Story ideas lie waiting in the unlikeliest (as well as most obvious) places. You could find an idea for the next bestseller while channel-surfing (as The Hunger Games’ author did) or by actively hunting an idea worthy of your commitment and creative energy. Read 15 methods that will help you create a good list of book ideas:
1: Try Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ method for finding story ideas
2: Get story inspiration from music
3: Find inspiration in facts from non-fiction and Google
4: Do physical exercise for a creative mind
5: Read news story headlines for intrigues
6: Combine story ideas from multiple sources
7: Make up improbable or unusual questions and find answers
8: Mine your dreams for ideas
9. Try brainstorming novel ideas in a different environment
10: Keep a journal
11: Use free-writing to associate ideas
12: Become a discreet eavesdropper
13: Draw book inspiration from your own life
14: Use mind-mapping
15: Write a book in dialogue with another author’s work
Let’s explore each of these ways to find story ideas further:
1: Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ method
Chance and random elements often jog our creativity. That’s why many writers who have writer’s block Google ‘story generators’ or ‘writing prompts’. The American author William S. Burroughs would take a text and cut it into strips of individual words and phrases, then rearrange them at random to create new sentences.
Aleatory (using chance and random elements to find new ideas) techniques have yielded interesting results throughout literary history. The French group of writers, OuLiPo, used made up constraints to write inventive novels. For example, Georges Perec wrote his novel La Disparation without using the letter ‘e’ (the most common in the French language). This constraint forced the author to find ideas and phrases beyond habit.
Get an old, battered second hand book. Cut up a page or two into strips of words and phrases with a pair of scissors. Jumble these up and place some chosen at random on a page (or choose your options more carefully). Does a line or phrase (or strange pairing) spark a story idea?
2: Getting inspiration for stories from music
Respected authors such as Michael Cunningham have mentioned in interviews that music is integral to their creative process. Try this exercise for finding ideas:
Put on a song you like. If you can’t catch every word, Google the lyrics and read along. Naturally this exercise works best for genres that tell stories, such as folk music. As you listen, write a synopsis of a novel that could expand on the message of the song. For example, in Joni Mitchell’s song ‘River’, she sings:
‘It’s coming on Christmas,
They’re cutting down trees,
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace;
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.’
You could use this as a launching point for a character drama. Why does the character wish they could skate away? Why do they feel alienated from Christmas festivities?
3: Using non-fiction and Googling facts for inspiration
Fantasy writer Robin Hobb says she often gets new story ideas while she is researching facts:
‘Often the research is what triggers the story in the first place. I may be looking up something specific in a story, discover a related fact or two and think, ‘Well, there’s a story idea right there.’
Open up an encyclopedia or Wikipedia. Search for a subject that interests you (E.g. space travel; natural disasters; the reign of Henry VIII). Read through and make a note of any surprising or interesting fact, event or anecdote that could be the seed of an engrossing story.
4: Exercising to free up creativity
Many writers swear by physical activity as an aid to creativity. Besides keeping you healthy, physical activity helps you brainstorm. Something about the monotony of the physical activity seems to set the mind to work and allow problem-solving from a different perspective.
If you’re worried about forgetting ideas you have while you are out doing something like running, carry a phone or voice-recording device to quickly record any brainwaves.
5: Finding compelling story ideas in news headlines
The internet is a treasure trove of ideas when it comes to news items. These range from the bizarre and absurd to the poignant or political. Skim the day’s events from the news of the weird to human interest stories from around the globe.
For example, if you go to the ‘News’ tab of Google now, enter ‘scientists discover’ and click search, you’ll get interesting headlines:
‘Scientists Discover Vast Swathes of Arctic are Bulging’. If you’re interested in the environment and our relationship to it, you might find an entire novel idea spooling out of that headline alone.
Do the same, and search for news articles on a subject that interests you, whether it’s science, music, sport or another subject.
6: Combining story ideas from multiple sources
Sometimes combining several different ideas can lead to inspiration. That’s what happened to the bestselling author of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins:
‘One night, I was lying in bed and I was very tired, and I was just sort of channel surfing on television. And I. . . was flipping through these images of reality television. . . and then I was flipping and I was seeing footage from the Iraq War. And these two things began to sort of fuse together. . . and that is when. . . I really got the idea for Katniss’s story.’
Try a similar exercise. Turn on a TV and flick through channels. Write down the most basic elements about what’s happening in the scene (e.g. ‘A judge is scolding a woman for shoplifting’). Then think about how the separate scenes and story themes could combine in interesting ways.
