I hear new fiction writers say they’d love to write, but they just don’t have any ideas for stories. In Stephen King’s On Writing he writes this about getting story ideas –
“… good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.”
— Stephen King, On Writing
Taking two ideas and joining them into something new, like King described, is called idea-mashing. Yes, I made that up. King writes that ideas come from nowhere, but the opposite is true — ideas come from everywhere. The trick is to expose yourself to great ideas and let them naturally collide in your brain. Here are three ways to do that –
1. Read Fiction AND Nonfiction
Photo by Neil Turner
I like to read two books at once, one fiction and one nonfiction. Reading both types of books around the same time is a great way to get a variety of ideas.
Nonfiction enriches the mind by learning new information and putting what you already know in a different context. I gravitate towards books about psychology, neurology, anthropology, and general theory, but you should read about whatever excites you. Perhaps you’re passionate about astronomy or the occult, choose any subject that engages you with new information and fires your synapses. The books generally won’t have an overarching narrative to draw from but they will contain anecdotes, themes and/or concepts that will bounce around in your brain, ready to be idea-mashed.
You can take ideas from fictional stories (even directly), but I find it helps mostly by getting you into a narrative frame of mind. The more you dive into stories, the easier it will be to recognize potential stories and premises. It will also help you discover what you like and don’t like about the stories or the writing style you are reading.
This only works if you are truly reading for enjoyment, not as a part of your “job” as a writer. If you don’t enjoy reading then examine why you want to be a writer and if it’s for the right reasons. What would you say about a director who doesn’t watch movies? Or musician who doesn’t like listening to music? Writers must be readers, and there is no better way to hone your craft reading.
2. Research Your Interests
We all love swiping through our various feeds on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and other social sites, and often you’ll come across an inspiring post. If you want to increase the amount of inspiration you get don’t just passively take in whatever is in your feed. Seek out your interests and dive in! Podcasts, television shows, movies, museums, video games and articles are all great for getting ideas, just make sure you are intentional about what you consume. Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to “eat gourmet” all of the time (I’ve been known to indulge in trashy reality TV).
3. Talk About What You’ve Read
Photo by Jakub Žádník
If what you’re reading excites you, you’ll want to tell people about it and discuss the themes and ideas of the books. Even if the other person isn’t familiar with the material, talking with them about it will help you process the information you’ve learned in new ways. The person you’re talking with may have something to add — their own ideas, something they’ve read that relates, or a personal experience. Even talking with your cat or house plant is better than no one, they may not have a lot to add but they’re (usually) good listeners. The more you talk about what excites you, the more engaged you become in the material and the faster ideas will mash together.
4. Imagine the Lives of Others
Photo by Alejandro Mallea
People watching is a common practice for writers when crafting their characters, but you can gain story ideas from it as well. Next time you people watch, pick someone and try to imagine their story. Look at their features, their clothes, who they’re with, and where the two of you are in that moment. What sequence of events led them here? Where do they live? Where do they work? Where did they grow up? Who are their friends? When you try to imagine this person’s life something may stand out and connect to an idea or theme you’re engaged in. Boom, idea-mash.
I hope you found this post on idea-mashing useful, and that it will help you discover many story ideas. Remember: the ideas don’t have to be any good! Don’t judge them before writing them down, just keep generating them until you find the one that will become your awesome story.