Getting Ideas for Stories

The most common question a writer hears, notoriously, is about where the ideas come from. You’re going to discover that, with the right approach, the question will instead be about whether there’s anywhere you can’t get ideas from.

You might remember from school that taking notes has a paradoxically beneficial quality: the act of writing the notes makes you more likely to remember and understand the material, making the notes themselves less necessary later on. A similar thing is true about generating ideas for writing, and indeed about writing itself.

There are ideas everywhere, and they all come from within you. We’ve been making up stories since early childhood, and we never lose the ability. As adults, our stories more often take the form of worries about imagined real-life scenarios; pessimism and doomsaying. That’s still the product of your imagination! It’s a good sign. You’ve still got the ability, and all you need to do is channel it.

The only obstacle is to recognise an idea when it comes to you, and it’s a skill you can easily train yourself in. The training is easy: you just commit to writing down every single idea that pops into your mind, no matter how fragmentary or silly or specific to your own life. At any time of day, in any situation. In prior decades this would have meant keeping a notebook with you, but your phone’s notes app will do just as well. As with studying, it’s the act of noting it down that’s important. By doing so, you gain two things:

  1. You build an archive of ideas that you can dip into later. Your brain also starts working on them straight away, and you might be surprised what they’ve developed into by the time you next look at them.
  2. You teach your brain that you’re paying attention to those little flashes of imagination, and that they have value to you. Your brain, as always, will cooperate: it’ll bring the ideas it has to your conscious attention more often, and it’ll put more effort into adopting the perspective of a writer when viewing the day-to-day world.

If you commit to always jotting down any idea you have, within days to weeks you’ll have too many to write about. Don’t filter, or dismiss things out of hand. It doesn’t matter how clichéd they are, or how often they’ve been done, or how childish, or how weird or idiosyncratic. The only thing you need to do is record them. A few words will do. It’s the creativity version of going to the gym.

When the time comes to write, you’ll find that you have mental access to your ideas archive, and that the ideas have begun to reach out towards each other, and to develop themselves. Your brain does all of this for free. If you’ve ever watched a season finale episode of a TV show and then imagined what might happen next, you’ve employed the same faculty that produces ideas for fiction. If you’ve ever run through scenarios for a difficult upcoming conversation at work or with a family member, you’ve also employed that faculty. We all have it.

Besides my novels, I’ve written well over a hundred short stories, one per week, for years now. I have an archive of at least a hundred unused ideas at any time, and I add to them each week. Consistency is the key. You can do it too.

Notice things. See the potential in them. And write down whatever came into your mind. The real problem will be finding enough time to write about them all.