Coming up with great “story worthy” ideas can be tough. In fact, it can stop people from writing at all. When I tell people that I write, they often tell me that they’d love to write but they don’t know what to write about.
I also have more conferences on “what to write about” than any other topic.
I wrote a post several months ago addressing the question of where to find story ideas, but after having teens ask it again…and again…and again, I decided that I needed a more specific answer.
So, here are six specific strategies you can use to make sure you never run out of ideas for your stories.
Story Strategy #1 – Collecting Ideas from Your Life
In your life, you can find stories everywhere, you just have to pay attention.
For example, when I go to a restaurant or coffee shop, I watch the people. Who might make a good character?
When your friends are talking, do they ever tell funny, sad, intriguing, or shocking stories? Note them.
When you listen to music, do lyrics jump out at you? Are there stories behind them?
When you’re daydreaming, do you imagine scenarios of things that you’d like to happen to you? Write those down.
Families are full of interesting characters and stories to explore or expand on. For example, I based an entire character on some experiences my grandmother had before she passed. She suffered from dementia and had to be put into an assisted living facility which was tough. I wrote a short story about one of her experiences there and that story actually grew into a novel.
Strategy #2 – Finding Stories in your Favorite Things
This week, I hosted a chat with author Kristin O’Donnel Tubb in my classroom. “How do you get your ideas?” was one of the first questions the kids asked her.
She finds her ideas by thinking about and researching what she loves. She said,
“When you’re a writer, you’re in tune with what you like to write and you gravitate to those things. I realized I really like writing about space and stories set in space…when I started [my novel The 13th Sign] I asked myself what I really love about space, and one thing I loved was horoscopes. I read them religiously when I was younger, so I started researching them. I discovered the 13th sign and there was my story.” ~Kristin Tubb
We all have varied interests. Think about some of your main interests, whether you love social media, video games, sports, or dolphins.
Do a little bit of research and see if you can find a story hidden in something you already know about and find super interesting.
Story Strategy #3 – Stories from the Hidden Characters
This is a fun one for daydreaming. You can start with any story, a fairytale, a myth, or even a random youtube video about something that interests you. Every story has the main characters. There’s the protagonist, the antagonist, the mentor, the love interest etc.
Now, choose one of the minor players and tell their story.
For example, there have been countless film and print adaptations of Snow White. We pretty much know everything there is to know about the poor young girl with the evil, narcissistic step-mother, but what about the woodsman who was supposed to kill her? What’s his story? Maybe he really was an assassin who failed horribly or was he some poor guy who got caught up in the step mother’s conniving plans?
Or, what about Rosaline from Romeo and Juliet? She’s the faceless beauty that Romeo falls for, but she’s destined to become a nun. Does she even want to become a nun? Who is this girl? Why is she wanting to spend the rest of her life hiding in a monastery? What happened to her? Or, does she actually in fact love Romeo but something is keeping her from telling him? Does it break her heart when he dies? Maybe you could tell her story without ever even mentioning Romeo.
Minor characters appear in all kinds of stories, and while they play a minor role in one story, you can make them the main character in your story.
You also don’t need to pick a classic tale. Think of any murder mystery and rather than telling the story from the perspective of the detective, tell the story from the perspective of the victim’s little sister who doesn’t really understand what’s happening.
Some examples of entire novels or films written about “hidden” or minor characters are:
- The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. This is a modern version of the classic biblical story about Jacob the book of Genesis. Dinah is one of Jacob’s daughters and only has a brief mention in the bible. Diamant weaves an entire novel about Jacob’s wives and daughters which Dinah narrates.
- The film Malificent tells the story of the witch in Sleeping Beauty.
- The film The Grinch digs deep into the back story of that classic Dr. Seuss character.
Story Strategy #4 – Revising Classic Stories
Some of my favorite all time novels EVER are based on this strategy. Authors take classic stories and change the genre, setting, time period, and possibly even characters to re-create and revise the classic into a completely new story.
Shannon Hale, author of The Princess Academy, Goose Girl, and Book of a Thousand Days among other novels, has built an entire career doing this. She’s not copying or plagiarizing. She’s taking a classic tale and making it her own story by changing key elements such as the time, the place, or the genre.
Maggie Stiefvater, one of my favorite YA authors, also uses this strategy. I saw her speak in Las Vegas at a conference a few years ago. She explained that to find her stories she’s goes back to the oldest mythological story she can find. Her favorite is Celtic mythology.
Then, once she finds a myth that she likes, she tries to get past the magic to get to know the people. Her stories then evolve from both the myths and the character development she does.
I think of both Shannon Hale and Maggie Stiefvater as incredibly creative authors, but the kernel of their stories begin with other stories, so don’t be afraid to put your own spin on classic fairy tales, folk tales, or myths from anywhere in the world.
What’s your favorite myth or fairytale? And how might you change some of the key elements to create your own version?
In addition to Shannon Hale and Maggie Stiefvater, Goodreads has a huge list of modern retellings of classic stories if you’re interested in looking into more of them, but here are a few of my favorites:
- In her novel Mama Day, Gloria Naylor wrote a contemporary reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and her novel Linden Hills is a contemporary reworking of Dante’s Inferno.
- Wicked by Gregory Maguire tells the story of the wicked witch of the west from the Wizard of Oz.
- Rick Riordan has taken Greek mythology and added characters like Percy Jackson with great success.
- Nobel Peace Prize in Literature winner Toni Morrison re-envisioned The Odyssey in her novel A Song of Solomon.
Strategy #5 – Creating an Idea Collection
This story strategy takes time to build, but it’s well worth the effort. Essentially, every time you have an idea, capture it immediately, before it wafts away into the land of the forgotten.
I have two strategies that I use to collect ideas.
1) An Idea Notebook – For this, I use a big 12×12 spiral bound notebook that I fill with my ideas. I often get random ideas when I’m out and about, and I rarely have any kind of “official” notebook with me, so I tend to write down my ideas on whatever piece of paper I have handy.
When I get home, I tape my little piece of paper with my random idea into my Idea Notebook. I might also expand on it a bit.
This notebook is filled with post-its, little scraps of paper with my ideas/thoughts, newspaper articles, funny things I find on the internet. If I ever hear or read something that makes me think, “that might make a good story or character,” I cut it out or jot it down on whatever scrap I have handy, and eventually it ends up in my Idea Notebook.
When I’m stuck or just looking for a new idea, this notebook is generally the first place I go. Sometimes I find great stuff in it, other times I wonder what the heck I was thinking when I stuck something in there. It is a completely random collection of my thoughts. There is no organized system in it. It’s just a mish-mash of ideas that maybe someday I’ll use somewhere.
2) Evernote – I also have an online idea dumping ground. I adore Evernote which is exactly like my idea notebook but this one is online. I can access it from an app on my phone, from the downloaded program on my laptop, and from the internet, so it is always accessible. In Evernote, you can create Notebooks, so I have one for “Writing.” Then, and within that I have “Ideas.” The great thing about Evernote is that I can take a picture with my phone and immediately file it into a note in my “Idea” Notebook.
I also use it for research but that’s another post.
Finding story ideas that are “story worthy” can be one of the most daunting tasks when it comes to writing fiction, but it’s well worth the effort when you finally come up with that one idea that you love, that you can’t wait to sit down and write.
The key is to keep your eyes open for those ideas and then to record them when you get them.
Eventually, you’ll have a whole collection of good ideas you can turn to when you get stuck.