interesting? Let’s say you work as a receptionist but your real passion lies with art. Write a story about a receptionist who sees a colleague hang a new piece of art in their cubicle — one the receptionist recognizes as being famous for going missing a century ago.
4) Read: Imagine walking up to a piano and trying to make beautiful music without ever having heard it played before. You need to consume great short stories in order to know what you enjoy about them. Figure out what you like, and you’ll be on the path to great writing topics.
Ready to start submitting your short story to writing contests? Find the right one for you in our list of writing contests.
Looking for writing tips? Sign up for our free course: How to Craft a Killer Short Story.
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So, you’ve decided to write a short story! Many a published author got their starts from publishing short stories. It’s the perfect medium for so many authors: succinct, clear, character-driven, and brief.
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(Carol is on vacation this week. This blog post is a reprint of a post that original ran in October 2009 on her writer site, caroltice.com, back when her blog was still called Start Freelance Writing. Enjoy!)
Other writers often ask me how it is that I always have so many story ideas. Back when I was a staffer and needed four story ideas a week, I often had a couple extra left over to give to other reporters.
Personally, I wish there was a brain operation I could get where I’d think of fewer of them, because it’s a bit frustrating as I can never get to them all! But on the plus side, it means I always have a lot of ideas to pitch editors. ‘
In the current down economy with layoffs abounding, having a lot of story ideas is more important than ever. Magazines and newspapers that used to have suites full of editors have often dismantled those brain trusts, and they’re looking to you – the freelance writer – to supply them with ideas.
It’s a terrific strength if you can present yourself as someone who has a lot of ideas. Being an idea factory positions you well for getting regular assignments from your editor contacts instead of just sporadic work.
Do you have trouble finding story ideas? In general, you probably need to read more widely and talk to more people.
1. Plug into local events. Be aware of what’s going on in your town, and go to events when you can. Walk around, open your eyes, talk to people and see what’s there. I went to a harvest fair on my island a few weeks ago and discovered a local resident has created a reproduction 1910 gypsy wagon she uses as a guesthouse – it’s stunning, and I hope to sell the idea to a local shelter magazine. You never know when you’ll see a new product or creative idea that could be turned into a story pitch. When you’re socializing or at the gym, find out what people do – their hobbies and unusual vocations are prime story-idea fodder.
If you’re going to a local event, be sure to ask local media if they need someone to cover it – you may make a few dollars while you’re there looking for more ideas!
2. Track issues and controversies. Is your neighborhood up in arms about shoreline access, a sex offender who’s moved in, or a planned new development? You may be able to cover these for local publications or use them as examples to illustrate a national trend for bigger pubs.
3. Where are they now. If you happen to know where someone is who was once in the limelight but has been out for a while, and they’re doing something new and interesting now, that’s a great story. Folks love to catch up with figures like these, so if you have access to one, pitch away.
4. How-to pieces. The Internet is bristling with these, and if you have some expertise you can get paid decently for them. Be sure to target high-circulation or high-readership markets.
5. What’s missing. When you read the newspaper, do you find stories that raise more questions than they answer? Those missing facts are new story angles you could pick up and follow.
6. New products. If you discover a hot new product or fad that you can demonstrate has found a market, that’s a great story to tell in business magazines, or maybe a women’s or consumer magazine, or perhaps an industry trade publication. If a startup has gotten their product into a big national chain such as Wal-Mart or Nordstrom, that’s a great story.
7. Recycle. Read lower-level publications for ideas that can be repurposed for bigger, better-paying markets, perhaps by adding more sources or a national expert for perspective. Association and charity newsletters, small-town newspapers and university magazines are all great places to find news that could play on a bigger stage. It also works in reverse – scan national publications for national trends you could “localize” for statewide, regional or local publications. Be a compulsive story scanner — flip through every publication you can get your hands on.
8. Take the one-hour news challenge. If you have trouble finding ideas, you may need to sharpen your curiosity and your skills in getting people to talk to you and tell you their news. Try this exercise: Go to the center of your town, get out and walk around for one hour, with the goal of coming back with at least one story idea. Go in every shop and talk to the owners about what’s going on, talk to customers, people outside eating lunch, and people you’re waiting for the bus for. I had to do this once during a writer’s retreat at my paper, and it was amazing how many stories we came back with after just one hour.
