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How do you come up with new story ideas? How do you brainstorm? How do you take a small idea and develop it into a big one?
New writers often fall into one of two categories. The first group has tons of ideas but isn’t sure how to actually write them. Often these stories have amazing concepts but need help on execution. If you’re in that group, we have a lot of articles on this site about writing fundamentals and story planning that can help you turn your great idea into a great story.
Other new writers find themselves in the opposite situation: they have good fundamentals, but they feel like they don’t have any ideas. Often these people see themselves as more “logical” or “mathematical” in nature and even might say “I’m just not a creative person.”
To that I say, baloney! Everyone is born creative, but for many of us, creativity was squelched by parents or teachers trying to rein in their children. Creativity can be learned and it can be improved with practice.
Even if you have an autism spectrum disorder, you can be creative. In fact, there are many successful writers today with those disorders, and many famous authors of the past had behaviors matching those that are common in ASDs.
So, step one is to let go of any negative views of your own creativity and say “Anyone can be creative.”
Sources for ideas
Before we start, I want to highlight two important things about brainstorming:
#1 – Write down your ideas! Use a note-taking app on your phone (I use Google Keep), carry around a notepad, just carry a pen and write them on your arm—whatever it takes. Keep it by your bedside table too, in case you get any good dreams.
#2 – Ask questions! A lot of brainstorming is about asking those six big questions you learned about as a kid: who, what, where, when, why, how? If you get stuck when developing an idea, ask yourself those six questions.
Okay, let’s get to it. Where do you get your ideas?
Dreams are one of the easiest ways to unlock your creative potential, especially for people who struggle with idea generation. For me, this is the primary source of my story ideas. When I’m ready to write a new story, I just take a look at my dream journal.
“But I never remember my dreams!”
That’s okay. Remembering your dreams is a skill that takes some practice, like anything else. The best way is to keep your idea journal, notepad, or phone right next to your bed, and write down whatever you can remember as soon as you wake up.
The more you do it, the easier it will get. If you can’t remember anything, just write down, “I didn’t remember my dreams, but I will tomorrow.”
If you wake up at night from a dream, resist the urge to roll over and go back to sleep. Write it down, even if it’s just a few words. Otherwise, you will forget it, even if you think you won’t. That’s just the way dreams are.
“But my dreams make no sense!”
That’s okay. You don’t usually mine your dreams for stories, you mine them for ideas. In your dreams, you’ll probably find them as more of a series of emotionally-resonant images (also called a dream sequence) rather than something that has a sensible plot.
Your goal is to take one or more of those charged images and develop it into a story.
Dream Idea Development
A few nights ago, I had a dream that I was riding my bike through the woods and magma was erupting from the earth’s surface. That one emotionally charged image was all I was able to gather from it. But it’s a powerful image, and the emotion I felt was that “I have somewhere important to be, but oh no, lava!”
Let’s develop that idea by asking some questions about it:
- Who? Well, who would be riding a bike in the woods? A mountain biker, for one, let’s say a young, fit guy with a mountain bike.
- Why? Why do people go mountain biking? Exercise, or to go hunting, fishing, study nature. Let’s pick one and say he’s was looking for rare birds to catalogue.
- What? What happens? A volcanic lava eruption.
- How? How did lava start erupting? Here we can decide if we want a rational explanation (a volcano is about to blow, natural disaster imminent), or something more magical, like lava people coming from the center of the earth, or something science-fictiony like aliens melting the earth with a giant laser.
- Where? Somewhere with volcanic possibilities. Let’s say Colorado, USA.
- When? It has to be after the invention of the bicycle, but let’s say the 1980s for fun.
So, by asking some questions that lead to logical answers, you can develop a charged image into a story idea with a Character, a Plot, and a Setting. Note that Who and Why are usually character questions, What and How are usually plot questions, and Where and When are usually setting questions.
|A mountain biker guy|
He’s looking for rare birds
|A volcanic eruption|
Magic lava people coming up
There you go, now you have the bones of a story. To develop the character further, you could just follow the logic. A young guy is looking for rare birds. Who would do that? Probably a high school or college student working on a project. Maybe a nerd who’s into bird watching.
