Ciao, SEers. Wow, it’s been a while since I wrote that opening. For those of you who missed me, please know I’m sorry I was away so long. I missed you. For those of you new (or new since I took a sabbatical) to the site, I’m Staci, and you’ll come to recognize my posts by me signing on this way.
Before I continue, I really need to give a shout-out to my SE partners in crime colleagues, who went above and beyond covering for me in my absence. I couldn’t ask for a better blogging family. Mae, Joan, Craig, Harmony, P.H., Marcia… many, many thanks for all the support.
Now, back to one of my favorite topics. Not my kids (though I could talk about them forever). And not my dogs (and we all know I could ramble on equally long about my furry family members). Today, third time’s the charm. I want to talk about starting. Or starting over, if things aren’t going well. In other words, idea generation.
Below you’ll find a dozen of my go-to sources for starting or brainstorming.
1. Read Headlines.
Doesn’t matter if you’re looking at newspapers, magazines, blogs, online news sources… any headline will do. Don’t move on to the article, though. Just look at the headline. Think about it for a bit. See if a story, a premise, or even a concept pops into your head. If so, great. If not, try reading the article, then see if anything gets those creative wheels turning.
2. Free write.
We’re writers, so this one should be a no-brainer. Grab a notebook, sit down at your laptop, dictate into your phone. It doesn’t matter how you get ideas from your head to another medium, just as long as you do. If you find one of these methods doesn’t work for you, try another. And don’t worry if it’s slow-going at first. You’re starting with nothing; it may take a moment to get to something, and even longer to get to something good. The key here is to brain-dump without stopping. Set a timer and don’t quit until it rings. If the ideas are still flowing, keep going. You never know what’s going to pop out of thin air once you get started.
3. What if… ?
I always hate it when people say asking this question helps them get over writer’s block, but I think that might be because I don’t believe in writer’s block. Regardless, this technique does work. If your mind is blank, answer that question, following the ellipsis with the most ridiculous option you can think of. (What if… a metric ton of dead fish fell on your town?) Follow that question with another. Followed by a third. Do this often enough, and you’ll know not only what should come next in your story; you’ll know how to start it.
4. Borrow from the best.
I’m sure you’ve heard every story that can be told has been told; the difference is in how you tell it. So, why not borrow from the masters? West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet, but with different factions. George Lucas has admitted that Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress inspired Star Wars. If there’s a story you really like, “borrow” the elements that spoke to you, then put your own twist on it. (Just please leave Casablanca out of it. It’s perfection as it stands.)
This is one of the easiest ways to get the creative wheels turning. You can find prompts all over the web, general or genre-specific. Maybe one will spark an idea. Maybe you’ll need to combine a few. But starting from someone else’s list is sure to inspire you.
6. Character interview.
Sometimes you have a great character in mind… and nothing for him to do. Is he a fire fighter? A pilot? An unemployed stockbroker? A dog walker? A chef? Pretend you’re a reporter and ask him questions. It sounds a little silly, as you also have to answer for him, but trust me—it works. As you begin to spout off answers, his predicament will become clear, which is great, as stories are all about conflict.
7. People watch.
Strolling through the store. Sitting at a restaurant or on a park bench or even in a church pew. Attending a concert or sporting event. These activities expose you to people from different cultures and socio-economic groups. Try to imagine where they’re coming from or where they’re going. Who they want to see and who they want to avoid. And why. Making up scenarios for people you see can quickly lead to a full-blown story plot.
8. Setting studies.
In addition to people watching, consider setting-watching. (Poor terminology, but you know what I mean.) Really study your hometown. Or that History Channel special on feudal Japan. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when he saw Hogwarts for the first time. Think about what would make these places better and what would make them worse. What it would be like to live there as the person in charge or as the lowest person on the ladder. How they treat insiders and how they treat visitors. What is religion like there, or does it not even exist? What’s the form of government? What is the economy like? Setting is more than just the streets in a town or the paint color of the walls. Settings can become characters in their own right. And when you have a good grasp of yours, you might see your path to your next story.
This one might make you laugh. Or bang your head in frustration. It could go either way. Take two or more genres you like. Or characters from two different stories. An epic friendship from one tale and a creative murder weapon from another. Basically, take two or more items from two or more sources and mash them together. You never know what inspiration the combination could yield.
Lyrics inspire me all the time. But so does melody. Or even a super cool drum solo. Music can move the soul like nothing else. Play some of your favorite songs. Listen to a new artist or genre. Find a beat that gets your toes tapping or a line that really speaks to you, then see where it leads.
Magazine pictures. Pinterest. A museum. It doesn’t matter where the inspiration comes from. A picture paints a thousand words. And plenty of pictures paint millions of them. Pin them to a cork-board in your office or start a dedicated board online. Use one or a combination of them to spark an idea.
12. Talk it out.
Sometimes nothing is more beneficial than a meeting of the minds. Talk with your family, your friends. Other writers you trust. Two heads are better than one. Several heads are better than two. When you start discussing your ideas and get answers to questions, you will find people branching off in ways you never would have gone on your own.
So, there you have it. A dozen ways to start a story. I know there are more. Why don’t you share your favorite sources of inspiration? Maybe let us know if one of these twelve works for you or already sparked an idea. I’d love to get a good discussion going. Let’s talk about idea generation below.