Let me know if this gave you any ideas for stories that you sold – I love success stories!
We all have a million excellent ideas for stories, but, without fail, they magically disappear the minute we sit down to write. It seems impossible, but it happens constantly. Hours are wasted staring at a blank page. And, no matter how many cups of coffee are in our systems, we still can't find the energy to kick our muses into gear and develop story ideas.
Have no fear: I have five ways that will help pump up your creativity muscle and build story ideas that will keep you writing for hours on end. Here they are.
1. Reinvent a scene from a book.
Take a very small, seemingly non-important scene from one of your favorite books and consider what it'd be like if that were the opening scene to your novel. Change the characters of course, and add one or more unique elements to that scene. The key is to give you a starting point and then let your imagination run wild. While there are many ways to stay inspired, this challenge really takes something that you love (an old book) and gives it new life.
2. Use junk mail as inspiration.
Take the next two pieces of spam mail you receive (either snail mail or e-mail) and use it to determine the profession on your protagonist and your protagonist's love interest. I get this type of mail all of the time, particularly from politicians, credit card companies and auto dealerships—and that's just what's delivered by the United States Postal Service! When I add in the junk sent to my e-mail inbox, I get "foreign ambassadors from Nigeria" looking for million dollar loans and women begging me to click through to get "erotic" pictures of them. Any one of these jobs will lead to many fun and unusual situations—and will give you plenty of fodder to write about.
3. Invent a history for someone with whom you've lost touch.
We have all had friends in our lives from grade school, high school or college that we knew quite well back then, but haven't seen much (if at all) since. In fact, most of their lives are a mystery to us. Pick one of those old friends and write about the life they've been leading ever since you lost touch. What happened in his or her family life? What career path did he or she choose? Was he or she involved in something that led them to a life of crime? The possibilities are endless, which should drive you to be as creative as possible.
4. Eavesdrop on a conversation.
Just because you're stuck in a bit of a funk when it comes to ideas doesn't mean that other people are. Take your notepad or laptop out of the house, sit down somewhere and observe the scenery around you—and listen to any and every conversation within earshot. You can do this at a park, restaurant, coffee shop or, my personal favorite, a bar (people who have a few drinks in them tend to share the best stories). Remember, jot down all the stories you hear but be sure to give them a twist to make them your own.
5. Find a writing prompt and run with it.
Sometimes the best cure for writer's block is to let someone else start your story for you. You can search the web and find a number of sites that offer them, or check out our database of creative writing prompts that gets updated every Tuesday. And who knows: The idea you get from a writing prompt may be just the inspiration you need to spark your creativity and write a short story or novel that sells.
Writers talk all the time about writer’s block, but no one really discusses the bigger issue: idea block. After more than a decade of writing for a living, I sometimes feel like I’ve completely run out of ideas. Not just story ideas, but all original thoughts.
If you cover a beat, you often find yourself in a recurring cycle of news, with the same issues popping up over and over, and it can feel like you’ve already done it all. Even freelancers can get bogged down by idea block, because having the opportunity to write about anything and everything means you have to narrow down your ideas. That can be problematic in a 24-hour news cycle when, by the time you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), it feels like every idea has been taken by someone else.
There are, however, ways to beat the “I have nothing left to say” blues.
Be willing to recycle ideas. When I wrote about veterans’ affairs for a popular men’s magazine, we worked with as much as six months of lead time, so every idea I had was covered in another outlet before we had completed a publishing cycle. To work around this problem, I started looking at what was getting my favorite reporters talking. One journalist I loved was Katie Drummond, and I found an old piece she’d written on military burn pits. Her article came out in 2012, and by the time I was writing the issue in 2013, very little had changed — and in this instance, no news was big news. So, I explained the issue to my readers in a way that worked for them. It turned out I was on the right track, too, because a few weeks after my article published, Drummond published her own follow-up on the burn pits. But Drummond’s original story also inspired me to look for other similar issues, and I eventually found a story about Navy veterans suffering from problems caused by contaminated water on their ships, as well as a story about post-traumatic stress. And those only came about because of Drummond’s original idea.
