Writers in the Storm

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April 18, 2022

Creative Ways to Brainstorm Story Ideas

By Becca Puglisi

Inspiration is a fickle beast. She strikes at inopportune times (3 AM, anyone?) then disappears for months on end. She doesn't call, she doesn't write. Or maybe she treats you differently, pouring on so many ideas that you can't tell the golden nuggets from the stinky ones.

Finding and prioritizing story options can be a frustrating process, but it's easier if you approach it from the right angle. Here are a few possible starting points.

Start with Genre

We know that emotions are transferrable, from author to page to reader, so writing something that gets you excited pays off in dividends.

  • What do you like to write?
  • What do you like to read?
  • Which kinds of stories are you passionate about?

Do you like fantasy? Which elements? Think dragons, portals, evil wizards, shapeshifters—then consider how those elements might be reimagined.

Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series gave us a whole new take on dragons, turning them from marauding villains into loving creatures that impress upon humans at birth and use their fiery powers for good.

Then, twenty years after the first book was published, she released the dragons' origin story and how humans first came to Pern. While the previous books were straight fantasy, this one was also science fiction, showing the settlers traveling to the new world and using their technology to establish communities and bioengineer full-blown dragons from foot-long fire lizards. Dragonsdawn is an innovative blending of the sci-fi and fantasy genres in a way that was new and entirely fresh.

So think of the genre you want to write, then tweak the standard conventions to create something new. Or blend your preferred genre with another one and see what ideas come to mind.

Start with Character

Everyone's process is different. It's one of the things I love about the writing community—the vast diversity of thought and method that can birth uncountable stories. Maybe you're the kind of writer who's drawn to characters. They come to you fully-formed, or you have an inkling of who they are before you have any idea what the story's about. If this is you, start by getting to know that character.

  • If you have a good idea of their personality, dig into their backstory to see what could have happened to make them the way they are.
  • If you already know about their troubled past, use that to figure out which positive attributes, flaws, fears, quirks, and habits they now exhibit.
  • What inner need do they have (and why)?
  • Which story goal might they embrace as a way of filling that void?

Characters drive the story, so they can be a good jumping-off point for finding your next big idea.

BONUS TIP: For an easy-to-use, comprehensive tool to build your character from scratch, check out our Character Builder.

Start with a Story Seed

But maybe it's not characters that rev your engine. When I'm exploring a new project, I have no idea about the people involved. Instead, my stories typically start with a What if? question.

  • What if a man abandoned his family to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush—what would happen to them?
  • What if all the children under the age of 16 abruptly disappeared?
  • What if someone's sneezes transported them to weird new worlds?

Four helpful tips:

  1. If story elements, plotlines, and unusual events get your wheels turning, brainstorm those areas.
  2. If inspiration strikes when you're neck-deep in research for your current story, write down those potential nuggets.
  3. Use generators to explore concepts you wouldn't come up with on your own.
  4. Keep a journal of any possible seeds for future stories so you have options.

Start with a Logline

If you've got a vague idea of something you might want to write about, a great way to explore it is to create a logline—a one- or two-sentence pitch that explains what your story is about. Here's an example you might recognize:

A small time boxer gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fight the heavyweight champ in a bout in which he strives to go the distance for his self-respect.

Writing a logline for a story idea enables you to flesh it out and experiment with its basic elements. The process of test-driving your idea with different protagonists, goals, conflicts, and stakes can turn a boring or already-done concept into an entirely new one that you can't wait to write.

BONUS TIP: For more information on how to write a logline, see these posts at Writers Helping Writers and Screencraft.

Start with GMC

Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation, and Conflict teaches authors how to use these foundational elements to plan and enhance a story. But the same principles apply to fleshing out a story idea.

If you're thinking about a certain goal (it's a story about someone who has to stop a killer/find their purpose/plan a wedding), play with various conflicts and motivations. Throw ideas into the hopper and see what pops out. Keep turning the handle to produce concept after concept until one of them strikes your fancy.

Listen, we all know the importance of writing what we're excited about. Without that passion, writing becomes a slog and our stories end up partially finished on a back-up hard drive instead of filling people's bookshelves. So when it comes to story ideas, let your imagination run riot. Consider all the options, no matter how far out they are or uncomfortable they make you feel. Don't stop 'til you find the one that gets you going.

Then get going.

BONUS TIP: For a comprehensive guide on brainstorming ideas and planning your story (as well how to draft and revise it), check out the One Stop for Writers' Storyteller's Roadmap.

Tell us your most creative brainstorming methods and tips below!

About Becca

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her latest book (The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles) released in 2022 with a second volume coming out this fall. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that's home to the Character Builder and Storyteller's Roadmap tools.

13 comments on “Creative Ways to Brainstorm Story Ideas”

  1. I almost always start with character. I know their flaws, what they need to learn, and why that is so hard for them. Then I have to find things for them to do, on the road to discovering it. Not sure it's the best way, but also not sure I can do it any other way.

    Great post, Becca!

    1. This is the beauty of the writing process: there is no wrong way. We're all looking for that magical formula that works for us, and it doesn't look the same for everyone. Sounds like you've found the best way to come up with your story ideas, and that's what matters.

    1. I'm so glad you got something useful from it. And thank you! It was ten years since the last one was taken and I was a little nervous about the results—not being a huge fan of the ten-year challenge, lol. But I'm happy with how it turned out. 🙂

  2. Hi Becca!

    I tend to start with a character and something a little bit longer than a logline, maybe a paragraph.

    Fantastic article. The bonus tips are helpful.

    I love your new photo! I need a new one too and really dislike getting my picture taken. But ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

    1. Yes, it helps to be recognizable, lol. I like your process. Knowing a little bit about the character AND the story is a good base of information.

  3. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. My light bulb is often turned on by high-drama events...events that readers know the ending to, but my characters have no clue about.

    My first novel is set against the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed San Francisco in 1906. This became a historical romance with multi-cultural complications. Another book was sparked by the making of the film "Some Like It Hot" in the 1950s with Marilyn Monroe. This became a women's friendship story, with a dash of romance...and a murder. My WIP is set against the bombing of Hiroshima. This one is a WWII story told from the female perspective and it centers on forgiveness...including forgiving yourself.

    I guess that's a long way of saying that visiting a place and learning about a significant event that happened there is what gets my brain to storm.

    1. Love this! History (and the modern world, frankly) are full of inspirational moments and people. It's just a matter of figuring out a new angle to explore those stories from.

  4. Great advice, Becca. Like Laura, I also start with my main character. I like to sit down and have a long talk with them before I start writing. I need to get to know them on a deeper level before telling their story. In fact, the more I get to know them, the more they will start telling me their own story! I figure the more real the character is to me, the more real they will become to the reader.

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