9 Ways to Find Brilliant Story Ideas

Okay, true story. Tonight while I was sitting down to edit a short story, two weeks snuck up behind me and hit me in the back of the head.

Ack, how could it be time for a new blog post again already? So, I’m kind of cheating. Here’s an expanded version of a post I wrote last year for Laura Zimmerman, a wonderful fellow fantasy writer. Be sure to check out her flash fiction stories–she’s a true mastermind!

And on to our topic…

One of the things people often ask me when they find out I’m a writer is, “How do you come up with your story ideas?”

Great question! I’ve put together a list of nine different techniques I’ve used to find inspiration for my stories. Of course, any story, especially novel-length ones, needs a lot of ideas in the form of characters, plot points, settings, scenes, etc. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and hopefully this list will help get your creative juices flowing.


1. Asking “What if?” questions

The world is full of interesting possibilities when you start asking questions, and you can use this tactic to look for ideas wherever and whenever you have time to think.

What if the magnetic poles suddenly reversed? What if everyone born in 1999 had superpowers? What if a future version of you shows up in a time machine in your living room?

There are so many things in life we take for granted, like gravity and running water and the weather. Turn some of those things upside-down and see what happens. Once you start asking questions, you never know where your imagination will take you.

2. People watching

We all do it to some degree, don’t we? People can be fascinating, from their mannerisms and appearance to the things they say and do. A little discreet people-watching is a great way to get ideas for characters or scenes in your story. (Ahem, discreet is the key word. Don’t stare, giggle, or glance up frequently while furiously scribbling notes. You don’t want the police after you.)

While you’re watching, imagine who they are, why they’re there, why they’re acting the way they are. Let your mind wander and think outside the box.

3. Places

I’ve had the advantage of traveling to some pretty amazing places in my life, but even local, less exotic places can be perfect settings for a story. When you go somewhere interesting, ask yourself what kind of story might happen there. Who are the people living in the area? What interesting things could happen to them?

My romantic suspense FLASHBACK is set in Big Bend National Park, and I came up with the story by falling in love with its setting on a camping trip back in graduate school. Big Bend is the sort of spectacular place that begged me to tell a story about it.

4. News stories

And no, I’m not just talking about politics. Any news article that catches your interest could be grounds for a great story. NASA just found seven new planets? Maybe your characters are already on their way to start a colony. Or maybe your character is a relief worker heading to a war-torn country in Africa, or a scientist using new gene-splicing technology. Look beyond the bare bones the news story gives you, dig a little deeper into research, and let your imagination off its leash.

5. Personal experiences

This one probably seems like a given, considering we writers are admonished to “write what we know.” Even if your life hasn’t been one non-stop James Bond adventure, there’s still plenty of good stuff there to use in a story when combined with your imagination. Can you give your main character one of your favorite hobbies? How about the same day job? Or maybe they go to a school that’s a lot like the one you went to in sixth grade?

Think back to experiences that have been particularly moving or painful or terrifying. This is where being a writer gets hard—it takes courage to dig into stuff you’d rather forget. But when you capture that emotion and put your characters through something similar, those scenes will resonate with readers on a deeper level than when you haven’t experienced it yourself.

6. History

Personally I find the study of history to be fascinating. There’s such a vast array of possibilities as you dig into stories about the past. You can find ideas for characters, setting, themes, and plot points, drawing from actual events to create your fictional ones. Or you could go all in and write a story set in the historical past—just make sure to do your research!

7. Art

Take a walk through a local art museum, or borrow some lovely coffee table art books from the library, or even use the internet to look at paintings and sculptures. Then let the ideas flow… Who is walking down that rainy Paris street? Who are the lovers in the rowboat? What happened on that dark, rocky island?

8. Music

I don’t know what it is about me lately, but it seems like practically every week a new character pops into my head as I’m listening to a song. This last time, I was riding in the car listening to the radio, and a woman in cowboy boots, jeans, and a flannel shirt *poof* appeared in my mind’s eye. She was on stage, singing the song (Matt Maher’s What a Friend) and shaking a tambourine in front of a local crowd. I *think* there was a good-looking, misguided man in the front row looking for new singing talent, but that waits to be seen. For now, she’s in the corral with my other plot bunnies.

Many writers create playlists to accompany whatever story they’re working on. Some find character inspiration (like me); others use music to help visualize scenes, or get them in the mood to write. However you use it, music can be a powerful tool to fire up the imagination.

9. Dreams

A lot of my dreams would make really boring stories, but every now and then I have one that contains the germ of something much more interesting. Get into the habit of keeping a notebook close at hand so you can jot down any ideas your subconscious pulls up in your sleep. Look over them every now and then, and maybe something will strike you as the perfect idea.

In fact, for all of these methods, keeping a notebook of some type (be it digital or paper) is vastly important. Your brilliant ideas will get lost incredibly quickly if you don’t write them down. You should even write down the ones you’re not sure you’ll ever use, because you never know when they’ll come in handy.

There’s a whole world of story ideas out there waiting to be discovered. Dig below the surface. Ask questions. Imagine. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. See where your ideas take you. And be patient—sometimes the ideas need to simmer in the back of your mind for a while before the story emerges.

How about you? Have I missed your favorite way to brainstorm new story ideas? Drop me a comment and share!

Image credit: Pexels.com, CC0 license. 


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