Keeping a Story-Starter Notebook: 5 Ways to Start Your Story

Everyone has their own hang ups when it comes to writing their story. Sometimes we’re inspired to write, but don’t know what to write about. Sometimes we start something but can’t get through the middle slog, or don’t know how to end it. Other times we know what we want our story to be about, but just don’t know how to start it. For this last reason, it is handy—nay, essential—to keep a Story-Starter Notebook.

Don’t forget, if you’re reading this in April of 2021, I have an Earth Month offer, only available until April 23, 2021!

What is a Story-Starter Notebook?

Very simply, a Story-Starter Notebook is just a place where you keep ideas of how to start a story. This doesn’t have to be in a notebook proper, but can be in an app on your phone, a spreadsheet on your computer, or notes in your planner. I personally use a shocking amount of space in my planners for just this purpose.

The idea is that you keep a running list of things that inspire you. What would catch your eye if you were opening a book and reading the first line? What would be a situation that would make you ask questions?

A short story of mine, “June,” about a little girl who knew that she and her mother were dragons, though no one else knew, came about from sitting under a tree watching kids play in its branches. I listened to the conversations around me, and wrote down interesting lines of dialogue. From there, the story was born.

How to Find Story-Starters

It’s all well and good to keep these things written down, but how do you find story-starters? If they were easy to find, then the plethora of writers who struggle to start their stories wouldn’t struggle to start their stories.

1. Generating Ideas

This is an assignment I often give my clients: write down any first-liners you think of and store them for a rainy day. This is just as difficult and easy as it sounds.

Write down any idea that happens to come to mind that you think sounds like a good story-starter.

Years ago, I was driving home and in my mind was arguing with someone, going over and over how I should handle a particular issue in my life. Then one line of my argument wafted to my attention. I realized that could make for a good opener. My mind then shifted from my imaginary argument to the different directions that line could take me.

Another time, while in Greece, I was a little less than sober and looked up at the cliff near the house. I noticed there was a particular pattern in the rock, and the thought, “My gin-soaked mind seems to have found the gravestones in the cliff.”

It needed some worked, but given that at the time I was working on a gothic horror, it felt like a perfect launching point for a scene. Of course, my mind was, as stated, gin-soaked. However, the next day I was able to rework it, polish it, and build on it.

These observations come up all the time. It’s just whether or not you’re present enough to witness them and take note.

2. Read Poetry

If you don’t already read poetry, chances are, you’ll hate being told to read poetry. However, there is a poem out there for everyone. Some like the floral language of the Romantic Era, others prefer something real, tangible, and directly relatable as is found in the works of Andrea Gibson, Dean Atta, Emily Juniper, or Tawnya Selene Renelle. Some want something with justice behind it, and find comfort and inspiration in Audrey Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, Staceyann Chin, Maya Angelou, and June Jordan. Or, some people are just interested in the weird, and find intrigue with poets like Jim Morrison. There are so many different styles of poetry, and saying you don’t like poetry is like saying you don’t like food. It’s nourishing and necessary, and there is something out there for all taste.

While reading it, you can find lines that inspire you, and by all means, use those as story-starter prompts. You might even use one of those lines as the literal first line in a piece (if you publish, be sure ask permission and give credit to the poet!).

Collect lines that resonate with you, that spark your imagination, that get your mind buzzing with possibilities. You can return to them time and time again for inspiration.

3. Eavesdrop

Yeah, you heard me. While yes, one ought not to eavesdrop, it makes for fantastic story fodder. I hear snippets of conversation all the time that get my mind reeling with possibility and questions. Start listening in to those around you while you’re standing in line at the bank, while you’re walking in the park, or if you’re (safely) eating outside at a restaurant.

Try not to take note of full conversations, but just of statements, even if they seem somewhat boring. You can use those statements or questions or exclamations to build on. How can they start your story and lead to something remarkable?

4. Random Page

Turning to a random page in a book can also be an interesting way of starting a story. This is closely related to selecting lines from poetry, though a little different. I personally have used this in terms of bibliomancy (I’ll get to this in a minute), though moments ago was inspired to look at it in terms of writing prompts.

As I was writing this post, I was interrupted by my phone buzzing, sending me a notification of a prompt: “Grab the nearest book to you, turn to page 45. The first line is your love life.”

A few of my friend commented on this with their nearest book. One of the lines was “Among the gifted, the ability to bend magic to your will is not a weapon that makes you exceptional, much less invincible.”

