Perhaps another way to phrase this question is “where do story ideas come from?” The answer is simple: story ideas are all around us. Everything we see, touch, smell, hear, and taste has the potential to be a story seed that blossoms into a full-fledged story if nurtured properly.
For some of us, this nurturing process is intangible, defying attempts to be described or squeezed into a bullet list. But for most, full story ideas aren’t something that spring up like eureka moments. Instead, the full story only emerges after idea “seeds” are watered and nurtured.
I’m one of the latter. Rather than waiting for the mysterious process by which a story miraculously springs into existence in the rusty innards of my mind, I take small ideas or observations and massage them into stories, similar to how Orson Scott Card uses his “Idea Net”. Let’s take a look at how this works.
Start With Observation
The environment around us is teeming with story ideas. Rather, it’s teeming with events and objects and people that seem completely ordinary to a non-storyteller. On any given day, while driving to work, we may see one or more of the following:
- A car accident
- A traffic jam
- A person walking a dog
- A person out for a jog
Take a look at that list. There’s nothing particularly interesting about anything mentioned. How many times have we seen each of those things in our lives?
We need to engage our inner “storyteller” and look at those situations differently. The average person will drive right by and see nothing more than a “car accident” or “roadkill”. A storyteller, on the other hand, sees things quite differently.
But how do we engage that storyteller mind?
Always Ask Questions (and) Avoid Cliche
You may be in the minority of people who sees one of the mundane events listed above and is overcome by a mystical force that dumps a story in your lap. If that describes you, then I doubt you’re reading this anyway. The rest of us mere mortals have to work at it. But it can be done! And it starts by asking a simple question: What if?
Let’s take the “Car Accident” example. I doubt you can go a single day without seeing one on your way to/from work. Here’s what goes through my mind as I drive past the accident.
What if a man stops to help the person in the accident? Wait. I’ve already hit my first cliche, but not to worry. This is to be expected. The first group of answers that come off the top of your head will inevitably be cliches. Dig deeper. Keep asking “what if”.
What if it isn’t a man? What if the person who stops is a woman instead? What if it’s a woman stopping to help a man? Ok, this is a little different. This isn’t something you usually see, so maybe we’re out of the realm of cliche. Still, not much of a story here. Keep going.
What if what we’re seeing isn’t an accident at all? What if the man staged the accident because he was targeting the woman, and he knew she would be irresistibly drawn to it? This sounds better. Now we’re digging into something interesting. Now the answers are spawning more questions.
But there’s a problem. I’m an epic fantasy writer. I can’t have cars and car accidents. So what do I do? The same thing I’ve been doing! Keep asking the “what if” question!
What if instead of cars we’re talking about horses or some kind of exotic mount? What if instead of an accident, it’s actually a lame horse on the side of a path/trade route/etc.? But why would the woman stop? Maybe she’s an animal lover, or my milieu’s equivalent of a veterinarian. The man with the horse knew this woman was going to pass by at a certain time, and he knew she would be compelled to offer assistance because of her profession or personal convictions.
This is getting more interesting with every question. We may be on to something here. But we’re not there yet. Something’s missing. In fact, a LOT is missing. We need to ask more questions.
How did the horse go lame? He stepped in a hole. No…too cliche. What if the man made the horse go lame somehow? Ok, this is more interesting. Now we’re dealing with a person who is bad enough to harm a helpless animal to further his own interests. Maybe the man is our antagonist?
Better, but there’s still a lot missing. Why? Why target this specific woman? Well, the woman has a lot of gold/coin from her profession and this is a robbery. Ouch…back to cliche land. Ok, so maybe she has access to some treasure or a powerful item that he wants or needs. Darn it…that’s the same cliche, just rephrased.
What if they used to be married?
Oh, that turned things up a notch! So, they used to be married and now he’s looking for revenge? Groan. It’s like we take one step forward and one step back…right into cliche. The reader will see a revenge motive coming a mile away! And there’s nothing about this that says “fantasy” other than the fact that we’re dealing with horses instead of cars! Boring.
What if the horse has some kind of…attribute or quality that separates it from other horses? What if the quality is so special in this milieu that the death of one would be a tragedy?
That’s a little better. Keep going.
What if the woman is a sworn member of a secret/ancient society charged with taking care of these horses, and the man only knows this because she used to be his wife?
Interesting, but there’s something basic about this that still feels like cliche to me. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the role of the sexes. I mean, we have this woman who lives to protect animals against a “bad man” who wants to hurt them. Just feels like I’ve heard this before.
What if instead of protecting the magical horse, her society is charged with exterminating them?
I like this. Now what if… You get the idea.
The End Result
The entire process is about question and answer. You start with something mundane, throw questions at it, and keep changing things up to avoid cliche.
If we were going to summarize these “story ideas” as blurbs, let’s take a look at where we started:
A peaceful, horse-loving woman stops to render assistance when she sees a lame horse.
After asking a lot of questions and discarding a bunch of answers, this is where we ended:
A sinister plot is unleashed to eradicate the fabled OogalyGoogaly horse from the realm, and only one man can stop it: an ex-husband with a secret.
