When you’re stumped, generating ideas for stories may turn out to be surprisingly easy. Try these 7 fun approaches:
1. Pick words blind and connect
This is a simple way to find unexpected ideas.
Take a book of fiction. (We took Alice Munro’s Selected Stories.) Open the book to any page with your eyes closed. Circle around and land on a word and write it down, until you have 5 to 7 words. If the word is bland or nondescript (e.g. ‘and’) repeat the step until you have one that feels worth writing down.
We found the following words:
- Former (p. 165)
- Morning (p. 281)
- Room (p. 312)
- Performer (p. 23)
- Present (p. 167)
Next, unleash your imagination and try to generate as many two-line story idea summaries as you can, incorporating the words you found. For example:
- Former performer finds a mysterious present in their room at an upmarket London hotel one morning… and it may be from a creepy stalker
- A girl stumbles across a room in her aunt’s home one morning where she finds the diary of a formerly famous performer who used to give piano lessons in the building a century before
- A present makes a performer close to giving up on their aspirations reconsider, the morning of a big concert, and they give an unforgettable performance that night that lights up the room
Each of these ideas came together out of only the 5 words above and a little imagination. The first could be a thriller, the second, a historical novel, the third, a bildungsroman (a novel about an artist’s growth). What can you come up with using this method?
2. Use structured prompts
It’s tricky to find ideas out of a single writing prompt. Structured prompts that guide you through a series of connected questions help you to continue the thought process you begin.
In the Central Idea section of Now Novel, for example, you start by thinking about genres and subjects that interest you and gradually finesse and summarize a story idea.
The benefit of using a structured process is you’re guided every step of the way (you can also email us your idea at the end for personal, considered feedback and suggestions).
3. Word-smash headlines
News headlines are equally useful for generating ideas for stories.
A single headline may give you ideas. For example, if we Google ‘heartbreak’ and go to the ‘news’ tab:
My mum paid £15000 for my dream wedding… then had a …
We get the above melodrama courtesy of the Daily Mail. This in itself could generate a story idea. For example:
- ‘…then had a hired hitman assassinate my husband-to-be’
- ‘…then had everyone deposit money for a gift registry and ran away to Barbados with the dough’
These may be silly examples, but headlines are great fodder for inspiration. Try combining multiple headlines. For example:
- A woman pays for her daughter’s dream wedding, then has a shocking ordeal when a man assaults four members of staff and four patients at the hospital where she works [two Daily Mail headlines combined]
4. Start an argument
Being contrary is a useful way to find ideas. You could, for example, take a figurative statement, a metaphor, and say ‘what if we took this literally?’
Colson Whitehead did exactly this in imagining the ‘underground railroad’ (the network of safe-houses and escape routes formed to help former slaves escape in 19th Century America) as an actual railroad.
There are all kinds of ways you can generate ideas for a story by starting a quarrel with either myth or fact. For example:
- What if the atom bomb was never discovered?
- What if Ceres (in Greek mythology) never got her daughter back from Hades’ underworld?
‘Thinking otherwise’ is useful to writers, in general. As playwright Tom Stoppard said of his writing process:
There is often no single, clear statement in my plays. What there is, is a series of conflicting statements made by conflicting characters, and they tend to play a sort of infinite leap-frog. You know, an argument, a refutation, then a rebuttal of teh refutation, then a counter-rebuttal…’Tom Stoppard in Tom Stoppard in Conversation (1994), p. 58
Arguing with yourself (or other writers, or history, or facts) is one of the fun perks of writing stories.
5. Use visual cues
Visual sources are also useful for generating ideas for stories.
Take an image-based platform (Pinterest, Unsplash) and browse images. Stop on one that draws your attention. Try to brainstorm a few two-line story ideas inspired by the image. For example take, this image by Evan Dennis from Unsplash, in the category ‘spooky’:
Look at the image and try to imagine a related story:
- In a small town, there are mysterious disappearances in the nearby woods, accompanied by strange graffiti appearing on tree trunks
- A treasure hunt in the woods on 6-year-old Jimmy Smith’s birthday goes horribly wrong…
6. Try using mind maps
Creating a mind-map is yet another practical way to find ideas and associations and generate fiction ideas.
Start by writing a theme or subject in the center of a page. Say, for example, the saying ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ (meaning that noble actions, rather than noble intentions, achieve good).
7. Look to quotes
Quotes are great sources for generating ideas for stories. For example, go to Brainyquote.com and enter a simple, abstract noun such as ‘love’.
One of the first quotes is this by the author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
Tell me who admires and loves you, and I will tell you who you are.
An example idea this could generate: Five great loves of a man from different decades of his life describe him. In the final chapter, the reader meets the man himself.
Use quotes like this to play, explore, and invent.
Need help creating ideas for stories? Start with a structured outline and develop your idea with help and feedback.