Look for connections. Don’t want to recycle? You can still borrow to get to the story by finding the trends. Maybe you’re seeing a lot of stories in the national news about the run-up to the Olympics. Maybe equipment used by the athletes is made in your city, or perhaps you have former Olympic hopefuls living in the area. You can even cover stories that don’t necessarily have a local angle off the bat. With California legalizing recreational marijuana, you can write about what that means for your region’s legalization efforts, or you can dig into non-THC cannabis products, like the newly popular CBD-infused health and beauty products, which are legal in all 50 states. There’s always a way to connect a story to your audience if you dig deep enough.
Know your audience. Reporters can feel like something is old news even if the rest of the world thinks it’s breaking news, so it’s crucial to think about who you’re writing for.
“I approach writing the way I approach planning a party,” Olivier Knox told me last year. “I know what kind of food I want to eat, what I want to drink, what kind of music [I want to hear]. I know I need a sign that says where the bathroom is. So while some stories [are driven by] my curiosity, I also try to think of what the reader would want to know.”
You may know everything you’d want to know about a particular topic, especially as a beat writer, but you’re not writing for yourself.
Know your purpose. “A story will either get a reader or keep a reader,” says Joanne Cleaver, a freelance business and personal finance writer. In her beat, that means that a story on buying your first home, while it’s not new, will be new to a segment of the population, and could attract new readers to your outlet. Such a story also has the potential to keep an older, more engaged reader active, because they may want to pass that story along to someone else, or use the information you’ve provided them to advise a younger family member or colleague for whom that information is new.
Be curious. Knox, Yahoo’s chief Washington correspondent, told me that curiosity is a big part of what drives his feature storytelling. That should be a driver for every reporter. Chances are, of course, that after a while you’re no longer curious about your beat — especially if you’ve been on the same one for years — but you’re definitely curious about something. So, figure out what that is and find a way to apply it to your newswriting.
When I started working on defense stories for VICE News, I brought some of my curiosity about my previous profession writing for men’s magazines with me. When I was tasked with writing about the advancements of the intelligence community, instead of writing straight news, I compared the agencies to old-school men’s pin-up magazines, how that industry evolved and how the internet changed that field completely. It turned out there were surprising similarities between the two industries’ growth, and my approach made the story easy to understand and accessible to readers who might not be familiar with the inner workings of the intelligence community. (And that article has since been used as a teaching resource in at least one college class and one military training class.)
Ask stupid questions. Every journalist does their research before starting a story, so by the time you’re interviewing a source, you know as much about the topic as possible. But that means you probably aren’t asking the super-simple, very basic questions. “Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions,” said Sarah Gray Miller, editor-in-chief for Modern Farmer, when I spoke to her in November. Often, she says, you’ll get a new angle for your story from asking something as simple as “What does this mean?” or “Why does this matter?” This is especially important for reporters who are covering a niche topic for a general audience. “Some of our stories come from just asking the really obvious question and then doing a deep dive into it,” Miller explains.
Find what isn’t news. This may sound counterintuitive, but things that aren’t news can be news, if you try. Cleaver, who often covers personal finance matters, says 401ks are never big news, but there are plenty of stories you can tell about them. Off the top of her head, she rattled off more than a half-dozen ideas that journalists could cover in January as people are thinking about their contributions to their plans. “There are a lot of angles [to every story],” Cleaver says.
The important thing to remember is not to get so bogged down by the news — or lack of news — that you lose sight of the story ideas that are all around you.
By generating news story ideas from their own life, students learn how news develops from people’s natural curiosity about the people, places, events and situations of daily life.
Warm Up Activity
Review with students: What is “newsworthy”? from Lesson 1.1:
- Conflict and Controversy
- Human Interest
Main Activity 1
Show students Debate Over School Choice Divides Texans, an SRL produced piece that exhibits the qualities of a newsworthy story. After the piece is over ask students to give examples from each quality of newsworthiness.
Ask students and have them share in pairs or small groups:
- Is anything in your life newsworthy?
- Is there anything newsworthy in the stories you hear among your family, friends and in your community? Why or why not?
Ask each group to pick their most newsworthy story and share it with the class. Have students from each group explain why their story is the most newsworthy and take a class vote on whose story is the best/most newsworthy.
