Monday, July 28, 2014

How to Get In The Way of Good Ideas

by Stephanie Morrill

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?

57 comments:

  1. Love this post! Personally, I think stories are sometimes like a big basket to throw in all your experiences and then make something of it (in which you have to be aware that you're writing fiction and not an autobiographical story). Paying attention at what happens at school is a great one for me as well.

    arendedewit.blogspot.com

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  2. I don't have a rock-solid way of coming up with ideas. Sometimes ideas just come randomly, but if I have absolutely nothing and want to write, i'll look through story idea boards on Pinterest. :)

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  3. My story ideas come from different places, but my favorite stories usually come from dreams that I have. Of course, dreams can be crazy, but I will take different elements from it and clean it up a lot. Other times, it can come from listening to music or looking at pictures. I never know when a good story will strike, so I am always ready and have something to write the idea down on. :)

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    1. Dreams can be an excellent source! Stephenie Meyer came up with Twilight based on a adream. And Laura Anderson Kurk wrote Glass Girl after dreaming about a teenage girl who was crying and wouldn't tell her why.

      Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think, "That dream would make a great story idea!" and the next day, I'm like, "How would that be a story? It made no sense!"

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    2. Same here about the dreams, Mrs. Morrill...sometimes I'm like, "Scribble this dream-story-idea down now before I forget" and then in the morning I guarantee, I sit there wondering how on earth...then I tell myself I was still mostly asleep. Ha...

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  4. I get most of mine from Pinterest or Deviantart pictures. The character or world always comes first for me.

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    1. Very interesting! I love how we're all unique.

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  5. Great post, Stephanie!! :) Most of the time, when I need some inspiration, I open Pinterest. >.< I have a board for story ideas and when I need something new to write about I go to that board, close my eyes scroll down and move the mouse around and then click on one--not knowing what it is. That's what I did for Slaved, and it's turning into one of my favorite WIPs. :) But I love the song inspiration too ;)

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    1. I've never actually gotten a story idea from Pinterest, but I love hanging out there!

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  6. Patience BledsoeJuly 28, 2014 at 8:05 AM

    Thank you for the post, Mrs. Morrill! Well, sometimes ideas can come from land you've seen or fascination with a certain place. I so want to go to the seashore someday, and then came the idea of what about a young woman who dreams on the shore? That played a little role in one of my novels that eventually led to a series. Also, Bible verses/passages can spark ideas - especially for incorporating a message into a novel.

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  7. Thanks for the advice Miss Stephanie! I enjoyed this post so much that I would like to post a link to it on my blog, www.pencilscanchangetheworld.blogspot.com, would that be alright with you?

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  8. Great post Stephanie! I am a character first person, so I had my characters in my head WAY before I had a story idea. I get my best plot ideas when I listen to music, not necessarily from the song itself, I think it just helps me focus. I haven't actually started writing yet though, I'm still in the storyworld building and plotting stage.

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    1. Characters always come first for me, too. For instance, I have a character right now, Piper Lane, but I'm still working on the story idea :)

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    2. Oh my main character is named Piper too! I love that name :)

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    3. I'm glad I'm not the only one. :)
      Piper is a cool name!

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  9. I love this post Stephanie! I get a lot of ideas from traveling. For me, writing is about taking ideas from things you've experienced. When I'm learning new things and visiting new places, it really gets my creative juices going.

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    1. Oooh, traveling is a great way. Wish I could afford to get more story ideas that way ;)

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  10. Thank you! I've been trying to develop an idea to write but I don't have a plot. Ugh, I have a job for a character and obviously that's not enough

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    1. Oh, I've been there! It's frustrating. Especially if you're in that place for a while :(

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    2. I know! I want to write about a fashion blogger which sounds totally fun until I realize there's no real stakes in that.

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    3. It's very fun and totally workable. What would be bad for a fashion blogger? Is she anonymous? What if she's completely broke? What if she actually works in something that's the complete opposite of fashion? Like in Confessions of a Shopaholic, how she works for the financial magazine but is horrendous at saving money.

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    4. I was definitely thinking she was broke and somewhat unlikely in the area of fashion! If I did YA she'd probably be anonymous & nerdy! But anonymous adult, I hasn't thought of..hmmm. I love shopaholic, I'll see I'd anything strikes there. If I was going to pull from her I always thought it who be a romance writer who'd never been a on date but that never got fully fleshed out. Yeah, I have a theme of never fleshing out ideas.

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    5. Sometimes it just takes the right idea to get you going :)

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  11. Great ideas, Stephanie! :D Thanks so much for writing this post! :D

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    1. Of course. Hope it's helpful, Allison :)

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  12. The fact that the first source of ideas is music. I love music and books so they often come together for me when it comes to writing. I've come up with so many stories from songs that I have to set them aside before I can dedicate myself to them. I've also found that giving characters theme songs helps fleshing them out.
    Like for instance my MC's theme song is “If You Can Afford Me” by Katy Perry which says a lot about her, while a different MC's theme song is “Bad Reputation” by Avril Lavigne. I don't think I even need to try to divulge deeper into that one.

