How to Generate Story Ideas

Don’t Outline Your New Book Until You Do This


So, I’m sure you’ve heard that there are two types of writers, those who outline and plot heavily and those who just write without using an outline (Pantsers). There is no best way to write. For most of my life I have been a Pantser; I sit down to write and see where the story leads me. This is exciting and typically I can’t wait to see what happens next. The story and characters lead me where they want to go, and I get the same enjoyment of learning about the story as hopefully the reader will.

The problem is that sometimes the characters lead me to dead ends or to a story that is very different from the one I imagined. Over time, I’ve determined that the best way to write is to do a little plotting to have some idea of what is going to happen.

But before I begin “plotting” and outlining, I begin by generating ideas.

Ideas About the Story

When I write ideas down about the story, what I’m doing is recording what I already know. I ask myself questions like:

· Who are the characters for this story? I need a main character, supporting characters of which one will probably be the antagonist. I might write a paragraph or two about who the characters are and what their roles in the story will be. At this point, I might only know who the main character is, and that’s fine.

Most of us have some idea of who is going to “star” in this story. Write your vision down.

· Key plot points or scenes — again we’re not plotting yet, but just recording possible events or scenes that might go in the book. Maybe you know the character is a police officer and he has to be compromised. Or maybe the lead character is pregnant and loses the child and finds out many women in her town are also miscarrying, and this tragedy is going to lead her on a journey to discover that environmental contaminants are to blame. What are some scenes you envision for your story?

The idea is not to have well thought out scenes, just to brainstorm possible scenarios. I write down random ideas that may or may not end up in the story, but right now, today, they feel like they should be included in the story, so I add them.

· You might write down a piece of dialogue that comes to you. Half of my novel, maybe more is dialogue, so if there is dialogue I heard or something I think one of the characters should say at some point, I write that down.

· I have included descriptions of my setting or some historical facts about the setting. You may want to include notes about the setting as well. Maybe a cool place you’ve visited. The nice thing about fiction is that your fictional place can have elements of many other places that you’ve liked or that fit well into your story.

This becomes a brain dump of what I already know, and it gives me a starting point so that I’m not sitting at my computer with nothing to say when I begin writing.

Starting With Zero

If you have no idea what your next story will be about, or you don’t have a story in mind but you only know you’d like to write about a certain topic, you will create a different kind of ideas list.

· Write down books you’ve read recently that touched you in some way. Determine what you liked about them and how you would have approached that story. Are there themes you’d like to explore?

· Write down your passions. Do you enjoy going to concerts? Are you a hiker? Do you belong to a club for moms or gardeners? By exploring your passions, it might spark an idea for a story. One author, Nevada Barr writes mysteries and has created a series of mysteries at each national park. Why? Because she had a passion for the environment and ended up working at national parks and decided to write mysteries set in the parks.

· Take a look at headlines and stories in the news and write down any ideas that spark your interest or that connect with a topic you’d like to write about.

Don’t judge any of the ideas you write down. They don’t have to be great. You just want to begin thinking of possibilities to engage your creativity and give you a possible story to pursue.

Play the “What If” Game

Once you have some clarity about your next story. You’re ready to begin expanding it a little bit. This is where you let your imagination roam and play. What if you’re your mom character who lost her child did not decide to find out what pollutants were in her neighborhood and did not become Erin Brockovich. What if instead, she decided that losing the baby was a sign that she need to quit her job, divorce her husband, and go explore the world (this is sounding like another Julia Roberts movie)? What if she became part of a new fertility experiment that went wrong, and she turned into a mutant human? I don’t know. Let your imagination go wild.

By asking “what it” you can sometimes come up with a more unique and exciting story that you hadn’t originally thought of writing.

You can do this with scenes as well. If you are sure about your story. Let’s say, you are writing a memoir and the facts are the facts as you remember them, then you are limited by what happened, but you can still play the what if game. What if my father had chosen a different career? What if he had stayed in Argentina, what would that have meant for my life. I can explore this in a memoir as I’m also stating what really did happen.

Pre-Writing is Important

I used to think this was all a waste of time. I did some of the planning in my head, so I didn’t believe that taking time to write it down was useful, but I was wrong.

Prewriting helps you get clarity about your story. It also builds the excitement and anticipation for writing. And it helps you to feel more confident, as I spoke about in my last post, about your story and where it’s headed. Once you begin to understand your story and where you want it to go, you will approach it with more certainty that you know what you are writing about.

Non-Fiction Writers Need to Pre-Plan Too

If you are writing a non-fiction book, you also want to spend some time doing the same thing. The first part of writing down what you know is crucial. If you are writing non-fiction, you are sharing what you know. But have you collected all those details, facts, and stories into a document? Gather all that material into one place.

You might also want to write down what is common knowledge. I read many books that are repetitions of what other authors have written. You can and might want to repeat some of the basic information about the topic, but you also want to have your own spin. Writing down what others have written and said is helpful to you as you design your book.

As you begin to tackle the book you want to write, spending time with your thoughts and jotting down these ideas should be your first step. You are preparing, and letting those creative juices begin to flow. All the work you do before you write your first page is well worth it because you’ll avoid the feel that you have nothing to say or that you don’t know where your story is going. And will all the brainstorming, you’ll now be better able to create an effective outline which will be your next step.

But take your time with this step. Generating ideas and brainstorming might be a task you get done in a day, but it might also take you a few weeks if you have to research and gather information. Take as long as you need and have fun!

Have a story to tell? Want to learn how to record personal experiences before they’re lost or write a novel? Consider taking one of Julia’s beginning writing or publishing courses.

Also check out Julia’s new book, This Is Now!