Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Where do you get your ideas?” 12 things a writer can use to create an infinite number of story ideas

Writers, want to have more stories ideas than you can shake a pencil at? Well, here’s a secret that will let you do just that. It’s given me more story ideas than I could ever write in a lifetime, and it can do the same for you.

Science fiction writers know that at the root of every story are two little words: “What if?” “What if we could travel into the future?”  “What if robots took over the world?” “What if robots from the future could travel to our time?” “What if?” 

But you don’t have to write science fiction to take advantage of the power of these two little words. In fact, you can use “What if?” to create stories in any genre or for any age group: from humorous fiction to thrillers and from picture books to romance novels. The only difference is that--if you aren’t writing science fiction--your “What ifs” probably won’t involve time travel or robots. 

“What if?” is really just what I call “Surprise” in my House of Funny formula. It’s all about taking something and looking at it in a new, unexpected way, a way that asks, “What if?” 

There’s an infinite number of things you can ask “What if” about. Here is a list of 12 to get you started:



1.       Old stories--Old myths or legends, fairy tales, Shakespeare’s plays, nursery rhymes, jokes,  and so on make great setups. Just make sure they’re really old—like at least 100-years old—so you don’t infringe on the original creator’s copyright. Percy Jackson and the Olympians came from Greek mythology combined with the question: “What if these stories were real and took place today?” My book, Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey, came from asking the same question about the classic novel Don Quixote.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians Paperback Boxed Set (Books 1-3)
2.       The news--In print, online or on TV, it doesn’t matter how you get the news, only what you do with it. My YA romantic ghost story, Ride of Your Life, was inspired by a true event: the Great Adventure theme park Haunted Castle fire, which killed eight people. I wanted to give that event a happy ending, and that inspired my story. My picture book, Click the Dog, was inspired by a news item about a dog that ate something strange. Of course, when you base your story on real events it’s necessary to change all names, quotes, details and the like, so you don’t write something that might be considered defamation of character. (That’s why all works of fiction have a disclaimer like “Any similarity to any person living or dead is completely coincidental.”)



3.       Anything you would change—one of the wonderful things about being a writer is that you have the power to change anything you like. What if you had told off that bully? What if you could solve a murder? Write a story with a character who does just that, and see what happens. Read a really awful book? How would you completely change it? Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” Well, as a writer you can write the change you want to see in the world.

4.       Fears—What are you afraid of? Fears make great topics for stories, particularly horror stories. Think about what’s the worst thing that can happen, and make it happen to your character. But make sure you find some sort of resolution to your story. No one wants to feel invested in a character only to find out the character died without dying for something. I started Why My Love Life Sucks: The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer by asking myself what a teenage super geek's worst nightmare would be. Getting stuck with a gorgeous girl who only want to be his platonic best friend forever? Yeah, that's it.



5.       Dreams—These could be actual dreams, but they could also be aspirations. Supposedly, the story of Frankenstein came from an actual dream. But if there’s something you want to do but haven’t or can’t, writing might be a good way to experience it through your characters. They could be famous, read minds, predict the future, or fly for you. So ask yourself, “What if?”
Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel (Classic Graphic Novel Collection)

6.       Science—It doesn’t matter which science, from archeology to zoology, there are story possibilities in there. Archeological digs reveal stories of actual people, but archeologists themselves can have stories too. Indiana Jones was an archeologist (sort of), and he is one of Hollywood’s greatest heroes. When it comes to zoology, you could write a story about an animal or a person’s relationship with an animal, or you can create a story based on an animal society in the past, present or future. You can even mix animal qualities with human qualities, like Brian Jacques does in his Redwall series. Most science fiction has its roots in some kind of science, but science can be a part of any genre. 

  Redwall (Redwall, Book 1)

7.       History—The past is full of amazing stories. Child emperors? Parents trusting their children to strangers in another country to save them? Tribes nearly wiped out by strange new diseases? Empires rising and then falling? History has them all. The simplest “What if?” to ask when writing historical fiction is “What if I were there?” And if you don’t want to write historical fiction, there’s always Steampunk, fantasy based on history, science fiction that mixes the past and the future, and so much more.  

8.       Movies , TV and comic books--When you watch a TV show, try to imagine how you would do it. What if you were the writer? I’ve been writing episodes in my head since I was a kid, and it’s fun. This is more of an exercise than something you can use to create your own story, because the characters on a TV show belong to that show’s creator. But maybe you’ll create a character who can be spun off into a new series, something completely yours. And if you ever find yourself on The Tonight Show, you’ll have what you want to say all prepared.  

9.       Your life--Some people like to say that every writer’s first novel is autobiographical. (If that’s true, I’m a magical storyteller, because Toren the Teller’s Tale was the first novel I wrote.) But you don’t have to write an autobiography or something semi-autobiographical to turn pieces of your life into stories. If something deeply affects you, there’s a good chance it will deeply affect your readers too.  

10.   People around you--When I was little and my mom would take me shopping, she’d frequently sigh and tell me, “Shevi, we’re shopping for clothes, not people.” Even back then I liked to observe and make up stories about what I saw. There’s no shortage of story ideas at a mall. Anywhere you can find people, you can find something to turn into a story.   

11.   Photos, paintings, or other works of visual art--In a way, this is like using the people around you as inspiration; but when it comes to visual art, the artist has already chosen the focus of your story. It’s whatever is in the photo, painting, or other piece of art. Ursula Le Guin started writing her award-winning science-fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness with just a single image in her head, the image of two people and a sled. She asked herself who these people were, how they got there, and where they were going. Questions like this can turn almost any image with people into stories.
The Left Hand of Darkness

12.   Mash-ups—As I mentioned in a previous blog post, conflict is an essential part of a good story, and one of the easiest ways to achieve it is by putting together things that don’t go together.  You could use two conflicting characters, two conflicting desires, or one character who conflicts with his or her world. You can also combine genres or mediums in new and original ways. There are already novels in verse, eBooks with animation, and books written like email correspondences. Or you can also take an old classic or fairy tale and put it into a different genre, like Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy. Or you could take a serious work and make it funny, which is the essence of parody, like the movie Airplane!, Mad Magazine, any Weird Al Yankovic song.   
The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime


So the next time you hear an old story, watch the news, observe people at the mall or on the street, or look at an image of people interacting, ask yourself “What if?”  And if you think the answer holds some potential, write it down. Pretty soon you’ll have more story ideas than you can shake a pencil at too.
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Oh, dear. I forgot one, and it's a biggie:

13. Word play--I often come up with great story ideas just by playing with words. I have an idea for a middle-grade science-fiction series that came from the expression "a stitch in time." Can't believe I left that out. Are there any others I'm missing?

1 comment:

Gabrielle Prendergast said...

I encourage students to "steal" titles (which are not copyright) of obscure fantasy novels or trashy romances and make up story ideas to match.