Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 10, 2023

Five Ways to Spawn New Story Ideas

by Eldred “Bob” Bird

You’ve just finished the final draft of your current project and sent it off to your editor. Congratulations! After taking a well-deserved break it’s time to get on to that next story. You sit down and stare at the blank page in front of you. You wrack your brain for a kernel of an idea, but the inspiration well has gone dry. Panic begins to set in.

Does this sound familiar? Every writer has been there at one time or another, but don’t worry. I’ve got your back. Here’s five of my favorite methods to spark new ideas and fan the flames of creativity.

1. Read Headlines

One of my top ways to generate ideas is to comb through headlines for something odd or inspirational. I look for things that stand out. You never know what kind of weird and wonderful things might pop up.

If something catches my eye, I’ll give the article a quick scan to see if there’s any meat on the bone I can work with. Sometimes I don’t go any further than the headline. If the reporter has provided a great hook in the banner, it can be enough to fire up my imagination.

Most people don’t get a daily newspaper anymore, but fear not. There are plenty of online news sources. Most news websites have an offbeat or odd news category of some type. That’s where I usually find the best material.

2. Dig Up the Past

Sinking a shovel into your own history can expose some long-forgotten gems. I’ve taken a trip down memory lane more than once when looking for characters or situations that might make a good story.

Think back to your childhood and try to remember your first day of school or the first time you drove a car. We all have memories we go back to regularly, but I like to unearth the people and situations I haven’t thought about in years. Looking back through the lens of time and experience gives me a very different perspective to work from.

If you can remember your dreams, tap into those as well. Mine are usually a hodge-podge of random images, people, and things that never happened, but some of them are fertile ground where stories have germinated. One example of this is my short story The Waking Room. I didn’t dream I was in the story, I dreamed I was writing it.

3. Friends and Family

If your family is anything like mine, then you’re in luck. There is no shortage of drama and strange twists that could lead to a good story. Pull on a few threads and see what unravels. Talk to your older relatives and climb into the family tree. You never know what kind of fruits and nuts might be hiding in there!

Go a layer out and question your friends. Most people are happy to talk about themselves when given the chance. They’ve probably experienced things that you haven’t and will express them in a different way than you would. That different voice can add color that might inspire you.

A word of warning when dealing with stories from real people—change the names and some of the details to avoid future conflicts. You’re just looking for inspiration here, not a fight.

4. Get Out of the House

This one might seem obvious, but when we’re staring at a blank screen it’s easy to forget we have the option to get up and leave. There’s a whole world outside the door that’s chocked full of characters and stories just waiting to be discovered. Unchain yourself from the desk and explore it.

I’ll admit, I’ve found some of my best character ideas while sitting in a local bar. Sometimes I take my laptop with me, plant myself in a corner, and take in the life going on around me. I try to pay attention to conversations, facial expressions, and body language. When I can’t hear a conversation at another table, I’ll try to guess what they’re talking about based on how animated they’re getting.

If you’re not comfortable hanging out in bars, go to wherever people gather. Parks, malls, libraries, museums—it doesn’t matter. Just get out of your private space and your own head for a while.

5. Play the “What If” Game

I saved the “What If Game” for last because it’s one of my favorites. I could write a whole post on this, and in fact I have. Here’s a link to the full WITS article on the game. Basically, it’s a game of possibilities conjured up by looking at the world through the warped lens of what is best described as a funhouse mirror.

What I like to do is look around and pick an everyday object. How is it normally used? What if it was used in a different way—the crazier the better. A good example would be to go into your kitchen and ask, “What could a killer use to take their next victim?” Eliminate the obvious things like knives and other sharp objects. Heavy pots and pans don’t count either. Also, think about what could you use to defend yourself?

Once you have your object and how you might use it ask the question, “And then what happens?” Keep asking this question until something sticks and a story is born.

Final Thoughts

While none of these methods are earth-shattering, they are effective at getting me out of a creative rut and on to the next project. The whole purpose of them is just to wake up my imagination and get me moving again. I hope they do the same for you!

How do you generate new ideas for your next writing project? Have you found the key that unlocks your creative side? Share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.

* * * * * *

About Bob

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).

His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

Top Image by Mohamed Hassan via Pixabay

Bob Juggling Knives

13 comments on “Five Ways to Spawn New Story Ideas”

  1. Good ideas here. I've an idea based on my family. My grandmother's mother, to be precise.
    Try asking the older generation what they know about grandparents and great grandparents. Maybe there's something lurking that no one talks about. There are two such things in my family that I didn't know until recently.

    1. There is some great story fodder on both sides of my family and a lot of genealogy documented to go with it. I also have a memoir written by my grandmother I can mine in the future as well.

      Family can be a goldmine, but it can also be a minefield. Just be careful where you step!

  2. Great suggestion!

    Sometimes a stray comment from a friend or family member will pop into the mind and spark an idea for a story. One day, out of the blue, you might receive an awesome, unexpected story prompt.

    1. Those stray comments can be a real spark sometimes. The idea for my pulp story "The Smell of Fear" came from someone we both know who was talking about the stem cell treatment she had on her back!

  3. I love this post. I haven't read one that resonates with me like this does. I like your ideas and am going to use them. The "What If" game is a great suggestion. I'm off to read your WITS article on that.

  4. They usually come when I'm driving or some other activity when writing it down is not handy.

  5. One of my friends recently commented that the last thing I needed was a new method to generate story ideas, because I'll never finish all of the ideas I have. I think it may be because I live in a perpetual state of what if!

    1. Oh, I have no shortage of story ideas either. What I have is a shortage of GOOD story ideas! I try to live in the "what if" state as much as possible, but sometimes it need a little kick in the pants to get it moving...

  6. Wonderful post. I like your "wake up the imagination" advice. In this age of AI-generated writing at so many levels, we all need to keep our human minds sharp and imaginations thriving. Writers have a gift for language and employ their hearts to produce inspiring stories——a huge advantage over computer datasets and algorithms.

    1. I totally agree with you, Paula. Just like any other technology, AI is only as good as the people who program it and the information they choose to feed it. I'm sure it will continue to improve, but it can never replace the human imagination.

  7. Hi Bob,

    When I'm struggling to get ideas on the page or to create a new aspect of a story, I tend to take a step back.

    Sometimes I try breathing exercises and do something a little bit physical, like yoga or gardening. This can help free up my mind and any worries crowding out creativity.

    Thanks for the helpful post!

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