How to Get Story Ideas for Fiction Writing
By far the most common question asked of professional writers is where they get their ideas. We all like to think that brilliant, fully-formed story ideas just pop into the heads of our favorite authors. We imagine that if we could somehow learn their secret technique then we too could crank out bestsellers as effortlessly as they seem to.
The truth is that you have more great ideas than you could ever write.
Really, you do! The problem isn't a lack of great ideas; it's that you haven't been taught how to free these ideas from your brain.
Where to Start?
Every how-to book on writing will tell you that you need to start with a solid premise or story idea. What they rarely tell you is where this idea comes from in the first place. This is the cause of great frustration and confusion in beginning writers and has helped create the myth that you either have great story ideas or you don't. The core of this confusion is the mistaken belief that the creation of a solid story idea is an event rather than a process.
Beginning writers believe that creating a work of fiction starts with a single event - a sudden burst of inspiration that pops a fully-formed story idea into their minds. This single event then leads to the process of expanding that idea into a finished work. The truth is that coming up with a full, rich story idea is itself a process.
Knowing this is the key to generating more ideas than you could ever use.
The Secret to Endless Ideas
The secret to generating ideas is the same "secret" that solves every writing problem: writing itself. The old adage that "writers write" is true in many ways, and none more so than in idea generation.
Sitting in front of a blank page and waiting for inspiration to strike is not a recipe for success as a professional writer. Great ideas come from the act of writing.
But if you don't yet have that great story idea, what do you write about? The truth is once you free yourself from the concept of story ideation as an event, and start to think of it as a process you'll be amazed at how much there is to write about.
You actually need very little inspiration to start writing. You can and should start with almost anything that you find interesting. Maybe it's a location that fascinates you, a character sketch, a clever line of dialogue, or even a great title.
As a writer, you will start to collect these story nuggets as you go through your daily life. You'll begin to notice when something you see or hear gives you that little tingle in the back of your brain that says there's something there worth exploring. Pay attention to this and jot it down in your notebook - you do have a notebook, right?
When you later sit down to write, start with these nuggets. Just pick one and begin writing about it - what it makes you think of, how it makes you feel, what questions it raises. And write fast. One of the keys to idea generation (and writing in general) is to write as quickly as you can.
You don't want to analyze anything yet. You want a volume of words on the page.
If you find yourself writing about something completely different from the nugget you started with, just go with it. The idea is not to stress about structure, not to analyze where the story is going, not even to think about it as a story yet. You want volume, varied thoughts, and a wealth of possibilities. Don't make any decisions; just stay open and receptive to whatever comes. You will be amazed at what's in your brain just waiting to spill out onto the page.
How It Works
This process of starting with story nuggets and expanding them is the core of story idea generation. As you explore your story nuggets, start to ask questions and follow your answers wherever they lead. Do not try to force your thoughts into a story yet.
Keep things loose and continue asking and answering questions. Feel free to backtrack and choose different answers.
And remember to write a lot. Volume is your friend. Ask a question, answer it, repeat. Keep at it for a few sessions and you will be amazed at the material you'll generate.
From these explorations a story idea will effortlessly begin to form - it always does. Your brain loves to put things in order, to relate one thing to another, and to do so in interesting and surprising ways. Your mind will simply not allow you to continue to think about this much story data without ordering it into something understandable. It's like magic when it happens, and it happens every single time.
By feeding your brain a fertile mountain of images, characters, and possibilities it goes to work trying to make sense of it all. This process is the truth of where great story ideas come from.
A Bottomless Well of Ideas
You will probably find yourself coming up with multiple story ideas based on the same initial nugget. Great! Choose one idea to work on and work on it until it's done. File the others for later use.
When the pros say they have more ideas than they could ever work on in a lifetime they aren't showing off (well, maybe a little), it's simply that the process of working on one idea always creates new ideas.
That's the secret to a lifetime of story ideas. Collect story nuggets from your daily life, expand them into fertile story worlds and then condense those worlds down to beautiful, rich story ideas worth writing about.
Most writers have too many short story ideas, not too few. However, therein lies the problem, because the more ideas you have, the harder it can be to choose the best one.
Here’s my advice: If you’re in the mood to begin a new short story, stop trying to find the best short story idea. In an interview with Rolling Stone, George R.R. Martin said, “Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.”
The best short story idea in the world won’t help you if you don’t write it, and a mediocre idea can be made into an award winning story if it’s written well. Stop worrying about finding the best idea and choose one that’s good enough (or even an idea you’ve already started). Your goal isn’t to have the best ideas, it’s to have the best short stories.
That’s why this list is so short. Some websites give 44 story ideas, 100 ideas, or even 1,000, and while that can be fun, it kind of defeats the purpose. More ideas won’t help you if you don’t write them, and they might just distract you from your true purpose.
Short Story Ideas
With that in mind, why not use these ten short story ideas to write your first ten stories, one per week, over the next ten weeks? I promise you, your life will look totally different if you do it.
Here are the short story ideas:
1. Tell the story of a scar, whether a physical scar or emotional one.
To be a writer, said Stephen King, “The only requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
Good writers don’t cover up their wounds, they glorify them. Think for a few moments about a moment in your life when you were wounded, whether physically or emotionally. Then, write a story, true or fictional, involving that wound.