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  13. Great post! I use a lot of these, mainly #5, though it often translates to writing the opposite of something that irritates me. For example, my novel (two more whole weeks until the first read through...*takes deep breaths*) got its premise because it was annoying me that nearly all the princess stories nowadays are glorifications of the rebellious princess trope - you know, princess is a tomboy, hates dresses, would rather pursue fencing/archery than "proper" princess behavior, hates her ladylike mother, doesn't want to get married. It gets old. So my MC loves ball gowns, loves diplomacy and sewing but being the princess of a matriarchy, has to be "strong" so as to be a political symbol, doesn't get along with her warrior queen mother, and daydreams about marrying a prince and having traditional duties.

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  14. Great ideas! I think of stories all the time when listening to music, like Safe and Sound from the Hunger Games- I always think of siblings who escaped from a concentration camp in WW2.

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  15. Sometimes events we learn about in history can spark a story idea. I don't write historical fiction, but I'm going to try incorporating certain elements into fantasy.

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  16. Thank you so much for the tips. My favorite tip is the one that involves finding a story behind a song. I read this post this morning, and throughout the day, I listened to a few of my favorite songs and came up with a few ideas, some of which I think I might want to further explore.

    Also, I used that second tip a while back because I am currently trying to come up with a fairytale retelling idea. I made a list of all of the fairytales that I could think of, and then I paired them up and tried to develop ideas blending two fairytales.

    That last tip is really interesting. I usually ask myself "What if?" when I'm fleshing out my idea, and not always when I'm actually coming up with my idea because I usually think of my characters first and then find a goal and conflict for them.

    Also, I know that you and Mrs. Williamson are Christian authors, so I was wondering if you could write a post about how to infuse religion into a story. The songs that I listen to are Christian contemporary, so when I came up with ideas today, they involved Christianity. However, I'm not exactly sure how to infuse Christianity into my fiction without sounding preachy.

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    1. How fun that you've already tried them!

      That's a great question. I won't speak for Jill, but I'll speak from my experience. A book gets preachy anytime it becomes more about an issue than it does story. Many reviewers complained of that in Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer where there's a LOT of heavy-handed messages about nature. My experience is that when I focus on the story, my theme or any message about faith that I'm hoping to include, naturally follow.

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  17. A lot of times I'll get a story idea from the most random thing ever. Like, one day I was listening to the radio and someone was talking about a singer who strained their vocal cords and has to spend some amount of time in silence and I thought, "Woah--that'd be a really cool idea to do something with!"

    A lot of times, too, a title will just come to me out of nowhere and I'll work out an idea from that eventually. That's what happened with "Living Rain" and "Legally Blind." :)

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    1. I love the idea of having the title first! Brainstorming titles makes me cranky :)

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  18. If someone did Star Trek and Downton Abbey, I'd read it in a heart beat! Haha, in fact it's kind of giving me an idea right now. :)
    A lot of songs today could be the theme song or plot of your story. Take If I Die Young by the Band Perry or Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri. Great post, thank you!!

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    1. Or something like it :). Thank you Mrs. Morrill.

      Have you thought of trying it?

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  19. Great post!

    I have been trying the waters of fantasy writing lately, and I have found that looking at the land around me (I love in the country) often inspires me. When I was reading your post I was surprised to realise how often I get idea's from music - the other day I planned a whole scene in my head after listening to a song.

    Once again, great post!!

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    1. Oh, that's interesting! I can see how nature would be very inspiring, especially for a fantasy writer!

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  20. Thanks for all those suggestions. Yea, I don't know where my story ideas come from mostly. :)
    With writing prompts, I like to think about the phrase (which is usually what I use) and go from "How can I make this un-stereotypical?" It's fun to use play around with it. :)

    ~teensliveforjesus.blogspot.com~

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    1. Oh, how cool! What a great way to look for your own twist.

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  21. I came up with an idea staring at my brother's CARS backpack...

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  22. Good stuff, Stephanie! :)

    I write historical fiction, so I do this sort of thing while I'm researching. I find find a lot of first-hand stories from people who have been in situations similar to my characters', then cherry-pick the elements I like best. :) It helps a lot with plotting and brainstorming.

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    1. YES. I just wrote my first historical, and I was stunned by how my ideas for the plot were born out of my research.

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  23. I usually get my ideas when I sink deep in thought, but when I try to come up with an idea I write a list of words on a sheet of paper and ask my sisters to help me, then choose the words best suited for the genre I want for the book.

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    1. I got that technique from Jill's post on making a cool title.

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    2. Well, that's interesting! Leave it to Jill :)

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  24. So excited to find this blog. Just getting started and have so much to learn.

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