April 22nd, 2020

An Author's Actionable Guide to Story Ideas

by Alicia Ellis

Have you ever had that spark of an idea that made you itch to sit down and create? Where does that come from, and can you get it on demand? This post is an actionable guide for obtaining your spark and fanning it into an amazing and useable story idea.

For me, ideas stem from curiosity. When I see something interesting, I ask, “What if?”

You must create opportunities to ask that question. Don’t wait for them to hit you in the shower.

Know Yourself

It’s important to know what gives you that initial spark of interest to dive into creating a new story. You might already know what sparks you, or maybe you don’t. Is it the protagonist? The setting? The conflict? The technology? The magic system? The theme? A combination of these or others?

If you’re not sure, think of your favorite stories and describe them in a sentence or two. Don’t craft a pitch. Rather, I’m asking you to do this off the top of your head. If you’re telling a friend how much you love a book or movie or TV show, and they ask what it’s about, what’s the first thing about the story that you describe?

For instance, let’s use Twilight as an example because most people at least know what it’s about. You don’t have to love Twilight for this exercise to work, so just go with me either way. How would you describe this movie/book?

Is it about the conflicts in a relationship between a human girl and a vampire boy? If you think so, then I’m guessing it’s a great relationship that gets your wheels moving. There are all kinds of relationships: friendships, siblings, parent-child. Not all relationships are romances, even though the primary one in Twilight is.

Is it about a girl stuck in a love triangle between a vampire and a werewolf who are sworn enemies? Maybe it’s the internal conflict you love—the complexities inside us that can make a character intriguing.

Is it about human-drinking vampires who obsess over a girl protected by human-friendly vampires? Maybe you’re more drawn to an external conflict.

Is it about vampires blending in with humans in a town that gets hardly any sun, where the vampires can hide it in plain sight? Maybe you love a great setting that establishes the tone for a story.

It’s about a girl who falls in love with a sparkly vampire who doesn’t die in the sun. You may be drawn to a magical or science-fiction idea. (This is me, by the way.)

Break out a few of your favorite stories (and a few you don’t like) and describe each one in a sentence or two. You might learn something about what gets you excited about a story.

Go Find Your Spark

Don’t wait for inspiration to strike you in the shower. Go out and actively grab it.

You don’t have to literally go anywhere to do this. You can subscribe to content that might inspire you, turn on the television to watch a show or a movie, read a book, or watch the people around you. I get inspired by a new magical or science-fiction concept.

To stay inspired, I follow a number of content-providers, like NASA, who provide what I need, and I often leave the television on the Science Channel in the background.

Where is your inspiration? Go get it.

Be Curious

Ask “What if?”

When you encounter something that makes you lean in and pay attention, roll with it. Question what’s behind it. And have fun with it. You’re a storyteller, after all.

If you get that spark from a great relationship, focus in on the ones around you, the ones you see on TV and in movies, and the ones that come across your Facebook feed. If you see an interesting relationship, ask yourself what’s happening when they’re in private or when they’re away from each other. Are they really what they appear to be? What are they hiding? What are their insecurities? What brought them to this moment? Make it up. Make it outrageous.

If internal conflict drives you, ask yourself what people are thinking. Imagine that a minor character in a story you’re consuming has a conflict of his own. What brought him into this scene, and why is he upset about being there?

If you’re ever disappointed with the ending of a story, or if you predicted wrongly about how it would end, ask what you would have done differently. How would your way have changed other parts of the story as well?

Here’s a personal example: My new release, Girl of Flesh and Metal, features a teenage girl with an artificially intelligent cybernetic arm, … and the arm may or may not be causing her to kill people in her sleep. (You’ll notice from this description that my focus is on the big tech thing rather than on, say, character or internal conflict or relationships. There’s obviously more going on the book itself, but my description demonstrates what sparks me.)

I read books that have big tech ideas in them. Before I started growing this book in my head, I read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. It’s basically a collection of connected stories that center around artificial intelligence and around three laws that all artificial intelligence must follow. The laws are meant to ensure that robots protect and obey human beings, and the stories are about how robots interpret those three laws in strange and dangerous ways.

You know how, when you read a great book, it stays with you? It sits in your brain, emerging to the surface when something reminds you of it. I, Robot did that.

Months later, I was watching an online video about robotic prosthetics (because I subscribe to science-y content to ensure I encounter things that give me the spark).

While watching the video, I thought, “What if?” What if the robot prosthetic does something other than intended? What if it’s unpredictable? What if it breaks Asimov’s three laws or interprets them in an unexpected way?

That was the first seed of my story. And all I did to get there was read a book, find a video in my Facebook feed, and ask a few questions. It wasn’t luck; I set myself to be inspired by knowing myself, subscribing to the right content, and being curious.

Make It Hurt

What’s a story without conflict?

You know what inspires you. You were curious. You asked questions. Now, you have your story seed—that thing that excites you.

This is the fun part: someone has to suffer.

Because we want to create conflict, the next step for me is to decide: Who would this hurt the most? For Girl of Flesh and Metal, that led me to create my protagonist, a teenage girl who detests artificial intelligence despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that her parents own the biggest technology company in the country. She didn't choose to have the cybernetic arm; her parents installed it while she was in a coma.

For me, the high-tech idea comes first and gets me excited, and the character comes second. That allows me to choose a character who will suffer the most in the situation I've created.

For you, it might be something else entirely. Maybe you come up with the character first and grow the story from there. Ask what's the worst thing that can happen to this character. If you have a great setting, ask who would be conflicted about being there. It's that creative inspiration that sparks your story idea.