7: Asking creative ‘what if ‘ and ‘I wonder’ questions
The popular and prolific writer Neil Gaiman suggests asking questions to find ideas:
‘The most important of the questions is just ‘What if’. What if you woke up with wings? What if your sister turned into a mouse? Another important question is, ‘If only…’.
Ask yourself questions about your story or anything that interests you, and see where your answers take you. Create a list of questions, e.g:
‘What if a man was accidentally voted president and his name wasn’t even entered into the running?’
‘What if the trope of hostile aliens making contact were reversed and humans made contact with an alien race, inadvertently causing it harm?’
This idea finding process is built into the Now Novel step-by-step story building process. Try our guided story builder if you haven’t yet and see for yourself.
8: Finding story inspiration in dreams
Often what seems like a great idea in the middle of the night is revealed to be somewhat less inspired in the light of the day. All the same, dreams can form great kernels for ideas.
William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, got the idea for the book after he dreamed about a woman tattooed with numbers from a concentration camp. The first words he wrote on waking remained unchanged as the opening of the novel.
9: Brainstorming novel ideas in a new environment
Sometimes, being in a different environment can spark an idea. Trains, buses and other forms of transportation can take you out of your ordinary routine. It worked for J.K. Rowling:
‘…I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head.’
‘I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six, but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anyone if I could borrow one…I think this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain.’
Put this idea into practice. Take a notebook with you somewhere different to where you usually write. It could be a library, a botanical garden, a coffee shop or public transport. Just start writing down ideas for stories (switch off your inner censor).
10: Keeping a journal
Keeping a journal to generate story ideas does not have to be a formal process. In fact, it may be more useful if it is not. You can make lists, scribble down words or images that interest you, and make note of other types of inspiration.
Get a journal that is small enough that you can take it with you wherever you go. Alternately, some people prefer to make notes on a tablet or smartphone.
11: Using free-writing to associate ideas
Free-writing is effective because it doesn’t give you time to second guess yourself. Choose a limit, set a timer and go. Write for five or ten or fifteen minutes without lifting the pen from the paper. You can do this on a computer as well, and if you do, don’t take your fingers away from the keyboard or slow down. Don’t judge what you have written. Put it away for at least a day, and you may find that there is a good idea in there or even a story opening.
To begin, choose a subject to free-write on. If, for example, you love sci-fi, you could choose a subject such as ‘the dangers of technology’; ‘the rise of artificial intelligence’, etc.
12: Becoming a discreet eavesdropper
Listening to others’ conversations might feel a little sneaky but it can be a wonderful inspiration. It’s best to sit in a public place (such as a coffee shop or on public transport) and simply remember any interesting snippet of conversation you happen to overhear (rather than listening in intently).
Go to a public place and spend 15 minutes just keeping aware of conversation around you. If you hear any interesting view or idea, write it down later and see if you can tease a story idea out of it.
13: Drawing book inspiration from your own life
It’s not just the lives of other people that can provide inspiration for stories. As the saying goes, it’s important to ‘write what you know,’ and your own life, the people you have known and experiences you have had are probably far more interesting and unique than you give them credit for.
Think about what incidents from your own life that would make compelling fiction. It could be a surprising experience or encounter. List events, for example:
- The time I switched schools and how hard it was adjusting to my new classes and teachers
- The time I found a strange box of trinkets when we cleared out our home’s attic and wondered about their history
Even the smallest event can inspire a longer, more eventful story. An experience transferring to another school could become a book about an underdog finding their ‘people’. The story of the mysterious box could become a portal fantasy.
14: Using mind-mapping
This is a kind of brainstorming that involves starting with a word, an image, an idea, a character or some other element in the middle of the page and branching off from that element with other free associations. You might end up with an entire novel plotted or with just enough to begin a traditional outline or, if you are a pantser, the beginning of your book.
15: Writing a book in dialogue with another author’s work
Other writers are always a source of inspiration, but in some cases, they can inspire your novel very directly. The book Wicked used characters and a world created by L. Frank Baum while Michael Cunningham’s The Hours drew on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. If you are using material directly from the source as Wicked did, be sure the work is in the public domain. You can also look to world myths, legends and folklore for ideas.
One advantage of trying out some of these methods for finding story ideas is that you will realize just how many ideas are out there.
Join Now Novel and use the Idea Finder to brainstorm characters, settings, story themes and more.