How to Generate Story Ideas

Where do ideas come from? Some artists joke that if they knew where the good ideas came from they’d go there more often. Others, meanwhile, make  the seemingly futile effort to explain the creative process. The surrealist filmmaker David Lynch compares the process to a fishing excursion. “Desiring an idea is like a bait on a hook,” Lynch says. “That idea that you caught might just be a fragment of the whole…but now you have even more bait.”

This page includes a collection of techniques for writers to generate their own original story ideas. These techniques can help you develop each element that goes into writing a story, including plots, characters, settings, and themes. The following list includes the name, a short description, and an example of each method. We will continue to add to this list. If you know of a technique that should be included, please e-mail us at prestigeprose@gmail.com.

Analogy –  This technique establishes a relationship between two distinct ideas based on similarities that they may share. This technique calls for the author to develop a story idea by analogy often times from an ordinary experience. The writer may change the setting of a real event or exaggerate the details in order to turn a mundane experience into a compelling story idea. Similes and metaphors are both examples of analogies, and many are found in everyday speech such as, “He is as quiet as a mouse.”

Bounce Ideas Off a Creative Partner – This technique involves you and another person creatively discussing a story element, such as a character or setting. For example, one person may ask a question or add a detail that the other person may build on and which will spur creative development. This technique is similar to another technique discussed on this page called Wondering.

Browsing – Browse the internet, newspaper articles, or a library shelf to find subjects that inspire ideas. For example, a sub-plot in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk  Love was inspired from several newspaper articles about David Phillips, a UC Davis professor who earned over one million free airline miles by taking advantage of a promotional loophole in Healthy Choice pudding coupons.

Bulletism – This is a surrealist technique that involves shooting ink at a blank piece of paper and then developing images (and then story ideas) from what is seen.

Cleverbot – Cleverbot is a web application that uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to have a conversation with humans. Part of the fun of working with Cleverbot is that its responses are often nonsensical and sometimes even disturbing. Several internet posters have used Cleverbot to write creepypastas, which are short horror stories circulating the internet. One filmmaker even collaborated with Cleverbot to write a short film called Do You Love Me.

Cut-Up Technique – This technique calls for the author to cut up text at random and then rearrange it to create a new expression. William S. Burroughs popularized this method and a great article about Burroughs employing this method can be found here. Musicians who have used this technique include David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, and Thom Yorke.

Dream Diary – Dreams can offer some interesting story ideas. This technique involves keeping a diary or journal near your bed and writing down your interesting dreams.

Ending First – Similar to reverse engineering, this technique calls for the author to develop an intriguing ending first and then work backwards.

Entopic Graphomania – This is a surrealist art method that may also lead to creative writing ideas. This technique calls for a drawer to make dots on a blank piece of paper, often at the site of impurities, and then connect the dots using either straight or curved lines. The image that is created may inspire your creativity.

Experience – Story ideas can come from one’s own personal experiences. Tread carefully here, however. When writing about personal experiences, one runs the risk of sentimentality and portraying events nostalgically and not necessarily in a compelling manner.

Exquisite Corpse – This is a game in which each player adds to a collection of words or images to form a thought or image, with often absurd results. Sometimes players impose certain rules upon what can or cannot be contributed. To play, players come up with a total of 20 words in the following order: adjective, noun, verb, adjective, and noun. Players create a pile for each set of words, and then randomly choose a word from each pile to create a poem. The next step is to edit your poem and use the imagery it creates for inspiration for your next project.

Keep a Journal – Authors should write their ideas, thoughts, responses to writing prompts, and other expressions in a notebook. Keeping a journal not only inspires ideas, it helps the author become a better writer through practice. Authors should revisit older journal entries to discover ideas as well as see how they have grown as writers. Before Henry James started writing The Turn of the Screw in 1987, he spent several years writing excerpts into his journal regarding ghost stories, excepts that shaped many of his ideas put to work his classic horror novella.

Focus – Phone calls. Text messages. Internet. Distractions not only lead to procrastination, they are also idea blockers. This technique calls for the author to find a quiet place and limit her distractions. This may include going to the library and using a quiet study room or even making a study room in your own house.