What about the magic lava people? Well, a plot is about conflict, and we’ve got two sides here: the lava people and the humans. Let’s go big and say the lava people want to destroy humanity, and humans don’t want to be destroyed. You just keep asking questions like “why?” Well, why would they want to do that? Maybe the lava people are overpopulated and need more space, so they need to usher in a new era of volcanic activity. “How?” They need the secrets of human atomic bombs so they build and detonate them to trigger a worldwide eruption. And so on, until you have an entire plot outlined—see the outlining article if you want to learn how to develop basic story ideas into full-length outlines.
Doing this back and forth Q&A, over and over again, is how you develop ideas. It may seem like it’s difficult, but it’s a skill like anything else: the more you practice, the easier it gets. Remember, this isn’t some magical, touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo, it’s just using logical Q&A. If you don’t like your first answer, try to come up with alternate possibilities, just like a detective exploring different ways the crime could have played out.
Shower thoughts are those ideas you have when you’ve unplugged your brain from distractions and let it wander. In the shower, the sound of the water overwhelms your ears, the smells of soap overwhelm your nose, and you usually shut your eyes so you don’t have any visual distractions either. It’s about as close as you can get to a sensory deprivation tank.
Without the distractions of sensory inputs, your brain’s processing power is freed up, which is why many people say they have their best ideas in the shower, lying in bed trying to fall asleep, meditating, or on a long walk by themselves.
Whatever it is, if you give yourself time to think without distractions, it will help your mind wander and come up with ideas. In the modern world of smartphones, 24-hour news, and instant access to all kinds of social media, it’s hard to find time to turn off all the distractions, and you might find that when you do, you suddenly are full of ideas when you never had any before.
These sensory-deprivation times are also great for thinking about story problems in your partly-written manuscript. I find that most of my big epiphanies come when I’m mulling over the story in the shower or on a long walk. Suddenly, an easy answer to that unsolvable plot problem just appears.
Again, just make sure to write those ideas down! Like dreams, these shower thoughts often evaporate when your brain gets busy again. Bring your notepad on your long walk (leave the phone at home) and for the shower, you can get a bathtub writing set, which they sell for kids to write while playing in the tub.
Stories from real life
My favorite novel is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. According to Dumas, he based the villains of the novel on a case taken from the archives of the Paris police department. Likewise, Dumas also took much of the Count’s personal story from that of his own father, which is described in the 2012 book The Black Count.
However, there are key differences: Dumas gave the book a happy ending, unlike the story of his own father, and he also let the killer (the count) get away with his revenge plot, while the real killer did not. If you are writing books that are tragedies, there are plenty of real life examples, but if you want to sell the books to a large audience, they probably should have happy endings.
Of course, you may run into some legal trouble if you take ideas wholesale from the news or other people’s lives. If you’re writing for fun, that’s fine, but if you get a story published and someone recognizes themselves in the book, they could potentially sue you for defamation.
The best approach to staying out of legal trouble is to (1) never use the same or similar names as those of real people, and (2) change enough details so the story isn’t easily recognizable.
Now that you know how not to plagiarize, here are a few places to go:
- Ask Reddit: A forum where people post questions and then others answer with personal life stories, from big ones to “Why do you like to be alive?” to small ones like “What Valentine day disasters have you witnessed?“. You can sort the questions by date and popularity.
- Weird News: Human interest stories and strange events can be great story generators. There are many sources for this, such as NPR, Live Science, and the Miami Herald, for starters.
- Post Secret: Strangers confess their secrets by postcard. Tons of great ideas here.
- Humans of New York: A very successful blog of poignant micro-interviews. There are a few books of these as well.
One brainstorming game writers often play is that one person gathers a bunch of news headlines and pitches them to the group. Together, they try to come up with a story idea based on the headline. Often, this is done through Q&A thinking, as above, or through free association. Give it a try!