I was intrigued. What love-situation could make this statement necessary to be said, and true?

Bibliomancy is the art of holding a question in your mind, picking a book at random, turning to a page at random, and selecting a sentence at random on the page to answer your question. This can equally be used for story-starting prompts, or really, any writing prompts.

5. Observing the World Around You

Another way you can start to develop your story-starters is to pay attention to the world around you. Or, if you’re safely and wisely sheltering in place, you can do this with shows that you watch, or by opening the window.

Use your five senses and take note of what you smell, what you hear, what you see, what you feel, and what you taste.

Referring to number 2, reading poetry can help you tune in to how to observing the world around you. Many poems are simply observing and writing what is less noticed and noting the significance in what is being observed. By getting used to these kinds of noticings, you’re training yourself to do the same.

What do your senses notice?

Mindfulness

Being mindful is somewhat of a buzz concept. However, being present, that is, being aware of what is going on around you, and active enough in your mentality to take note of what is going on around you is the key to finding inspiration in daily life. There are a plethora of writing prompts out there, books that give you daily inspirations, exercises, and so on

Really, all you need is to be mindful.

This is a skill that sometimes needs to be built upon. Simply being in the moment. Taking five minutes a day to notice your thoughts, your breathing, your body, your senses, all of it. This is all that being mindful means.

When you do this, then you’re also in the presence of mind to notice when those interesting conversations are heard and write them down, when you have an interesting thought in your head wander through, when you see something noteworthy, etc. Thanks to technology, it’s easier than ever to jot these things down on our phones, or make a voice memo. Or, you can of course go the tried-and-true method of just keeping a little notebook with you for just such occasions.

If there is anything that can be taken away from this post, mindfulness is what will help you find writing prompts and inspiration in your daily life. Make noticing and being present a habit.

Your Homework

Your homework is to start your Story-Starter Notebook, whatever that might look like. However, there is a specific exercise to get you going:

Write 25 first lines.

Set a timer for 10 minutes and get down 25 first sentences in that 10 minutes. Don’t think this. Just write them out, one after the other. Whatever comes to mind, write it down. You’ll find that after the first few, you’re just desperate to get thing down. As a result, your inner critic gives up, thus taking some of the pressure off you, and your mind begins to flow.

Don’t forget, if you’re reading this in April of 2021, I have an Earth Month offer, only available until April 23, 2021!

Happy Writing!

Book a Free 30-Minute Session with Me

Are you thinking about working with me, but just aren’t entirely sure? Fill out the form, schedule a call, let’s talk. This is a no-pressure, non-sales-pitch call, where we talk about you and your writing, and whether or not you want to work with me. Let’s chat!

Intro to Generating Story Ideas: 3 Steps to Jumpstart Creativity

There are writers who have a piece in mind that is burning to be written, and that is their only focus. And then there are writers whose fingers itch to put pen to paper, but they have no idea what to write about. They dream of concocting worlds and characters that tug at the heart strings, that put readers on the edges of their seats, and influence societies into better ideas. And yet, they have no idea what in the world they should write about.

You aren’t alone if you struggle to figure out what to write about. I have a whole list of story ideas as well as spin-offs from those ideas, and concepts I’d like to explore, and so on—and yet I sometimes still have a hard time figuring out what I want to write.

However, I still have a few tricks up my sleeve to help me generate a story idea or two. There are three main tips that I use time and time again:

  1. Underthinking
  2. Taking Notes
  3. Retell

My tips and exercises are of course extended into your homework as well.

I also regularly use the Tarot, which is something I’ve already written about, so I’ll leave that out of this post. However, if you’re interested, you can read more about it here.

Underthinking Ideas

It happens to all of us. We could call it writers block, but I come from the unpopular opinion that writers block doesn’t exist. It’s a matter of thinking too much, and as a result, rejecting ideas. If you don’t think that’s the case, I challenge you to look up and read, if you haven’t already, Unicorn Western by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant. These two have written several books to help authors, as well as gone on to have successful fiction-writing careers as well. They challenged themselves to write a novel based on what they thought was an absurd idea: a unicorn western. They believed that you can write any story you want, so long as you do it right. And they were proven right.

This is a matter of not being too critical of ideas. After all, Sharknado was such a hit that they made six of them, as well as a spin-off film, video games, and comics out of the franchise. These are sharks in a tornado. I’m just saying. I know that I, personally, would have come up with that idea and said “No way, that’s too weird and out there. There’s no way to pull that off.”

