story ideas

Where Story Ideas Come From

Eudora Welty—

“…each writer’s vision is made of his or her local clay as surely as any mud pie of his childhood was. It is the act of the imagination that makes the feast.”

All the ideas you could ever fathom reside within you. Okay, so take a breath… and then drill down to the nexus of your beliefs, your values, the sources of aches and ecstasies. Here are some questions to help you locate your ideas:

  • What do you care most about?  If you failed to attain it or lost it, how might you react?
  • If you were to write your obituary, how would you hope it to read?  Who would you want to come upon it and how would you like them to respond to the news?
  • How do you feel about your physical appearance and how does it affect you?  Are there any physical appearances in your orbit that you find alluring or repulsive? Why, and how does this affect your behavior?
  • What or who do you most fear?
  • Is there something you were never taught and had to learn the hard way? Did it derail your life, set you on an detour? What did that detour look like?
  • Identify three events from your childhood that shaped the person you’ve become? What was at the crux of those events? Would you rescript them and their influences? How so?
  • Can you think of a secret that would compel you to conceal it at all costs? What might that secret be and what lengths would you take to keep it hidden?
  • What is your life philosophy?  What’s the antithesis of your philosophy? How do these two interact in the world around you?

If meaning is a story’s goal, don’t write explicitly from what you know. Write from who you are. Write what you don’t know about what you know. Draw from the emotional imprint life has stamped on you and show how your idée fix operates in a particular corner of the planet. When you dig into who you are, the story you choose to plot will hit a nerve and enable you to portray an aspect of humanity with passion, originality, with meaning and soul.

Eudora Welty—

“The subject, method, form, style, all wait upon—indeed hang upon—a sort of double thunderclap at the author’s ears: the break of the living world upon what is stirring inside the mind, and the answering impulse that in a moment of high consciousness fuses impact and image and fires them off together.”

In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury says that early in his career he would make lists of nouns as a way to generate story ideas: the Jar, the Cistern, the Lake, the Skeleton. Certain pictures, too, would dredge his subconscious, evoking in him things from his past. He’d look at Edward Hopper’s paintings, townscapes of empty cafes and theaters with maybe one person in them, and the sense of isolation and loneliness would come bubbling up. His imagination, then, would fill the settings with story.

As he explains—

“Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Second, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Third, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out.”

Storming the Sepulchral

Make a list of ten things you hate and ten things you love. When you get the lists down, begin to word-associate around each item. Ask yourself: Why did I put this noun down? What does it mean to me? Why this particular word and not some other? After you’ve explored your nouns, write a short, descriptive paragraph for each. Finally, bring some characters on to talk about this item, that place. “When I wrote Fahrenheit 451,” Bradbury said, “I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.”

The inner workings of a story are elusive and profound. By intuition and feeling, we arrive at our ideas. By intuition and feeling, we make creative decisions that develop these ideas into story. As writers, we launch our work in a process of discovery: there is a vital something with roots in our experience and for which we must unearth. Every story represents the writer’s effort to make sense of his world. Recognizing this, we begin to trust our intuition.

Joseph Conrad—

“Writing is the conversion of nervous force into language.”

The writer attempts to decipher his story in a process that parallels his attempt to make sense of life. Through a creative archeology, he brings his story to the page. And if he has dug to the depths and conveyed his insights—not on a skeleton, but on a living, breathing individual who confronts his dreams and fears—his story will move an audience. The writer does not say, “I’ll put this plot with that theme.”  He is not attempting to puzzle together a puppet tethered to his pen. He is trying to achieve what Eudora Welty calls a vision—a vision of people alive and moving in a meaningful way in a world we recognize.

From imagination vision finds its substance. From the free movement of a mind let loose, a thing spills out and leads to another. Of course, the flow of association must be a responsible spilling of details and episodes, as logic must develop within the vision, and meaning from it. The writer’s story, if it is a good story, is more than a trick he has honed to earn a living. His story is a stab, however modest, at making sense of experience, to understand how things hang meaningfully together.

When story emerges from a writer’s direct line to the subconscious, as described by Raymond Chandler, it reaches into and plays off the reader’s cache of hidden memories. “The books you really love,” Chandler says, “give the sense, when you first open them, of having been there. It is a creation, almost like a chamber in the memory. Places that one has never been to, things that one has never seen or heard, but their fitness is so sound that you’ve been there somehow.”

Joyce Carol Oates—

“Your struggle with your buried self, or selves, yields your art; these emotions are the fuel that drives your writing and makes possible hours, days, weeks, months and years of what will appear to others, at a distance, as ‘work.’ Without these ill-understood drives you might be a superficially happier person, and a more involved citizen of your community, but it isn’t likely that you will create anything of substance.”

And once your story idea comes, spend silent time with it. Remember Kipling’s advice to “drift, wait and obey”. Along with your gathering of hard data, allow yourself to dream your idea into being.

But if you haven’t been able to resurrect an appealing idea, here are some exercises and prompts that are sure to get your creative blood flowing.

Idea Generating Exercises

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist