Story Ideas: Where to Get Them

Sometimes, it feels as though the ideas just won’t come. Your brain is dry of all inspiration. You stare blankly at a blank screen, attempting to will yourself to think of something, anything, to write. Maybe you’ve already written one manuscript and are attempting to write a second one. Maybe you’re worried you only had one good idea in you. I am here to tell you that there’s hope!

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Coming up with a story idea is just the first step in novel writing. Without an idea, there’s nothing to write about. Fortunately, inspiration can come from anywhere. I personally enjoy prompts, and currently have six or seven novel ideas written down in my notebook, thanks to various prompts I’ve found on the web. The current first-draft manuscript I’m working on, End of Days (working title), was inspired by an episode of Gotham. A lot of elements of my stories are derived from real-life situations from my own experiences.

So, yes, you can find inspiration from all around you, whether it’s a snippet of conversation you happen to overhear, or someone you see in public for a character idea. The world around you is rife with story ideas; you just have to reach out and snatch them up.

Here are a few places you can look for inspiration:

  1. Story/Dialogue/Character Prompts
    You’ll find tons of these on the internet on various writing websites. You can even find them sorted by genre. They’re little one- or two-line bits of text, usually with a premise of some sort of setting, situation, dialogue, or person. Personally, I find these very helpful for coming up with at least a premise of a novel, even if I haven’t come up with an entire plot yet.
  2. The Classics
    There’s no denying that Little Shop of Horrors is a work of pure musical and story-telling mastery. (Okay, I admit it — it’s my favorite musical, and I’m dying to see the current off-Broadway cast.) I was interested to learn that the stage version (not the movie version!) is based on the Greek tragedy of greed — the idea that greed kills anything and everything around you. The lyrics of Little Shop of Horrors also draw from the 18th century German literary movement, Sturm and Drang, to add to the feel of the play. (“Feel the Sturm and Drang in the air, yeah.”) So, my whole point? The classics, including Roman and Greek mythology, can be great for inspiration.
  3. Ask Yourself: What if?
    Real life is great for finding story inspiration. Whether it’s an interaction you had with a friend, someone you saw in public who was intriguing, or that time you were in the hospital, you can draw from the world around you. Take that one little snippet and ask yourself, “What if?” Some of the greatest story ideas start with a simple question: What if?
  4. Fairy Tales, Fables, or Legends
    Similar to looking to the classics for inspiration, you can find great ideas by taking a peek at fairy tales or old folk tales. Wicked was inspired by The Wizard of Oz and tells the tales of the great witches of Oz.
  5. Analyze the Elements of Fiction
    Consider the important elements that make up fiction: character, plot, setting, style, point-of-view, theme. Pick one and really think about what you would like to read in a work that has that element, whether it’s a certain strong character, a particular setting, a theme that’s personal to you.

There are a lot of places to find inspiration for a story idea; you just have to look around! Of course, coming up with a spark of an idea is just the beginning — you then have to build the story around the elements of fiction.

Where do you get your story ideas?

The Crutch of Show, Don’t Tell

We hear it all the time: show, don’t tell. It’s repeated over and over and drilled into us as writers. But, I don’t believe in “showing” instead of “telling” in every single instance in your writing. Plenty of blogs give advice on how to show instead of tell, so I’m not going to do that here. Instead, I believe in the importance of both showing and telling in your writing, because if you show all the time, in every sentence of your story, your manuscript will end up ten million words long, and who wants to read a book that’s ten million words long? (Okay, maybe there are some people…)

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Some of the greats included telling/exposition in their work. As I’m currently rereading the Harry Potter series, I’ve been enjoying the explicit amount of exposition in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But it’s placed so well, so artfully, that you barely notice it. Rowling had three books-worth of information to catch you up on, but she leaves the exposition and telling to the important stuff, like explaining why Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, isn’t in his life.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not saying you shouldn’t show at all. I’m all for showing. Showing emotionally charged moments can help draw your reader in. There’s a big difference between “Her eyes stung with tears, but she blinked them away and swallowed the lump rising in her throat.” and “She was sad but tried to hide it.”

Description is important… in the right amount.

For example, there’s no need to give every little detail of a character turning on a light switch, unless, of course, that light switch has significant meaning to your story. No need to describe in detail a character getting changed out of their day clothes. You don’t want to overwhelm your readers with description.

Save your highly detailed descriptions for the story-significant parts. Save showing for the emotional moments, the moments that will draw your reader in and leave them feeling raw. If you’re writing in first person POV, really think about the details your character notices as they move about your story and setting. Think about your own POV, in your own life—you wouldn’t notice details about every little motion you make or about every little thing in your setting. If we tried to describe on paper every single thing in a room, we’d have twenty pages of paper filled with insignificant minutiae that nobody cares about.

So, where exactly does “telling” fall in all of this? Think of it as a continuum. On one end is showing, on the other end is telling. Exposition would fall towards the telling end, while a particular moment that is significant to the plot and emotionally charged (and, therefore, full of detail) would fall towards the showing end.

Ultimately, the amount of description you put into your work is your choice. But finding the right balance between showing and exposition—that’s the real challenge.

Not Crazy: Writing Mental Illness

If there’s one thing that makes me angry, it’s when mental illness is written poorly in fiction. Bipolar is not just happy and sad. Schizophrenia is not multiple personalities. Over the years, people with mental illness have also been portrayed as violent. The truth is that people with mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of a violent crime. Only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to those with mental illness. There is also the misconception that people with serious mental illnesses can’t hold down a job. While I had a period of time during which I wasn’t working due to my illness, I now am a full-time copywriter with a marketing agency and have been for over two years. So, yes, people with severe mental illness can hold down a job.

The biggest piece of advice I have for anyone who wants to write a character with a mental illness? Do your research. Understand the illness. Get to know the diagnosis. Talk to someone living with that illness (if you have the opportunity). Want to hear a first-hand account of living with Type I Bipolar Disorder with Psychosis? Email me at lithiumskylar@yahoo.com.

Also, understand that not everyone is as open about their diagnosis as I am. It took me years to really be as comfortable with my illness as I am today. Here are some tips for writing about mental illness:

  1. Don’t make the entire life of the character about the illness, but understand that it can affect daily life. For example, I’m reminded three times a day that I have mental illness when it’s time for my meds.
  2. Words matter. Don’t use disorders as an insult or as an adjective. (“She’s so bipolar.” “Don’t be schizo.” “Ugh, she’s cleaning? She’s so OCD.”)
  3. Remember that there’s no cure for mental illness, so while your character may have a period of stability, they’re never suddenly “better.” It can take weeks for a new medication to take effect. And remember that medications have side effects!
  4. Again, do your research. Once you have a draft, have a beta reader with that illness or disability read it for feedback on your portrayal of their illness.
  5. The illness doesn’t necessarily have to be the central plot. (Unless, of course, you’re writing solely about mental illness.) It can be a barrier to your protagonist’s ultimate goal or desire or just simply a part of who they are.
  6. Treatment plans look different for everyone. Some folks find stability through therapy and medication, while others require more intensive treatments like multiple medications or even brain stimulation treatments such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), or even Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS) implants.
  7. Make your character with an illness relatable. Give them something that readers can relate to.
  8. Don’t make your character “crazy”—be sure to specify the illness in some way, even if it’s just in your head. Each of the diagnoses have a particular subset of symptoms.
  9. Lastly, be respectful when writing mental illness. Don’t use it as a mere plot device.

A brilliant book about life with mental illness is An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. I highly recommend it. I’ll say it one more time: Do your research on your character’s illness.