When storytellers are asked where their ideas come from, many don’t know how to answer. Idea generation is a personal process that relies on the subconscious mind. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to harness your imagination. It’s just a matter of discovering which of the many techniques work for you. Here are ten you can start with.
1. Start a Dream Journal
Dreams break free of normal thought patterns, and that makes great creative fuel. Keep a notebook or tablet by your bedside so you can record your dreams before they fade from memory. Record all of the details of each dream, and then make a separate list of any aspects you found especially intriguing. What themes, characters, or situations might be worth preserving? What did you like about them? Distill them down as much as you can. You can start a story about these elements right away, or you comb through your notebook later when you need ideas.
2. Do Free Writing
If you give yourself room to express whatever comes to mind, your brain could surprise you. Set up a regular time when you can sit in peace and let ideas flow. Experiment with writing prompts. You may not need a prompt, or you might do better if you start with a question, story, image, or other internal conversation pieces. Try starting with “once upon a time” and writing a random story from there. Whatever you do, don’t censor yourself; write everything that occurs to you, even if it’s stupid. When you’re done, review what you wrote and make a list of things you like.
3. Subvert a Clichéd Story
Pick a typical story or theme you’re sick of, and create a parody or subversion to make fun of it. Are you tired of finding yet another story about a knight that rescues a princess from a dragon to win her hand in marriage? In your story, your knight might show up at the dragon’s lair to find the princess happily drinking tea with the dragon. The knight gives his challenge, and the princess is horrified that anyone would want to kill such a noble creature. Alternatively, if you’re tired of movie previews showing real-world dramas, you could create a mock drama where monsters drop in and eat them all.
4. Fix a Flawed Story
Is there a story you’d adore if not for glaring errors? Brainstorm what you would change about this story to fix the problem. Then, think critically about what other things might be different based on the change you’ve made. If you explain that the lovers can’t be together because one of them has a sacred duty to their home world, elaborate on what that duty is and how that duty alters their actions throughout the rest of the story. Perhaps they were on a mission for their home world throughout the tale. Ask yourself what else in the story is only “okay” that you could improve. Then, modify the setting and any superficial details. Pretty soon you’ll have a story concept that’s all your own.
5. Narrate Music & Imagery
Collect some music or images you find pleasant and inspiring. Imagine the story behind them. Who is the music about? What are they going through? What brought that character to the place depicted in the image? Narrate a story that matches what you see or hear. Then forget the image or music, review the story, and ask yourself what parts you like and what parts you don’t. Discard your least favorite parts, and replace them with material you like better. Some music and images will probably work better for you than others. Keep track of what characteristics you need for inspiration.
6. Name a Problem
Many people have creative ideas but hit a wall when it’s time to make a story out of them. Stories thrive on conflict. To make a story emerge, start with a problem. It can be any problem you like, from “I’ve run out of mayonnaise” to “This morning I woke up in the wilderness and I don’t know how to get home” to “Every continent is sinking into the ocean.” Create a character who must solve this problem. Why do they care so much about it? Put them in a position where they can make a difference, and your story has already begun.
7. Alter the World
Speculative fiction is built by imagining worlds that are different from our own, but they could be identical except for one important detail. Ask yourself how the world might differ. What if everyone had wings? What if pets were the masters and people their slaves? What if Iceland had taken over the world a century ago? Then examine the repercussions of those changes. If everyone had wings, would we still use cars for transportation? If pets were our masters, would they make us do tricks for their entertainment? If Iceland controlled the world, how would that change the economy and culture of India, Brazil, or Russia? Discover what’s fascinating about your new world, and create a character that’s in the thick of it.
8. Borrow a First Sentence
Brilliant first sentences are evocative for both readers and storytellers. Look through a list of famous first lines. Choose several you like, from works you haven’t read. Then ask yourself what is happening in the story, or put them on a blank page and free write from there. After you’ve invented stories for your first lines, take what you like from those stories, and discard the rest. While you can’t include the famous first line in your finished work, you’ll have an original story to inspire you.
9. Put Someone You Know in Space
Having a character you care about can make all the difference. Start with someone you know in person or a character you adore from another work. Then imagine them in a setting or context that’s completely different from the one they know. What would your sibling do if they were the general of a magical army? What would happen if your favorite character had to flee their home and find a new one? Name what challenges they would face and how they would overcome those challenges. Let the new experiences you’ve invented shape who they are. They should make mistakes and learn from them. Then, once you rename them, no one will know who you started with.
10. Exaggerate Contemporary Issues
Many great dystopian works are warnings about issues we face every day. Look through the news. Is there a growing income inequality gap? Imagine if the entire world was owned by a single person. Has a large website been the target of aggressive hackers? Imagine if hackers were so powerful everyone had to pay a hacking collective for protection. Create a lesson for your story, one that might help people grappling with the issue today. Maybe the key to defeating income inequality is to keep the rich from isolating themselves from the poor. Perhaps countries across the world must work together to wrest control from the powerful hackers. Then all you need is a character to struggle against the problem and learn the lesson.
Whatever your method, write down your ideas soon after you think of them. Inspiration can fade fast, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have more story concepts than you can use in a lifetime.
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