Free association uses randomness to generate the seeds of a story idea. The classic example is a therapist having someone look at inkblots and say the first word that comes to mind. You can try this with a friend (have them say words or show you pictures) or you can also use other randomizing tools, such as opening a random page in the dictionary ten times and dropping your finger on a random word. Write the words down and try to turn them into a story. You can also use an online dictionary.
You can also search for images online in a Google image search based on some element of the story, such as “fantasy art” or “vienna 1800s” or “mountain climbers” and then pick an image you like and start the Q&A process to figure out a plot, characters, and setting that can be derived from that image (or group of images!).
In our Discord server, we have a bot with a large database of writing prompts, image prompts, book title generators, character name generators, and the like. There are also number of “book title generators“, “writing prompt generators“, and “character biography generators” online (try these links or google the phrases).
Using these elements of randomness isn’t cheating, it’s just a way to get new ideas. Eventually an AI will be writing all novels for $0.99 based on your inputs (“Alexa, write me a novel…”) so you might as well take advantage of it now.
Modify an existing story
The three core parts of story are characters, plot, and setting.
If you take an existing story and swap one or two of those items out, what do you get? A new story idea.
The Little Mermaid is a Disney romance movie about a mermaid who wants to become human, so she sells her soul to Ursula, a villainous octopus lady, in exchange for her voice. When she goes on land, she is mute but somehow falls in love with a handsome prince.
|Characters||A mermaid, a prince, a villainous octopus lady|
|Setting||Pre-industrial fishing town|
First, let’s change it out the characters with some from The Sword in the Stone, a medieval Disney movie about King Arthur and wizards.
|Characters||A wizard, an evil witch, and the future King Arthur|
|Setting||Pre-industrial fishing town|
Now you’ve got a bit of a different story. It’s no longer about fish and mermaids, it’s a romance about a wizard and witch who start out enemies and fall in love while they groom the future King together as if he’s their own kid. Since this is set in a Little Mermaid-style fishing town, maybe he’s the future king of Britain. Would anyone recognize the source material as those two movies? As long as you changed the names, probably not.
Now let’s change the plot instead.
|Characters||A mermaid, a prince, the villainous octopus lady|
|Plot||A war/history story|
|Setting||Pre-industrial fishing town|
Now we’ve got a very different tale. A war—between who? There are essentially three factions in The Little Mermaid: the humans, the king of the sea (good guys), and Ursula’s underworld (bad guys).
So maybe the war is between the underworld and the king of the sea. The King needs to ask humans for help, using magical spells to allow them to breathe underwater and fight the evil forces.
Sound too much like Little Mermaid fan fiction? Maybe the war is because the humans have been hunting mer-people for a new meat source (a rare delicacy), and the king of the sea must ally with the evil underworld to turn the humans back, but at a great cost. The novel is primarily written from the King’s point of view, alternating with that of his daughter, who has fallen in love with a human who has a rare (possibly magical) ability to breathe underwater.
Would people recognize that as based on The Little Mermaid? As long as you changed the names and types of the characters, probably not.
Finally, let’s change the setting.
|Characters||A mermaid, a prince, a villainous octopus lady|
|Setting||A human colony on an alien world|
Here we’re going to reuse some characters and the basic plot archetype, but instead put it somewhere entirely different. Let’s make the colonist the “mermaid” of the story—someone who can breathe air when all of the natives live in water that’s toxic to humans. The colonist makes a deal with a villainous alien (a third race) to get a suit that lets her swim in the toxic water, but it has no speaking system. The colonist then falls in love with a native prince, and together they must defeat the villainous aliens.
Doesn’t sound like The Little Mermaid that much, does it? This is why “retellings” of old stories are so popular. Simply change the setting and it can become almost unrecognizable to all but the most astute observers.
The reason I used Disney movies here is that they are very good at retellings of old stories—primarily because the stories resonate, but also because they don’t have to pay royalties to an author. For example, if you take Hamlet and change the characters to African animals, you’ve got yourself The Lion King.