2. Your character discovers a dead body OR witnesses a death.
In 2011, 20 short stories were published in Best American Short Stories. Half of them involved a character dying. That same year, all 13 of the novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize involved the theme of death.
Think about your favorite films or novels. How many of them either show a character die or have the character’s dealing with the death of another.
Good writers don’t turn away from death, which is, after all, the universal human experience. Instead, they look it directly into it’s dark face and describe what they see on the page.
3. Your character is orphaned.
Pop quiz: What do Harry Potter, Superman, Cosette from Les Miserables, Bambi, David Copperfield, Frodo Baggins, Tom Sawyer, Santiago from The Alchemist, Arya Stark, and Ram Mohammed Thomas from Slumdog Millionaire have in common? Beside the fact that they are characters in some of the bestselling stories of all time?
They’re all orphans.
Writers love orphans, and statistically they appear in stories far more often than in the world. Orphans are uniquely vulnerable, and as such, they have the most potential for growth. It’s time for you to write a story about one.
Read more about why you should be writing stories about orphans here.
4. Your character discovers a ghost.
One more pop quiz: What do Edgar Allen Poe, Ron Weasley, King Saul from the Bible, Odysseus, and Ebeneezer Scrooge have in common?
Each of these characters* from literary classics saw ghosts!
Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, they make great stories. Have your character find one.
Need more reasons to write about ghosts? Check out our article, 3 reasons to write about ghosts.
*Edgar Allen Poe was not exactly a character, but he was the narrator of “The Raven.”
5. Your character’s relationship ends.
Whether it’s a friendship or a romantic relationship or even the relationship between a parent and his or her child, write about the end of a character’s relationship.
As you write, be sure to keep this in mind:
“Every story has an end, but in life every ending is just a new beginning,” says Dakota Fanning’s character in Uptown Girls.
While it might feel like you’re writing an ending, remember that this end is the opportunity for a new beginning, both for your character and your story.
More Short Story Ideas
Ready to get writing? Get our workbook 15 Days to Write and Submit a Short Story for a step-by-step guide through the process.
6. Your character’s deepest fear is holding his or her relationship OR career back.
“Why bats, Master Wayne?” asks Alfred in Batman Begins.
“Bats frighten me,” Bruce answers. “It’s time my enemies shared my dread.”
We all have pieces of ourselves we’re trying to hide. You do, and so do the characters in your short stories. However, your characters’ secret fears and insecurities are actually the source of their power. Dive into them and you’ll unlock a captivating story.
For more, read our article When You Don’t Know What to Write, Write About Your Insecurities.
7. A character living in poverty comes into an unexpected fortune.
This storyline is one of the seven basic plots, and it describes the plot of some of our favorites stories, including Cinderella, Aladdin, Great Expectations, several of the parables of Jesus, and even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
However, not all fortunes are good. As Tolstoy’s short story How Much Land Does a Man Need?and John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl illustrate, sometimes discovering a fortune will destroy your life.
8. A character unexpectedly bumps into his or her soulmate, literally.
In film, it’s called the meet cute, when the hero bumps into the heroine in the hallway, knocking her books to the floor, and forcing them into conversation. In another story, they meet on a bus and her broach gets stuck on his coat. In another, they both reach for the last pair of gloves at the department store.
What happens next is an awkward, endearing conversation between the future lovers.
First, setup the collision. Then, let us see how they handle it.
9. Your character is on a journey. However, they are interrupted by a natural disaster OR an accident.
This is the plot of Gravity, The Odyssey, and Lord of the Rings. It’s fun because who hasn’t been longing to get to a destination only to be delayed by something unexpected.
10. Your character runs into the path of a monster.
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a family is on a road trip to Florida when they get into an accident beside the hideout of a murderer who had just escaped from prison. What happens next is one of the most famous encounters with a monstrous criminal in short fiction.
Monsters, whether people who do monstrous things or scaly beasts or a monster of a natural disaster, reveal what’s really inside a person. Let your character fall into the path of a monster and see how they handle themselves.
Want more story ideas? Want to learn how to execute those ideas better, and get your short stories published? Check out this book Let’s Write a Short Story, a guide that will get you started writing and publishing short stories. Get it here.
Testing Your Short Story Ideas
Spend a few minutes today thinking about these 10 story ideas and coming up with a few of your own.
But before you start writing, try testing out your idea by sharing it with a friend, your writer’s group, or even our online community Becoming Writer.
If the people you share it with aren’t very excited about your idea, consider reworking it or even starting over. If they start getting visibly excited about the story, on the other hand, then you know you’re onto something.
I recently combined idea #7, the unexpected fortune, along with idea #5, end of a relationship, to create this idea:
A writer who is inexperienced with women suddenly gets the courage to date not one but two women—the old friend who had twice rejected him and a barista he’s long been attracted to—but after several months of balancing them, both relationships end leaving him alone.
I then posted the idea for feedback in Becoming Writer. And the feedback I got not only helped me see I had a promising idea, I got more ideas from members of the community about how to make the story even better.
As I wrote the story, I was more confident because of the feedback I had gotten, and when I finished, the story turned great.
Once you have your idea, join Becoming Writer to test them out. Oh, and if you join, here’s the link to mine if you want to share your feedback! I’ll be there ready to check it out.
How about you? Do you have any short story ideas? Share them with us in the comments section!
About Joe Bunting
Joe is a ghostwriter, editor, and author. He writes and edits books that change lives. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.