Sometimes, coming up with a story idea is the hardest part about writing fiction. Figuring out what to write about can be frustrating, as the desire to create meets the uncertainty surrounding where to begin.
Writers are often taught how to write their stories, but not how to develop a great story idea. Luckily, the best fiction prompts are already in your head. Let’s answer a common question for fiction writers stuck on the blank page: What should I do if I want to write fiction but have no story ideas?
Finding What to Write About: What Goes Into a Good Story Idea?
There’s no strict definition of a “good story idea.” In fact, many good stories are good because of the way they’re written. You might have heard someone say that every idea has already been written, and while this approach to creative writing is a bit cynical, it’s true that many stories can be reduced to similar narrative arcs.
A striking example of this is the Shakespeare play Hamlet and the Disney movie The Lion King. These two stories have many differences, but they have the same story premise: an orphan prince must avenge the death of his father, to the chagrin of a shady uncle and an unstable family.
Both works of fiction share the same premise, but audiences perceive them differently since they have different writing styles, intended audiences, and storytelling purposes.
Thus, there’s no clear anatomy of a good story idea. As a general rule, however, your idea for a story should answer the following questions:
- Who is your main character?
- What does your main character want?
- What prevents the main character from getting what they want?
The rest is up for you to decide. With this in mind, let’s consider different starting points for how to come up with story ideas.
7 Ways to Come Up With Great Story Ideas
When you ask yourself “ What should I write about?”, starting with one of these methods will go a long way to help you develop a great story idea.
1. Start With the Six Elements of Fiction
The blank page can be overwhelming. As you consider the infinite possibilities of language, it’s easy to get so lost in the details that you lose sight of a clear idea. If you’re the type of writer who gets overwhelmed by the whole process, try coming up with story ideas through a piecemeal approach, by considering the six elements of fiction:
- Plot: the “what happens” of your story
- Characters: whose lives are we watching?
- Setting: the world that the story is set in
- Point of View: from whose eyes do we see the story unfold?
- Theme: the “deeper meaning” of the story, or what the story represents
- Style: how you use words to tell the story
You can read in-depth about each of these in our article on the six elements of fiction.
For example, you might benefit by just starting with a character. Think about different character details, from their physical traits to the things they most desire. From there, you can think about what’s getting in the way of this character’s success, and craft the plot and world around them.
Or you can start with setting. Create the world you want to write in, whether that world is realistic, magical, or somewhere off Earth entirely. Then, think about the limitations of this world and how it both helps and hurts its people; from there, you can craft your characters and plot.
You might even start with style. If you want your story to use certain language, style can act as a scaffolding to story. For example, Toni Morrison wrote her novel Jazz because she wanted to write a story that spontaneously rises and falls in energy and emotion, much like jazz music does. The result is a story that traverses a slice of the early-20th-century African-American experience through Black culture and music, using style to guide and write the story itself.
Our Upcoming Fiction Writing Courses
Introduction to Writing Genre Fiction
with Tantra Bensko
October 21st, 2020
Take the whirlwind tour! Learn the conventions of eight major fiction genres, try them out, and figure out your niche.
The First Fifty Pages of the Novel
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October 21st, 2020
The first 50 pages sets up plot, characters, and voice. Fail here and the reader is gone. Receive feedback on your book's start from novelist Sandra Novack.
Anatomy of a Premise Line: Story and Premise Development for Writing Success
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October 28th, 2020
The premise line is the only reliable tool that can tell you, BEFORE you start writing, whether or not your story will “work.” In this class participants will learn how to master the process of premise line development—the essential first step in any book or screenplay’s development process.
The Thinking Mind: Writing Flash Fiction
with Barbara Henning
November 4th, 2020
Write tiny fictions while experimenting with 1st person point of view and analyzing how that point of view affects the craft of fiction writing.
Embodied Writing: Improve Your Writing with Full-Body Creativity
with Tantra Bensko
November 11th, 2020
Have a grand time with specific physical exercises that honor your health, generate imaginative ideas, explore deeply and make your creative writing entertaining.