View and discuss these videos to build students’ knowledge of how news stories get created from the events of daily life. Being a good listener and considering the five news values is the key to finding and developing local stories.
Ira Glass on Storytelling, Part 1
Ira Glass explains how TV and radio broadcasts develop from real-life anecdotes in story form and how a series of questions and answers keep people’s attention.
Associated Press: How to Pitch a Story
AP editors Jon Resnick and Associated Press Editor Donna Cassata explain how to prepare your story idea and pitch it to a news editor.
Main Activity 2
Generate News Stories from Life
Pass out the Worksheet 2.1 and introduce the activity. Students can work on this in class or as homework. Set a firm but short deadline so students can experience some of the pressure involved in journalism. This is an exercise to get students thinking, not a final project. Use the criteria on the worksheet to offer students feedback about their oral presentations. Have students fill out an SRL Pitch Sheet.
Time for Performance
Each individual student performs a pitch. Either you or the class should offer “warm” and “cool” feedback. Warm feedback is positive and acknowledges strengths. Cool feedback offers comments and suggestions to help the learner reflect and improve.
For a reporter, it's not hard to find things to write about when a big news story is breaking. But what about those slow news days when there are no fires, homicides or press conferences to cover? Those are the days when reporters must dig up stories on their own, stories not based on press releases but on a reporter's own observation and investigation. This ability to find and develop seemingly hidden news stories is called "enterprise reporting," and the articles found here will help you learn to develop your own ideas for stories.
Finding Ideas for News Articles
Are you looking for newsworthy stories to cover but don’t know where to start? Here are some places you can dig up ideas for news articles worth writing about right in your own hometown. Once you’re written your article, see if you can get it published in the local community paper, or put it on your blog.
Enterprise reporting is all about the stories a reporter digs up on his or her own, what many people call “scoops.” Enterprise reporting goes beyond merely covering events. It explores the forces shaping those events. In this article, you can find out all about the importance of asking "why, " looking at "changes" in trends and more.
Find The Local Angle
So you've combed the local police precinct, city hall and the courthouse for stories, but you're looking for something more. National and international news typically fills the pages of big metropolitan papers, and many beginning reporters want to try their hand at covering these bigger-picture stories. In this article, you'll learn how to "localize the story," looking at how you can connect international news to your local community.
Developing Ideas For Follow-up Stories
While covering breaking news is straightforward – simply go to the event and write about it – developing follow-up stories can be more challenging. Here we discuss ways you can develop ideas for follow-up.
Finding Ideas for Feature Stories
So you're interested in writing feature stories but are stumped for ideas? Here are five easy feature stories that you can do in your hometown.
As important as our school’s work is, it can seem routine to those of us on the inside. Sometimes we don’t recognize the stories that are right in front of us. Here are ways to help you think creatively about your department’s activities.
Story Ideas to Get You Started
- news brief items
- grants awarded
- research projects and news
- recent awards and honors
- recent article or book publications
- media mentions or features where you are quoted or interviewed
- community engagement/impact activities
- upcoming events
- students doing interesting work and have a story to tell
- alumni with unique backgrounds who are making an impact in their fields
Can you connect your work to:
- current events: Is there a trending political topic that ties to education we should be providing our expertise on?
- ongoing media stories: Does your work relate to current issues?
- a conversation taking place on social networking sites, blogs and other online sites?
- a campus event: Does your research relate to an upcoming lecture?
- pertinent topics outside education: Is there an interesting correlation between your work and the economy, green concerns, etc.?
Stories can be significant if they:
- involve many people
- affect people over a long period of time
- have an impact on quality of life, even if for just a few individuals
- are worthy of superlatives: Is your work the first of its kind, the largest study to date, fastest procedure, most cost-effective treatment or most efficient method?
People care about what’s close to home.
Local issues are the clearest way to demonstrate proximity.
Have you helped solve a problem that affects our community?
Does your work directly or indirectly promote economic development, employment or corporate partnerships?
Educators, administrators, counselors, psychologists and information specialists are often averse to controversy.
Yet as an expert in your area, you can add constructive thoughts and opinions to subjects that are being discussed in public forums.