Once you have your spark, make it hurt.

Your Homework Action Items

1. Figure out what aspect of a story inspires you to dig in and write.

2. Subscribe to and consume content that will put inspiration in front of you.

3. Ask “What if?”

4. Fill in the gaps with conflict.

5. Have fun.

What resources do you use to spark story ideas? What type of idea will spur you to commit to an entire story? Feel free to share the details with us down in the comments!

A note of thanks from the WITS Team!

This is the 1500th post here at Writers In the Storm. What a glorious journey it has been to build this community with all of you. Thank you for reading! And how fun that we are celebrating such a milestone with Alicia, our newest contributor! Please give her a warm welcome.

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Alicia

Alicia Ellis decided to write books about ten minutes before graduating law school. She's now an Atlanta attorney, but she moonlights as an author, electronics junkie, and secret superhero. With degrees in computer science and a healthy diet of pizza and fiction, Alicia loves all things high-tech and unreal. She writes fantasy and science fiction for young adults.


Girl of Flesh and Metal

Lena's cybernetic arm was supposed to help her—not turn her into a monster. Now, she's stuck with it, and her friends are terrified of her.

And maybe they should be.

The arm’s artificial intelligence takes Lena’s thoughts to the extreme. It acts when she doesn’t tell it to, even when she’s asleep.

Ever since she got the new limb, she’s been sleepwalking and waking in odd places. To Lena, this is just another example of how CyberCorp—her parents’ company and the manufacturer of the arm—screws up everything.

As the rollout of CyberCorp’s new android approaches, a murderer targets children of the company’s employees. And thanks to her sleepwalking, Lena doesn’t know what she was doing during the murders.

When the evidence points to her, Lena decides to prove her innocence—or her guilt.

Top image by Pexels from Pixabay.

25 responses to “An Author's Actionable Guide to Story Ideas”

  1. lrtrovi says:

    A fabulous post full of great ideas and an exercise to try. Thanks. BTW your book looks amazing.

  2. alicemfleury says:

    This post made me look at idea gathering in a different light. Thanks.

  3. Alicia Ellis says:

    Thank you so much to the WITS team for letting me write the 1500th post! I love this blog, so I feel truly honored.

  4. Thanks for helping me see it's all about character first for me!

  5. ecellenb says:

    I tried breaking out a few of my favorite stories and discovered at least one aspect I love is the journey. This makes so much sense to me now and explains why I may have decided to write my current WIP. Thank you for this and welcome to WITS!

  6. Nele says:

    Great food for thought! Going by my WIP, it was the magical world first, followed by the character who'd most stick out in it. I'll need to have a look at some other stories now to see if there's a system behind it!

  7. Michelle Ferrer says:

    On my street sat a house that looked abandoned. The original owner of the house still lived there. We would see her sometimes standing in her front yard in her nightgown staring into space with her head tilted as if listening. She would wake the neighbors at 2:00 am by banging on their front doors and screaming for help saying there were burglars in the attic. Her house had no attic. The police would come and see nothing disturbed nor hear anything unusual. She would wander in the neighborhood as if in a trance and be surprised when someone would ask her where she lived. Her sons didn't recognize any symptoms of a declining awareness, just thought mother was "being difficult". Eventually, they moved her to a memory care facility. She had been a teacher for all her life, clear minded and rational. Independent enough to care for an aging and health debilitated husband. Independent even when her sons moved away. Her decline came surprisingly quickly.

    I stood in front of her house after she was gone. there was no brooding feeling of ruin, just thoughtful neglect. I wondered about the voices, bumps in the attic that didn't exist, footsteps on stairs that weren't there. It made me wonder the "what if" these episodes were not the fantasy of a declining mind, but attempts by angels sent to prepare her for her coming journey to the other side of life.

    I made furious notes for a short story. I will call it The Escorts.

    The Great "What If" is a handy tool for creativity.

  8. Eldred Bird says:

    For me, it's all about the characters. If I don't care about the characters, I won't care what happens to them. I love playing the "What If" game with characters. I like to take a sympathetic character, one everybody can see a little of themselves in, put them in a situation completely counter to their normal existence, then sit back and watch what mode they kick into--fight, flight, or freeze. If a character surprises me, then we're off and running. If not, then on to the next scenario!

  9. dholcomb1 says:

    Love this exercise. Thanks!

    Congratulations, WITS!

    denise

  10. Wendy Allott says:

    I love this post. I find I'm sparked by human interest articles in magazines or newspapers. My question, what do you do when you're in the middle of another story and you get that spark? Do you put the story you're doing on the back burner (but then I'd end up with all these unfinished stories), or do you tuck that spark away for later (but then you might lose it)? What do you do?

    Also, I have never read Twilight, but every way you described it made me want to. And I love the sound of your novel. I'm going to have to check it out.

    • Alicia Ellis says:

      That's a good problem to have, right? For me, the thing to keep in mind is that my current WIP was also a spark once upon a time, and I feel like it's my duty to see it through. I don't want to get into a cycle where I'm abandoning each project (when it inevitably gets frustrating) for a shiny, new spark.

      Some people are great at banging out a new project and going back to one in progress. Again, it's important to know yourself! If you're not that person (as I am not), I suggest you keep taking notes to grow the new idea and to stay excited about it. Keep looking around and asking questions and writing down the answers. Maybe even start whatever background research you'll need.

      Eventually, when you're ready to act on that, it will be much more fleshed out.

  11. crbwriter says:

    Yes! I love your cover blurb! I'm always attracted to heroic characters who seek justice regardless of the personal cost.

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