You Are the First Gate Keeper

I know, not everyone wants to write something completely out there. I mention Sharknado and Unicorn Western only because I want to illustrate that the first gatekeeper is your own mind. You’re the one who’s nixing an idea before it can be fully developed, and again before it can be fully written.

However, by exploring the possibilities that your mind has to offer, no matter how ridiculous the idea might seem, you’re training yourself to think outside of the box. You’re teaching your mind that there doesn’t need to be a limit on what it creates, and you get into the habit of creating ideas.

Practice with Titles

I get emails from CoSchedule, and I love them. I don’t actually use CoSchedule, but their blog is amazing with the tips they offer. They also happen to offer a Title tool, which is designed to help you with SEO and your blog titles.

For most blog posts I write, I create at least 30 potential blog titles. Then I run them through the title machine and see their score, come up with more titles based on the score and so on, until I find the right one. Most of the time.

However, the first step is that I create 30 titles first. By the 10th one, I begin to stop caring, and I’m just trying to get titles down on the page. And I’m usually trying to do this quickly, since I still have to format my blog post, create the images for it, and so on (for those of you interested, I generally spend about 6 hours writing and creating each blog post). So then I start throwing out random blog titles, so long as they’re somewhat related to the post I’m creating.

And those ones, the further I get away from that first ten, are usually the ones that rank the highest on that CoSchedule Headline Analyzer. They’re also the ones that I find most catchy. And the reason why is because I usually stop gatekeeping my own ideas and just let creativity fly.*

Note: I have no affiliation with CoSchedule. This is my honest recommendation.

Your Assignment

There are a couple of ways you can practice this for yourself to break through that voice in your head that’s judging everything you create.

First, challenge yourself to create 30 book titles. If you have a blog, try it with the blog title. But if you’re doing this to create fiction, then I would stick to book titles.

It does help to have an anchor for your ideas. So maybe pick your genre, or something that you think would be interesting to explore. Maybe recently you’re super into reading sci-fi westerns, or maybe you like the idea of bringing legendary creatures into the real world, like Paul Sating does with his Subject Found series. Maybe you like the idea of a modern gothic, or connection with nature, or creating something along the lines of the Fast and Furious franchise. Wherever your interest is, use that as an anchor.

You of course don’t have to stick to that. Just let your imagination fly.

However, as you partake in this challenge, give yourself a time limit. Tell yourself you won’t spend more than 15 minutes creating 30 titles. That means you only have 30 seconds per title. This is pretty liberal. So if you want a greater challenge, give yourself 10 minutes to create these 30 titles. The key is not to think, just to create.

Taking Notes

Once you have been sure to get rid of that inner critic, you’ll start to notice that there are actually ideas all over the place if you pay attention.

The key to this is in part mindfulness. You need to be present enough in a moment to recognize what can be inspirational. It can be the way the clouds work, a phrase you hear, a mis-reading of a billboard, an interesting piece of graffiti, a question that catches you off guard, and so on.

For example, I was once enjoying some beverages in the sun just after I moved, and I looked up the hill and saw some strange rock formations. I initially thought they were headstones, which confused me, to say the least. Were they ancient? Were they meant to be hidden? If so, why were they there in the first place? I realized a moment later they weren’t headstones, but had been property walls that had been buried from the storm the winter before. However, I jotted down my initial impression, along with the phrase that came along with it when I noticed it, knowing it would be an interesting first-liner or a story.

As you go through your day, you see and hear plenty of things that you can use as a writing prompt. Keeping a notepad with you and jotting things down when you notice them can prompt ideas later on.

This takes a little bit of mental training, since we don’t always think in terms of “how can I use this as a writing prompt?” As I mentioned before, this is also a practice in mindfulness, of being present enough to recognize these things. So, go easy on yourself as you train yourself.

Your Assignment

Give yourself five minutes every day with a notepad or journal, and in a different location every time. I don’t mean different places in your house, though if that’s your option, that’s your option. Ultimately, I would recommend a different park each day, if you can, or outside a restaurant, or on a bench in a town center, or (if you can do this safely) in a mall or shopping center.

During this five minutes, write down your observations. They don’t need to thoughtful or anything particularly interesting or detailed. Go through your senses, and write what you see, what you smell, what you hear, what you feel, and what you taste (but please don’t lick anything unless it’s food you’ve purchased).

When you get to what you hear, try to move beyond mentioning the hum of general talking in the air, but maybe actually hear what’s being said around you. One of my novels came from me overhearing part of a conversation at the table next to me at a café.