If you have an opportunity, consider contributing thoughtfully to a debate. By doing so, you can bring positive news coverage to your work and to our school.
Do you have a story that would engage readers’ emotions and have a far-reaching impact?
For example: You’ve not only helped introduce a new education tactic, but you’ve also helped underprivileged people in urban schools access to education.
If you jumped online to find writing prompts or story ideas, you’re in the right place.
But what I’m about to tell you may surprise you.
Novelists must think differently from other writers.
Our aim is to create a world our readers can get lost in. But it’s easy to become overwhelmed before we even start.
Do you struggle with ideas?
Or is your list so long you don’t know where to start?
Writing fiction is not about rules or techniques or someone else’s ideas on the internet.
It’s about a story well told.
Ideas are all around you, and you can learn to recognize them. Then you can write with confidence and love the process.
How to Wrangle Your Big Story Idea
Suzanne Collins says her idea for The Hunger Games came while channel surfing between reality TV and war coverage. Both featured young people, images blurred, and Katniss Everdeen came to life in her mind’s eye.
J.K. Rowling got the idea for Harry Potter travelling by train from Manchester to London King’s Cross in 1990.
William Faulkner says The Sound and the Fury began with the image of a young girl in muddy drawers up a tree, peering through a window at a family gathering. He had no idea who the girl was or what she was watching, but she intrigued him enough to cause him to create his novel.
I can’t promise story ideas that rival those classics, but you CAN unearth story ideas buried in your head. Here’s how:
1. Recognize the germ.
Most fiction starts with a memory—a person, a problem, tension, fear, conflict that resonates and grows in your mind. That’s the germ of an idea that can become your story.
My first novel was about a judge who tries a man for a murder that the judge committed.
That’s all I had—along with its obvious ramifications. I knew guilt. I recalled being caught in a lie. I could imagine the ultimate dilemma—desperate to hide the truth while being responsible for stewarding it.
Learn to recognize those germs as they emerge.
I know a novel idea has legs when it stays with me and grows. I find myself telling my wife or sons the idea and embellishing the story more each time. If it fades or loses steam, I lose interest in it and know readers will too.
But if it holds my interest, I nourish and develop it until it becomes a manuscript and eventually a book.
2. Write it down.
Free write without worrying about grammar, cliches, redundancy or anything but getting down the basics. (In fact, until you complete your first draft, take off your perfectionist cap and turn off your internal editor.)
And carry a writing pad, electronic or otherwise. Being old school, I like the famous Moleskine™ notebook. Ideas can come at any moment. Record ideas for:
- Anything that might expand your story
3. Invent characters from people you know.
Fiction must be believable, even if set in a land far, far away centuries from now. That means characters must feel real so readers will buy your premise.
Two failsafe ways to build credible characters:
- Base them on people you know
- Be fair with antagonists
Characters live inside you because of the people you’ve met.
Brainstorming interesting, quirky, inspiring, influential people and mix and match them. A character might be an amalgam of one person’s gender, another’s look, another’s personality, another’s voice…
Don’t allow your villains to be one-dimensional, evil just because they’re the bad guy. Have credible skeptical characters. Give them motivations as strong as your hero’s. The best villains don’t see themselves as villains. They think they’re right.
4. Get writing.
The note-taking and research has to end at some point.
You’ve got to start getting words onto the page.
Try the Greyhound Bus Challenge for Writing Ideas
Perhaps you’re struggling to come up with a viable idea.
Imagine a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. What’s on the corners? Corn? How high? Dusty fields? Snow? Mud?
A dot appears on the horizon and comes into focus as a Greyhound bus. Where’s it coming from? Where is it going?
It stops at the intersection. Is anyone waiting there?
A man? A woman? A child?
Anxious? Excited? Scared? Relieved?
Where are they coming from? Where are they going?
- Are they dressed appropriately for the weather?
- Are they running from someone?
- Are they running to someone?
By now a character should begin forming for your novel. Decide on the worst trouble you can plunge them into and see where that takes you.
You Have What It Takes to Come Up With Great Story Ideas
Few pleasures in life compare to getting lost in a great story.
The story worlds you and I create and the characters we birth can live in the hearts of readers for years.