A Dozen Ways to Start a Story

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.)

5. Prompts.
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.

9. Mash-Ups.
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.

10. Music.
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.

11. Visualize.
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.

Staci Troilo Bio

51 thoughts on “A Dozen Ways to Start a Story

  1. I love your statement, Staci, that you don’t believe in writer’s block. Neither do I! I love all the ways you mentioned for finding story beginnings, or inspiration. I have written several stories from song inspirations. 🙂 It’s great to have you back! I missed you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m not surprised music inspires you, Jan. It does me, too, but I suspect it motivates you even more so. And I’m glad to know the “no such thing as writer’s block” comment resonated with you. I think that’s a divisive statement in this industry, but I just don’t believe in it.

      Thank you so much for the warm welcome back. I missed you, too. 🤗

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Welcome back, Staci. It’s wonderful to see you back on SE, and with such a great post. I loved all these ideas.
    For me, I tend to get most of story ideas from “What if” scenarios. I’ll uses the others from time to time, but “What ifs” are my go-to fodder for crafting plots 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Mae. Happy to be back.

      It’s funny you use what-if the most. You and I are often on the same wavelength, but not this time. I think that’s the one I use the least. I love learning that about you, though. Thanks for weighing in.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Yay, happy to see you back! I usually use news clips for my inspiration- especially good for suspense novels. Premade covers are great, as well. Sometimes, they just beg for a story.
    I hadn’t heard of the mash-up idea before, but I like it 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s so nice to have you back! As usual, a really informative post. Since I writer mysteries, I guess most of my ideas come from a character I want to write about and how he/she can be involved in a murder. What would get them entangled in the whole mess? Since my sleuth is an amateur, there has to be a good reason she’s committed to finding the truth. Your idea of a mash-up is intriguing, though. I’ve never tried that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love your mystery series, Judy. In fact, I’m in the middle of one of them now. I can’t think of a better character to work with than Ansel… er, I mean, Jazzi. 😉

      Thanks for the welcome back. I missed everyone.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Staci Troilo is back! Her hiatus is over and her first post on her return to Story Empire is superb! “A Dozen Ways to Start a Story” is filled with great tips on generating ideas for your tales. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this one, so head on over to check it out, and then pass it along so others can take a look as well. Thanks, and thanks, Staci, for so many helpful ways to jump start a new tale, or perk up an addition to a series. 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Welcome back, Staci! It’s great to see you posting again, and I love this topic. I’ve been a people watcher all my life, so I’m good on that one. And I use a What-If sheet instead of an outline, so I can attest to how well that works, too, at least for me. As for visual Inspiration, my next post here is about my favorite approach to that.

    So there you have three things I’m in total agreement with you about, since I’ve tried them and found they work for me. But it’s the new ideas that really grabbed me. I especially love the Character Interview idea, as I almost always know who I want to write about, and it would be a great way to pin down all sorts of details about that person. Setting/habitat is a natural for me, since I write stories set in areas I’m very familiar with, and love to include as backgrounds to whatever is going on with my characters. But your idea of Mash-Ups sounds like a fun exercise, especially via taking a particular habitat from one book and a character from another. MIx well with an item or event from a third, and voila! That just might produce something very interesting for a new book.

    Thanks for a great post that really has me thinking. I believe I’m going to get offline for a couple of hours and WRITE today. It’s been a month since I’ve been focused enough to feel like moving on with my WIP, but reading this post has fired me up! Sharing, for sure! 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I am a people watcher. My favorite place for inspiration is when I go to the casino with my dad. You wouldn’t believe what you can see there. The things that you hear are really something. Some people never heard of an inside voice. And some of the things that they do when they are betting, spinning the slots are priceless. Check it out, if you can. The clothing, the mannerisms, the excitement when they win. The groans when they lose, not to mention the angry loser.

    My pets are another inspiration. I often wonder what they are thinking. Oh, if they could talk. I can only imagine what we would hear.

    Good post, Staci.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Welcome home, Staci. I love all of your suggestions, and all of them work. I find my best ideas come from the forest. Just being alone, in the shade and fresh air seems to attract the Muse. I hate the urgency of needing to find a story to write. Because of that, I tend to make notes whenever things occur to me. Those with more going for them get a partial storyboard. It seems like I always have something I can write now, even if the storyboard needs a few things.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks, Craig. It’s so nice to be home again.

      You’re so right; a walk in the woods (or on a beach, or anywhere soothing and outdoors) is a wonderful way to clear your mind and welcome your muse. Thanks for sharing that one.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Welcome back, Staci! We missed you.

    I’ve used all of these methods at one time or another except for mash-up (you know what I thought of when I saw the word “Mash.” 🙂 Stories are all around us. We just have to slow down and pay attention.

    Great welcome back post!

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Great post, Staci, and it’s lovely to have you back! I’ve used many of these at one time or another. Others I’ve used to good success are Tarot cards, Nursing Triage, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and even Chess for idea generation.

    Liked by 1 person

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