Free Writing – This is a popular technique that involves the writer selecting a topic, often times allotting a given period of time, and then during that time writing every thought that comes to mind about that topic without censoring oneself at all. When you do this, it is important that you do not censor your thoughts or concern yourself with poor grammar or whether your writing even makes sense. The benefit of this technique is to allow subconscious ideas to emerge to a conscious level. After the author brainstorms over a topic, she should review her writing and attempt to find links between her thoughts to further develop intriguing ideas that may emerge.

Genre-Flipping – This technique calls for the author to set a traditional genre story in a different genre setting. For example, take the themes and tropes of one genre and use them in a different genre to create a fresh prospective. The most famous example of this is Star Wars, which is a traditional western story set in outer space.

GooglismGooglism is a website that allows its user to enter a word or phrase, searches Google text for matches, and then returns a list of the most popular uses for the search term. For example, searching the word “homelessness” produces over 100 results, including the phrases “homelessness is a suburban issue too,” “homelessness is expensive,” and “homelessness is about more than being without a roof or a house.” Googlism results may inspire creative ideas.

Identify a Literary Muse – A muse is a guiding spirit who inspires creativity. But a muse does not have to be a person. In fact, one may be inspired to write after seeing a photo of an illuminated skyline or a peaceful wharf. Find your guiding spirit to inspire creativity in you.

Impose Deadlines – As the proverb goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Imposing a deadline will force you to set aside distractions and force out story ideas. National Novel Writing Month, which is discussed in detail later on this page, is a wonderful example of how imposing deadlines may inspire creativity.

Latent News Game – This is a creative development game that involves cutting out individual words or phrases from a newspaper article and reassembling them.

Listing – Listing is a type of brainstorming method that calls for the author to make a list of related subjects in an attempt to spur her creativity.

National Novel Writing MonthNational Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, is an annual creative writing event that challenges authors to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Its website includes a word counter along with numerous resources for writers, including writing tips and active forums. NaNoWriMo keeps a list of published books that were written as part of this annual event. Maybe your book will one day appear on this list.

Observations of Others – Eavesdropping on others’ conversations may spur story ideas.

Occupations – When suffering from a particularly bad case of writer’s block and needing to develop your characters, you may start with a list of occupations and query what kind of issues each occupation may face. This is a type of listing and browsing technique.

Paranoiac-Critical Method – This process was developed by Salvador Dali, and Surrealist artists used it to find new and unique ways to view the world around them. Through this process, the artist sees multiple images within the same shape, such as faces seen in clouds, and incorporates the images visualized into the final work.

Shift Perspectives – This technique involves thinking about a scene from the point of view of a supporting character. Not only does this technique spur story ideas, it also helps develop interesting and well-rounded supporting characters.

Snowclone – Snowclone refers to a phrasal template in which certain words are replaced with other words to produce new variations with altered meanings. An example is to use the template “X is the new Y” to create the title Orange is the New Black. Suburbia is the new downtown is another idea that may be expressed using the same phrasal template.

Time Travelers’ Potlatch – In this surrealist game, each player says what gift he would give to a historical, mythical, or fictional person. What gift would you give to William Shakespeare? The Grim Reaper? Holden Caulfield?

Wondering – Wondering is a type of brainstorming technique where the writer speculates curiously over some idea until she sketches it out enough to use in a story. This speculation often, but not always, appears in the form of what-if questions. For example, what if a family moves into a haunted house? Would they move out immediately? Why or why not? What if they move out but the ghost follows them? How would the ghost get to his new residence? By car? By bus? By ethereal means?

Writing Prompts – Writing prompts describe a short scenario and call for the author to respond, either answering a question or using the scenario as a jumping off point for a story. Many writing prompts are available online, including on the Writer’s Digest website.

Writing Roulette – Numerous generators that create random plots, titles, characters, and names exist. Examples of these generators include Terrible Things Generator, Plot Generator, Plot Scenario Generator, Random Story Generator, Random Title Generator, Abstract Art Title Generator, Appearance Generator, Motive Generator, Character Quick GeneratorEveryday Problems Generator, Character Flaws and Weaknesses Generator, Character Detail Generator, Fantasy Name Generator, The Elvish Name Generator, Fake Name Generator, Random Name Generator, Nymbler’s Name Generator, and Seventh Sanctum.