Writing Corner: Getting Story Ideas

Getting Story Ideas

Have you ever wanted to write a story but you can’t think of a good idea? Everything you think of sounds like something you’ve written before or just sounds stupid. What do you do?

Everyone has their own techniques, I’m sure, but I’m going to share a few of the ideas I have for coming up with story ideas. If you have any of your own, please let me know in the comments.

There’s an old saying (which, to be honest, I just made up), which says:

“If you want to catch fish, you need to keep your line in the water.”

an old saying I just made up

What this means for writing is that you need to be open to stories as you go through your daily life. You need to train your mind to see the world in terms of stories. Trust me, they are out there. You might think every story in the world has been written already, but the fact is, there are more stories hiding under every rock and bush than have ever been written in the history of the world. It’s just up to you find them. Here’s how to look.

1. Asking “What if..?”

This is a great way to get story ideas, especially for fiction, because it is a way of looking at the world in a different way. It is a peek into a world that does not exist, but maybe could exist.

This way of thinking will lead to a lot of ridiculous ideas (What if books were made of cheese?”), and some pretty horrible ideas (What if doughnuts could feel pain?), but it will also train your mind to think at the world slightly from the side, to see that extra dimension of what might be. The next question you should always ask yourself when coming up with story ideas, especially unusual ones, is why. If you can’t answer this question, then it’s probably not a great idea. For instance, with the question “What if books were made of cheese?”, I can’t think of a great answer for that question of why they would be made of cheese. Of course, if you are writing an absurd story, anything is possible, but if you want it to be the least bit serious, you need to answer that question. Your readers will definitely ask the question.

For example:

 “What if students taught the teachers?”

I get an image of a student standing up in front of class with a bunch of teachers sitting in the desks.

Why would this ever happen? Well, they say that the best way to learn something is to teach it. So maybe there is an elite school with a very small number of students where the curriculum is that the students have to make lesson plans and then teach the lesson to the teachers. The teachers then ask questions and guide the student towards understanding, while taking on the role of learners. You would have to think of a compelling conflict, but the point is, it is the beginning of a story you could develop. If you go through your daily life asking the question what if, you’ll come up with some interesting ideas.

Like really: what if?

2. Asking “I wonder how/why/if/when…”

This is similar to “What if..?” but while that is about what might be, “I wonder” is usually about what actually is. Some of these would take research to find the answer, but the Internet is great for that sort of thing.

For example, “I wonder when cheese was discovered” could lead to thinking about what it was like when first person stored some milk in a sheep’s stomach and it turned all hard, but surprisingly delicious and great on pizza. Here are some other “I wonder” statements and story ideas that could come from them:

I wonder how fish survive the winter?

→ A story about a school of fish grouping together and resting at the bottom of a lake, maybe what they think or dream about if you want to make it more fantastical

I wonder what it would be like to hear into the past?

→ A story about someone who can hear things from 200 years ago and follows the stories of the people he hears, or maybe solving a mystery in the past just by listening to the voices of those people from the past.

I wonder who first made fire

→ A story about the first time someone made a fire and what happened. Were they honored? Feared?

I wonder if bigfoot is real?

→ This is a technique you can use for any legends or mysteries, to imagine if they were real and what that would mean.

I wonder if I should write more realistic stories?

3. Taking things to their illogical conclusionsa

This is what I call this technique, and it’s one that I like to use. This is when you take something and follow the logical conclusions until it gets absurd. Let me give you an example I was just thinking of today.

Starting point: Zombies eat brains

Conclusion: in an all-zombie society, everyone would eat brains

Further conclusions:

  • Zombie restaurants where you can order brains of different animals (for example: “I’ll take the 12 oz. macaque brain, hold the brainstem.” “Very good, sir.”
  • Kids complaining of eating hippocampus, wants to eat cerebrum.
  • Brains made of soy for vegan zombies
  • Bags of mice brains, like popcorn, when watching sports (probably Lurch Ball)

You can go on and on like this, replacing aspects of our society with absurd zombie alternatives. These types of stories are, of course, almost always comedic, but depending on the starting point, you could use it for fantasy or science fiction stories too.

4. Combining this and that

This is a great technique if you find your stories tend to be the same kind of stories (for example, if you always write scary stories about writers living in Maine).

With this technique, you can use random word generators or random image generators to get ideas. Of course, you could use them separately to get your creative juices flowing but I find it helps to combine them. For instance, I just went to the two random generators I linked above and got to word “board” and this picture:

What kind of story would come from putting these two together? Maybe it’s about a boy sliding down the hill in winter on a board?

Okay, so why is he doing that? Maybe he was grounded and sneaked out to go sliding. Maybe he really needs money and so he bet someone he could go down an extremely dangerous hill without getting hurt. The point is, this gives you a starting place to create a story. The benefit of using random things is that it could lead to stories that you never would have thought of. Some of my best stories have been ones where other people have suggested the story premise since it forced me to go in a different direction than I normally would have.

5. Twisting Established Stories

By this, I mean taking a well-known story idea and changing a few key things to make it your own. This is a popular technique, but one to be very careful of as well.

This does NOT mean to write a story of a girl that goes to a magic school in Russia and is the chosen one who will defeat an ultimate evil force. That is way too close to Harry Potter and other such stories.

What I mean is to take a general story theme or a public domain story and put a new spin on it. For instance, the story of a knight going on a quest to rescue a princess. The movie Shrek put a twist on this by making it the story of a monster who goes off to rescue a princess. The story of Hamlet is about a son whose father is betrayed by his uncle, where the son must avenge his father and take the throne back. The Lion King put a twist on this by making all the characters African animals. There are a lot of modern novels that are written by taking fairy tales and putting a modern twist on them or retelling them from a different perspective.

A Time to Kill…but with horses

Now it’s your turn

  1. Use one or several of these techniques to create some new story ideas. Feel free to email me and let me know how it goes.
  2. Think of how you have come up with story ideas in the past. It might seem like they just came to you but see if you can remember the seed they sprouted from. Was it an image or a person? This will help you be aware of your own processes for getting story ideas.)

If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at greenwalledtreehouse@gmail.com.

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