Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
Stephen King has my favorite quote about writers and story ideas. "We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don't know."
While I think there's a lot of truth in that, I also think writers can choose to put themselves "in the way" of story ideas and inspiration. All around you is great material for stories. Here are a few things you can do to become more aware of it:
1. When you're listening to music, try to think up a story to go with it.
I love songs that hint at a story. How many times have you been listening to a song and thought, "I wonder what that means?" Well, try to come up with a story for it. You could even do that for a few songs, and then see if there was a way to blend the stories.
2. Try to throw together different TV shows/movies/stories you like and see what happens.
I think Jill does this exercise in the class she teaches about high concept ideas. It works like this:
Sherlock meets Modern Family!
Mad Men meets Pride and Prejudice!
Harry Potter meets The Great Gatsby!
Star Trek meets Downton Abbey!
You're gonna get some weird stuff, but this creative thought process can also churn out some gold.
3. Read National Geographic and news stories.
Truth is stranger than fiction, as the saying goes, and you can use that to your advantage by absorbing nonfiction. I like National Geographic because of the diversity of stories and cultures. I'm not a fantasy author, but it seems like it could be a great source for worldbuilding too.
And your local newspaper is great too. A year or two ago, I saw an article in The Kansas City star about three teenage guys from a rather privileged area of town who attempted to rob a bank. Because I was reading the news with an eye for stories, I was thinking, "What a perfect ex-boyfriend for one of my characters!"
4. Listen to people's stories
I don't like parties, but I really appreciate the opportunity they provide to gather stories. (Which is why I'm the weirdo at the party who wants to grill everyone about their profession instead of carry on a normal conversation.)
Interacting with a diverse group of people is a great way to create diverse characters. You have to be careful about borrowing peoples stories, of course, but there's a way to do it respectfully.
5. Ever read a book/watched a movie/heard a story and thought, "I would tell this differently"?
Then do it. I recently read a book that had several plot elements I loved. But the author took the story to some places that I didn't care for. I eventually stopped reading at the midpoint, thinking, "I would have done this differently." There's nothing wrong with being inspired by that and working it into your own unique plot.
Now, I wouldn't recommend you write your own story about an 11-year-old boy who learns he's a wizard and goes away to wizarding school, but it's okay to borrow things that aren't so specific to a particular story.
6. What if?
This applies to all the techniques above. You need to constantly be asking "What if?"
We do it all the time in life when we're worrying (What if this plane crashes? What if the parachute doesn't open?) and as a writer, you get to turn your paranoia into art. My son has epilepsy, and I was able to pour all my what-ifs (What if he's on his bike and has a seizure? Or what if it happens when he's climbing on the playground?) into a story where a character suffers from epilepsy.
On a lighter note, I've often wondered if the movie Monsters, Inc. was born out of the question, "What if there really were monsters hiding in closets?"
But all of these story ideas won't do you much good if you're not able to keep track of them, develop them, and write them. Here are some posts that can help you with that:
How to keep track of story ideas
Questions to help you develop your story idea
Developing your story idea into a list of key scenes
What did I miss? What's a way that you've come up with story ideas?