Your assignment is just to record and get in the habit of noticing. You don’t have to write an item down and come up with a story idea from that. Just, notice and record.

This serves two purposes:

  1. The first purpose is what I’ve been writing about—getting in the having of noticing and being present. This can help you generate story ideas or find interesting things to spark your imagination.
  2. The second purpose is that this will help you craft details in your story later on. When you notice how much is going on around you, you’ll find that s you’re writing your scenes with your characters, they, too, notice what’s going on around them. This will enrich your writing and bring your reader deeper into the reality you’re creating for your characters and in your worldbuilding.

Retelling

Not to jump on the bandwagon of Hollywood (who are clearly running out of ideas if you’re paying attention), but right now, the re-telling of old stories is pretty big. As I’m writing this, theaters are awaiting the release of the movie Cruella, a story based on Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians. No judgement. I think it’s an interesting creative direction.

However, there are a lot of untapped ideas from looking at stories already told. I have often said that if I ask 10 writers to re-write Sleeping Beauty, I will get 10 different stories. Each writer has a different background and set of ideas, and thus no two writers are going to tell the same story (unless they literally write the Disney version, scene by scene).  

So, look at stories that have already been told. How can you retell it?

A truly beautiful example of this is Enchantment by Orson Scott Card, who takes the Russian tale of Sleeping Beauty and puts a modern spin on it. I devoured this book when I read it, and I recommend it to anyone.

Your Assignment

Consider some of your favorite stories, whether they’re stories that are told throughout history, or just a book or movie you really liked. Make a list of 5-10 of these pieces, and take one thing from each of them. This could be a character, a concept, a moral, a quandary that’s brought up, the world, anything. For each thing you take from one of these pieces, make a list of five directions or ideas you could write about using that one thing.

For example, returning to the retellings of stories that are making their way through Hollywood, their direction is the backstory of a character, usually the villain. These are a great direction, but there are so many others that can be applied. The movie Behind the Mask, which is a wonderful B movie, takes on the perspective of the killers of slasher stories. In the movie, a documentary crew follow a slasher killer as he walks them through his process of why he stalks the girl the way he does, how he chooses who to kill, why he chooses his horror mask, and so on. It’s a different take on a formula that is used over and over again in teen slasher films that brings “depth” (if you can go that far with a slasher film) to movies that have already been created in that genre. Just like Wicked brought a new depth to the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.

So of your list of stories, how can you bring new depth to them?

Conclusion

These are just a few ways you can generate ideas. This is by no means an exhaustive list. However, these are a couple of ways to try and break your mind out of the box it might have been in. Remember, that ideas are all around us, we just have to recognize them and be ready to explore them.

The hardest part about generating ideas is the pressure we put ourselves under. When we can learn to stop gatekeeping, be present enough to notice what’s going on around us, and to look at things differently, we can find story ideas all the time.

In the homework assignments below, I give a few tips to expand on some of the above-mentioned assignments. I hope you’ll find this all useful, and be sure to comment below with any of your own tips for finding writing inspiration, or if you found any of the ideas posted here helpful.

Your Homework

I’ve given assignments all throughout this post, but you still have some more homework. Generating ideas can be easy once you make it a habit, but until then, it is a practice. There are several assignments here that build off your assignments from this post.

Title Practice

There are a few parts to this homework. The first part of this assignment is to consider 5 to 10 existing book titles. Pick famous ones, and even better, pick ones that you don’t actually know what the book is about. It’s easier if you pick a genre you’re not well-versed in as well.

Once you have your list of 5-10 titles, give yourself no more than 3 minutes to come up with 10 story ideas for each title. Yes. 10 for each. The reason for this is so you don’t overthink your ideas. You’re just throwing ideas onto the page. This is to help get those creative juices flowing.

Next, consider your list of titles you came up with. Write 10 directions you can go from each title. That is, if your title is The Darling Buds of May, write 10 different story ideas that can relate to this title. Give yourself seven minutes to do this per title.

This is the important part: don’t analyze your story ideas just yet. Sleep on it. Don’t look back at them until at least the next day, or even better, leave yourself a week so you can look at these ideas with fresher eyes.

Notes on Your Notes

After a few days of taking notes on what you see and hear around you, make a list of 15 of your observations. Once you have your list, spend some time exploring what kind of story would stem from those observations if they were the first line of your novel. What would the genre be? What would it be setting up? How would it be important to the story as a whole? And what end would it lead to?

