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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