Are we going to sell millions of copies of this story? Well, I’ll be the first to admit it needs some polishing. Your milieu will also drive the question/answer process, so it’s probable you’ll arrive at a different destination than I did in this quick and dirty example.
Go through your day dragging that “Idea Net” behind you. If you do it consistently enough, you’ll start looking at mundane situations through the eyes of a story teller. When you get to that point, you’ll find that coming up with ideas isn’t the problem…it’s finding the time to execute them
This notion of an “idea net” was invaluable in the early development stages of Necromancer Awakening (my bestselling debut fantasy novel).
So how do you generate story ideas? I’d love to hear about your process! Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.
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About Nat Russo
Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
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I enjoyed reading your blog entry. I thought there was something wrong with me, as my brian does this often on it’s own. Now I know, I should write more.
I’m of the firm belief that “writing more” is the answer to 90% of our problems 🙂
Good one….I constantly struggle to come up with story ideas…
Glad you liked it, Ankur.
Stories come to me in all sorts of different ways. The most interesting was probably when a one-liner from a stand up comic sparked an idea for an opening scene. The whole story grew from working out WHY that scene was taking place. Many of my readers have said it is their favorite of my stories.
I love it. Amazing where you can draw inspiration from!
Great post, Nat. We should all be more observant and dig past the cliches.
Thank you, Jeff! That’s definitely the challenge we face as writers!
Wow. I LOVED this post! I love writing, but it’s admittedly been a LONG time since I had any ideas and it’s been frustrating to feel so tapped out. Thank you for this way to hopefully start filling up that well that’s been so empty! 🙂
Thanks, Felicia! Once you engage the “what if” engine, I think you’ll start generating ideas left and right.
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Great post. I will be what iffing my way to greatness now. 🙂
Haha! That’s the spirit! 🙂
Really loved the post Nat – have heard the What If idea before (but have never put it into practice, which is criminal when you think about it), but loved the way you laid it out. Great stuff and really helpful!
Much appreciated, Lee! It’s amazing how “what if” can turn the mundane into something spectacular.
This is a great article, I’ve actually read a couple of yours thus far and have been very impressed and inspired. Thank you.
Story ideas come to me at random times. it could be as simple as a name I see and think “what a cool name” I try not to use the exact name for my character but use it as an inspiration for a character. Sometime random sentences will come to my mind. and it may become the basis of a story or the first sentence that blooms. I like the “What if” method, I’ve used it before without putting much thought inot it but definitely look forward to paying closer attention to it. Thank you !
Thanks for the kind words, Josh. It sounds like the source of your stories is very similar to mind. They come to me in seemingly unrelated bits and pieces. But over time, with some reflection, they synthesize into complete stories.
Well…”complete” is pushing it too far. Let’s just say they give me enough to start plotting and writing. My stories are rarely “complete” until around the 5th or 6th draft. 🙂
Great post! I have found you can also get great ideas from keeping a dream journal. It works really well for me since I’m super logical by day, but completely abstract at night. Another source I have used for fleshing out ideas and working on my creativity is a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I highly suggest it for any writer in need of a different perspective or a new direction.
That’s a great recommendation, Nicole! I’m also a fan of dream journals. I keep a journal next to my bed and jot down interesting imagery as it comes to me.
So true. After I had become a writer I started to observe people more. I watched what made them tick and what ticked them of. Observation is of the utmost importance. That said many of my ideas simply come from books, TV and video games. And as for cliches, I avoid them but have to give in to some to avoid others (if that makes sense.) I am currently writing horror and although my characters are everything but cliches, a small part of the plot is. I have tried working around it but that would not enable me to deliver the killer punch. The essence of my story. I hate cliches and trim to as little as I can, but as of now there are some I can’t remove completely. Great post.
You bring up a good point (about selecting some cliches in order to avoid others). I think we may be looking at a terminology gap that I’ll be addressing in a future article. I’ve found there is a fine line between trope and cliche. Trope is necessary to make a reader of a specific genre feel more comfortable, like putting on an old glove.
Trope can devolve into cliche sometimes, however, so it’s usually best to “elevate” the trope in the same way that a chef elevates an ordinary meal like macaroni and cheese. Give it that little bit of x-factor and a trope can reinvent itself.
This makes me feel a little better since I’m brainstorming story ideas right now. It’s tough to know if you have large enough stakes and enough plot to sustain a story. I tend to hit a wall when plotting before writing–there’s only so far I can get without actually writing some of the story, yet I don’t want to start writing without doing the necessary prep work. Basically, right now I am driving myself crazy!
Haha! I know that feeling. I’m usually ok if I at least know how the story is going to end and what the motivation is. In other words, if I know 1) the story “question” and 2) the answer to that question, I usually have enough to lay down a framework for the rest of the story.
This was a fun process to watch you go through. At the first few steps, though, I was cringing. Saying to you (though you couldn’t hear me) “Dude, how cliche is it that the woman is the victim? Turn it around!” And then you did. Kudos.
I think I’ll be using this method to come up with some story ideas, and I also write fantasy, so I appreciate your point about using OUR every day experiences, and then turning them into fantasy. Good call.
Success! I had you hook, line, and sinker…right to the end! 🙂
Haha, thanks for those kind words, Jennifer, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
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