Retell old stories
As in the previous example (turning Hamlet into The Lion King) another great way to find story ideas is to copy something (public domain) from the past. These “retellings” are very popular. For example, Romeo and Juliet has been retold in movies and fiction countless times, as have most fables, children’s stories, and bible stories.
Obviously, you don’t want to copy something that’s already published and isn’t in the public domain, but there’s nothing wrong with taking an old story and retelling it, making changes to character, plot, and setting as you need to. If you go to a Christian bookstore, and open a few random books, I bet you’ll find most of the plots are based on one or more bible stories, but told in the modern era.
Another example: Agatha Christie took the detective formula from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock series, even down to the sidekick narrator, and made a few tweaks to it to create her famous Poirot detective series. Note that she didn’t steal the characters or the plots or the settings, but she copied the formula of the story: an oddball detective solves crimes that baffle police with the help of a less-skillful assistant/narrator who essentially acts as a stand-in for the reader.
Combine the old and new
You may know the saying “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” Keep this in mind when writing (well, maybe not something blue). A lot of successful stories are essentially combinations of an familiar idea with a new one, often borrowing from both. Here are a few examples taken from real life.
- Old idea: Shakespeare’s Hamlet
- New idea: African safari
- Result: Disney’s The Lion King
- Old idea: The fall of the Roman empire
- New idea: Space travel
- Result: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series
- Old idea: Biography of Alexander Hamilton
- New idea: Hip-hop music
- Result: The Broadway show Hamilton
- Old idea: A Pride and Prejudic style romance
- New idea: Magic
- Result: Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Glamourist Histories.
- Old idea: Oceans 11 style heist story
- New idea: Magic
- Result: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn
A lot of great books, movies, plays, and games can be thought of this way: a combination of something familiar with something new. The familiar component makes people feel comfortable; the new component keeps them interested.
How do you come up with the “old” and “new” item? There are a lot of ways, but one is to make a list of your favorite books, and then make a list of your favorite movies. Then pick one from each list and combine them into something new. Another is to use a list of genres (“fantasy”, “romance”, etc.) and a list of character archetypes or story archetypes. Or, combine one of those lists with your lists of movies, books, or plays.
Work with a group
Brainstorming with a group is often the best way to develop a story, but it can also be time-consuming. We do a lot of story brainstorming on our Discord server, so click the link at the top to join if that interests you. In addition to text chat, brainstorming with other writers in person or by video/phone can also be a great way to develop a story.
In general, the process is that one writer pitches a bare bones idea and the other people ask questions (the whole Q&A thing again) and discuss possible answers.
To get the idea of a group dynamic for brainstorming, give a listen to the Writing Excuses Podcast episodes on the subject.
A writing concept you may hear is that ideas are cheap. What this means is that ideas are easy to come by, but few people do the work to turn a story idea into an actual piece of writing. This may not seem like the truth, especially if you’re struggling with idea generation, but hear me out.
As you learn to recognize story ideas, you’ll come up with a lot—probably more than you can even write in a lifetime. Some of these will be vague concepts, like “cyberpunk version of Tale of Two Cities” and others might be fully-fleshed out with stacks of notes. But odds are, someone else has had a similar idea, maybe dozens of other people. The difference for you is that you’re going to write it, and all those other people aren’t.
Some new writers guard their ideas jealously, refusing to even discuss them without making someone sign a non-disclosure agreement. In most writing circles, this is just going to get you laughed at. If your idea is so great, why do you need to discuss it with anyone—it’s already perfect. Just get to writing it already.
Another common concern is: this idea is so good that I’ve got to save it for later, when I’m a better writer. I would recommend not doing that. You can always come up with new ideas, and as you become a better writer, they will likely be better ideas. What seems like a great concept when you’re 14 ends up looking pretty silly when you’re 24 and even sillier when you’re 34. Worst case, if you still love the idea, you can edit your original draft or re-write it. But for now, write the story you are passionate about! Write it now! You may not get a chance later.