Retelling on a Different Level

We talked about taking a concept or character or setting from another story and considering how you can use it to inspire another story, or a retelling of an old story.

This piece of homework involves looking at the stories you enjoy, and instead of taking away one thing from it and using that as your inspiration piece, consider how you can retell the story in a different genre. What would Jane Eyre look like as a science fiction novel? What about if 1984 was high fantasy? Or Joker was a pirate romance?

Play with this idea. While you may not retell the Joker’s story as a pirate romance, it might spark an idea for a DC-inspired villain in that setting.

As you take your list from the retelling assignment, write a paragraph of a potential story retelling for each item on the list, exploring what it would look like in another genre. If you need to kill those inhibitions, put a timer on this exercise.

Once You have all Your Story Ideas…

Okay, at this point you should have dozens, if not hundreds, of one-liner story ideas. Go through and highlight the ones you like. In a new document or on a new piece of paper, start exploring each story idea.

You won’t get through them all. Not in one sitting, anyway. So go into word or Google Docs, or better yet (if you have it), Excel, and create a table with two columns: Story Idea and Notes. Keep a running list in this table, always adding to it, and adding any details of the story idea such as characters, themes, motifs, questions you want to address, world-building, and so on, in the Notes column.

Be sure to keep your list going. You’ll never know when something that seems a bit “blah” right now might inspire something completely different and new in the future.

Happy writing.

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Writing Exercise: Flipped Motivation

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Every character needs a motivation. It is the goal for them to work toward throughout the book. Your plot is how they get to that goal, and what helps or hinders them (pro tip: if you want an interesting book to read, throw lots of obstacles at your character).

In this exercise, you are going to do two things:

  1. Read the prompt and generate an idea.
  2. Throw away the first two things you come up with and write the third thing.

The second part of this exercise is to help you think outside of the box. If you write the first thing that comes to your head, chances are you’ve seen it somewhere, read it, it’s a common idea, or someone else is likely to come up with that one too. So, to really get your creative juices flowing, throw the first two ideas that come to mind.

Note: The second part of the exercise I learned from a writing competition I entered in 2017, put on by Wonderbox Publishing. I loved the idea so much that I’ve used it as a rule of thumb ever since. You can check out the anthology that came of the writing competition here (UK) and here (US).

The Exercise

The barebones of this exercise is that I’m going to give you a motivation, and you’re going to develop a scenario around this motivation. Motivations, again, are the key to a whole character, to making the reader care about what’s going on in the story, and it’s what makes your character participate in the plot. Likewise, your plot interacts with your character’s motivation, or your plot can be entirely reliant on your character’s motivation.

That being said, on we go! This is your character motivation:

Keep a Child Safe

This portion of the exercise has three parts (in addition to trying to throw away your first two ideas). Be prepared. It’s helpful if for each portion of the exercise, you practice the third-option rule. It will help you in the long run.

Part 1: The Good

Come up with a scenario in which someone would want to keep a child safe. Portray this specifically in a good light, as it would naturally be—who doesn’t want to save babies from burning buildings? Or make sure they don’t get hit by a car?

Create a scenario where this is a good motivation.

Part 2: The Bad

Now, come up with a scenario in which someone would want to keep a child safe, but it’s seen in a negative light. This could be socially, situationally, or personally. Does this make the character a villain? A protagonist? Antagonist (note: villains and antagonists are not always the same)?

Create a scenario where there is a bad motivation.

Part 3: The Ugly

You now should have two scenarios portraying positive and negative scenarios in which someone has the motivation to save a child.

Your final step is to combine these two scenarios. Are they the same person with two different aspects of the same motivation? Are they two people with the same motivation who clash? Are they the protagonist and antagonist who want to save the same child?

Play with this idea, and don’t forget to toss your first two ideas and run with the third one.

Continuing the Exercise

There are plenty of motivations out there that you can choose from: Survival from _______, finding love, revenge, finding a killer, proving their worth, winning the race, etc. Explore past stories you’ve written and think about the motivations you’ve used. Look at shows, movies, and books you’ve read and loved and ask yourself what the motivation of the characters were in each of them.

Can you improve the story by implementing this exercise?

Or if you don’t want to rehash old plots, come up with new ones. Think about motivations and apply them to new characters, new situations, and find the good, the bad, and the ugly to each motivation. What other stories can you concoct?

What did you come up with during this exercise? What were your first two ideas for each step? Share below in the comments!

Book a Free 30-Minute Session with Me

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