Sitting down to write before you have an idea is like deciding to run a marathon before you train. You might be able to finish, but your progress will be slow, painful, and exhausting. The empty page will turn into miles of empty pavement that will take hours to cross. While it is possible to write “off the top of your head,” it is far easier to begin with story ideas. As a writer, people often ask me how to get story ideas. Here are some tips to get you started on your writing journey.
Particularly brilliant ideas seem alive, carrying a story forward with their own energy, filling pages with little effort from the writer. Unfortunately, finding such an idea can be quite a challenge, especially if you look in the wrong place. Ideas are not rabbits, and a blank page is not a magician’s hat. You cannot expect to simply pluck an idea from empty space. Ideas exist in the world, both in the physical world and in creative works.
One place to look for ideas is in other people’s writing. Good writers are invariably good readers. Build a stack of short story collections, making sure to include a variety of styles, tones, and eras. Some of my personal favorites include:
- High Cotton: Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale – Joe R. Lansdale
- Bumper Crop – Joe R. Lansdale
- Any of the H.P. Lovecraft collections by Arkham House
- Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick – Philip K. Dick
- The Essential Ellison – Harlan Ellison
- Dangerous Visions – edited by Harlan Ellison
- The Complete Robot – Isaac Asimov
- Burning Chrome – William Gibson
- The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury
- The Doom Tapes – Can’t remember the author’s name, but he’s really handsome
A stack like this will provide you with hundreds of different plots, characters, and settings. For some great online reading, check out short story sources like Vocal horror stories, The Dark Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, Amazing Stories, Nightmare Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, Scifi Shorts, and the short fiction subreddit /r/ShortSF.
Another place to find an idea is from real-life stories. One place to find strange, inspiring ideas is Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia has a wealth of unusual people, animals, and historical events just waiting to be turned into a brilliant story. A good place to start is the list of “unusual articles“. The website “Damn Interesting” is another great source of unusual, real-life tales.
Of course, I am not suggesting plagiarism! You should never simply take a story wholesale. Instead, look for characters, settings, or plots that inspire you, and break them into their component parts. What is it about this character that you enjoy? Her sense of humor? His style and panache? What would happen if you changed the character’s occupation, background, or age? What emotional reaction does this setting create in the reader? How can you use a different setting to create the same reaction? What is the essence of this plot? What kind of conflict drives this story forward? How would characters solve a similar problem?
Keep making changes until you create something entirely your own. The important part is to be completely original. There are few things worse for a writer than being accused of plagiarism.
Picture galleries are another great source for story ideas. Find a picture and ask yourself, “What is the relationship between these people? What are they thinking about? What happened just before this picture was taken? What happened afterwards?”
Once you get started looking for ideas, you will probably find more than you will ever be able to use. Instead of spending hours struggling with writer’s block, you’ll spend days just deciding which stories to write!