Thursday, January 18, 2007

Where Do Story Ideas Come From?

This is one of the questions I get asked the most. All writers do. So I thought I’d devote a blog entry to it.

First of all, there are basically three ways to build a story. You can build it from a character, a premise, or a situation. I’ve written at least one book from each of these different ways.

Here’s how they differ.

Character – A miserable, mean twelve-year-old boy
Premise – A miserable, mean twelve-year-old boy finds redemption.
Situation – By befriending a wounded dog, a miserable, mean-spirited boy finds the strength to come to terms with his unhappy home life.

If you look at these approaches, you’ll see that in the second one, we’ve given the story an ending that we want to shoot for. It’s a really vague ending, but now we know where we want to take the story. In the situation, we not only have a character and an ending, but a good grasp of the meat of the story, of the how and why.

So now of course comes the even more basic question. Where do you get ideas for a character or a premise or a situation, let alone a plot? And now is where I’m going to tell you my secret weapon.

Have a curious mind. What if? and I wonder why? are a writer’s two best friends.

Because the simple truth is that stories are all around you. Everywhere you look, there’s a story to be told. Of course, the writer’s job is to make it interesting, and that’s not always easy. But the basic seeds of the story are there, just waiting for you to trip over them.

News, magazines, TV shows, popular culture are all terrific for finding story ideas. Books and movies are great, too. Not to copy, but to use as a launching pad for your own ideas. Maybe they raise an unanswered question in your mind. Answer it. Maybe they give you an idea for a character. Play with it.

Myths & fairytales are marvelous for story ideas. You can remain true to the core of the tale or turn it on its head in a twisted, fractured retelling. Or retell it from unusual point of view.

Personal experience is great, too: family history, your childhood or young adulthood, everyday life. The trick here is to remember that you have to make it interesting. It’s not necessarily your autobiography, although it can be. You’re looking for core ideas, elements, or situations that you can develop into a story.

Once you have a couple of ideas for a story concept, then the real playing begins. Consider different settings: time periods, geography, or cultural. Look at different kinds of physical action (plot) you could have in the story. What the character’s background, social standing, past, gender, age? What are the character’s weakness? Strengths? Fears?

Finally, use the tried and true who, what, why, where, when, and how to massage these vague concepts or premises into a full fledged story idea.

Or at least, that’s how I do it.


Vivian Mahoney said...

This is a great post! Thanks for sharing.

Barbara Bietz said...


Great ideas to share with students for writer's workshops!