2. Start With a Story You Want to Read
Toni Morrison said it best: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Think about a story you’ve always wanted to read. This doesn’t have to be a story that’s revolutionary and wholly unique; start with what you want to read in fiction. For example, maybe you like reading stories that bend genres, and you want a story that combines mystery, romance, historical fiction, and science fiction, but you haven’t read anything like it.
The reason you haven’t read it is because you haven’t written it! Take some time to think about a story you want in the world — whether that’s a story you needed when you were younger, a story that other people need to hear, or a story you’ve always wanted told. That might be what you should write about.
3. Modify a Story Idea That Already Exists
No, you can’t publish your version of The Great Gatsby where every character and detail is the same, except it’s set in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. However, you can start a story from literature that already exists.
In fact, many great works of literature started as, to use a modern term, fanfiction. Shakespeare’s Othello was inspired by a poem called “The Moorish Captain”—he even used the same names and borrowed themes of love and vengeance. Alexandre Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers as fanfiction to a memoir of a French musketeer titled Mémoires de Monsieur d’Artagnan. Finally, William Golding was inspired to write Lord of the Flies after reading the children’s book The Coral Island, a story about three marooned boys from England.
If you’re afraid to call a story “fanfiction,” think of it as a way of improving a story you already love. Make it your own, change your characters, and develop new story ideas. You might just write the next classic!
4. Start With a Creative Writing Prompt
Chances are, you’ve been told to use writing prompts, but not how to use writing prompts. The best way to write from a prompt is to freewrite from the story idea, then edit from there.
For example, let’s say you’re given this prompt: Write a story about a psychic psychiatrist. If you choose to use this prompt, but don’t know where to begin, do a timed freewrite where you “free associate” all of your ideas onto the page. Write for five minutes about what the word “psychic” makes you think of. Give another five minutes to “psychiatrist.”
Then, comb through your freewrite and let your journaling inspire some story ideas. Perhaps you wrote down something about a crystal ball in a psychiatrist’s office, or you imagined a circus tent filled with prescriptions. Let your great story ideas unfold naturally, then write from there.
If you’d like some writing prompts to get you started, here are 24 exercises we think you’ll love.
5. Find Inspiration in Wordplay
Sometimes, words themselves inspire. Drawing creativity from puns, alliterations, and onomatopoeias can create the most unique and interesting stories.
Take our last prompt, for example. Both words in the phrase “psychic psychiatrist” start with “psych,” yet they have vastly different meanings. Psychiatrists are academics, whereas psychics are mystics. What story can you find in the duality of science versus magic? Are they more similar than we realize? Find moments of tension or ambiguity in language, and go from there.
6. Let Yourself Experience Boredom
Most people dislike boredom. However, as creatives, we should embrace it. Why? Because boredom actually boosts creativity.
Our brains prefer a certain level of stimulation. When we feel boredom, our brains are telling us that we’re understimulated. Often, we turn to entertainment when we’re bored—our phones, books, TVs, significant others, etc.
When we don’t turn towards external stimuli, however, our brains produce their own stories and ideas to stay stimulated and entertained. Thus, boredom actually encourages creativity, and if we let our minds wander without external distractions, we might come across a great story idea that needs to be written.
7. Start From Real Life
Our last tip is to start from real life experiences. Many stories—including stories of fantasy and sci-fi—create convincing worlds because they’re modeled after real life. You don’t need to write about your personal experiences themselves, but you can draw from them to write poignant fiction.
For example, Stephen King wrote The Shining after staying in a notoriously haunted hotel that left him with nightmares. That hotel and those nightmares inspired the hotel of The Shining, which is arguably a character within the novel itself.
You can also pull from popular news and events. Agatha Christie wrote her novel Murder on the Orient Express after reading about the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son.
Finally, you can pull from historical events and even write historical fiction. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does this in her novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which explores the rise and fall of Biafra, a short-lived African nation in the late 1960s.
As Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Start from real life and see where your story idea goes.
Develop a Great Story Idea With a Writing Community
The best writing ideas are developed through collaboration and feedback. If you’re looking for an extra set of eyes on your story ideas or fiction drafts, look no further than the Writers.com community. We’ve been in the writing business for over 25 years, and with a strong team of creative writing instructors, we can help make the seed of a story blossom.
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