General, Ideas

Finding Stories

Where do you get ideas for your stories? If you’re like lots of writers, you probably draw from your own life experience. Someone once said that every writer’s first novel is autobiographical. I happen to think that every novel a writer writes is at least somewhat autobiographical. (What this says about Dean Koontz, I’m not quite sure.) But what if you have a boring life? Where do you find your ideas for non-boring novels?

Start by coming up with a compelling protagonist. The really good ones write their own stories.

But where are they? you ask.

Well, they’re all around you. You know that quiet man down the street who compulsively washes his car every afternoon at three fifteen? He’s a murderer who was never caught but now regrets his actions and wants to make amends. And your quirky Uncle Ken? He’s a millionaire inventor who keeps his money in pickle jars stashed in secret locations around the city. And what about your best friend Jenny? She’s actually a former child actor who’s just about to be re-discovered for the role of a lifetime.

Another good way to spark a story idea is to listen creatively to the conversations around you.

Go to your friendly neighborhood coffee shop or grocery store or bus station. Observe. Listen, but not too closely (it’s more fun to fill in the blanks with made-up stuff). Before you know it you’ve got an idea for a novel about a Starbucks barista who falls in love with every man who walks in the door and orders a soy latte with light whipped cream. Or a novel about three angry moms who plot to take over a poorly-run daycare center, by force if necessary. Or a novel about a teenager who is taking his feeble, nearly-blind grandfather cross-country to meet his first love after more than 50 years apart.

Of course, compelling characters and interesting conversations are just the beginning place for fully-realized novels. But you’ll be surprised how a story can grow from something so simple.

What if your compelling character or interesting conversation seems to go nowhere? Start over. Or, try combining some of your discoveries and see what happens. Maybe that nearly-blind man being escorted cross-country is the former child actor and his grandson only discovers this as they trek together. Maybe the three angry moms learn about the man who hides the money-filled pickle jars and try to find them all so they can afford to buy the poorly-run daycare center from a suspected murderer.

I think you get the point.

And as you can probably tell, I’m sorta tired tonight. I think I’ll turn this post over to you now.

So…where do you get your best story ideas?

9 thoughts on “Finding Stories

  1. I haven’t had a decent story idea for years. The last one I had, the one that still teases me to try and write it, came as I was climbing into a car at the mall with my family, and I caught sight of a young, well-dressed man holding the door for a young, well-dressed woman. Something about the way the light hit them – or maybe it was the way he noticed her as she passed him through the doorway – stuck with me. They have names: Justin and Summer.

    I know their story hurts. I know because I heard it in a song once, because he needs her desperately, and she doesn’t realize she is saving him from drowning. And as he drowns, he sends her away, and then she is drowning. I don’t know where the story goes or where it ends yet. But I know when I write it, it must be very real.

    1. That sounds like a brilliant starter-idea for a story. And a beautifully tragic one at that (my favorite kind, perhaps because it’s the kind I tend to live in real life).

      Start writing it. As the characters materialize, they might just write the rest of the story for you. I’ve had an ending in mind for my novel for three years, but the path to that ending has changed dramatically throughout that time. And I won’t be surprised if the ending changes, too. Good characters will surprise you – and that’s the real fun of writing fiction.

      If you give it a shot, let me know – I’d be happy to help as time allows. Meanwhile, here’s a working title for you: The Drowning Summer.

      1. Wow, thanks for the encouragement! I’m a stay-at-home mom photographer going on an indefinite sabbatical with my second child, so the writing juices are starting to flow again, just for an outlet! If I really do start writing more than my blog, I might just have to get in touch.

        1. You’re welcome. I’m actually just responding to see how this reply embedding feature works. I wonder how many levels it can go before the box is too small for whole words?

  2. I often get ideas from crazy dreams. Even just the lingering picture or concept can inspire me. The details for stories or songs usually come to me while I lie awake at night & can’t shut off my brain. Unfortunately, I’m usually too sleepy, or considerate of others to write it down. There are a few ideas that have lingered with me for years and won’t leave me alone until I write them. Maybe I should finally write a story about that dream I had when I was pregnant about being a Sour Skittle locked in a cage by a spoiled princess. Or maybe not. 🙂

    I can’t remember exactly what inspired my novel idea, but it has something to do with our cat. My husband helped a lot too. A few years and many sleepless nights have changed it quite a bit. It seems that good ideas/characters will take on a life of their own and you must follow them.

    Whenever I need an extra dose of inspiration I find that reading a really good book helps. In fact, part of what pushed me to start writing seriously was reading Jeffrey Overstreet’s novels, which I believe Stephen had something to do with. 🙂

    1. I get lots of ideas from dreams, too. And because I keep my laptop within reaching distance, I sometimes type them just after I have them. Of course, by morning, many have somehow morphed into meaningless drivel (I blame mischievous elves), but some of the ideas (usually a sentence or two that stick with me) become the basis for short stories. Or new titles I have to add to the “Novels I Must Write Someday” list.

      I helped Jeffrey a bit. Yes. I just applied some of the fine-grit editorial sandpaper to his already-amazing stories. In fact, tomorrow, we’re talking about revisions to Raven’s Ladder. He had a difficult task – cut 40 percent of the words – and so far, he’s found a way to accomplish this with grace. Next up? My line edit. Best of the bunch so far. Always nice to be able to say that about an author’s work.

  3. I have a story that is still idea stage- doing lots of research currently.

    You say that most first novels are somewhat autobiographical; what about the ethics of taking the facts of someone else’s life and then embellishing?

    My father was a holocaust survivor. In the 60s he appeared on the Joe Pyne show to debate a holocaust denier. What I have in mind is that conflict in the mid 60s, cut with lots of memories of the past and combined with some of his failed business attempts.. all fictionalized. Would that work, do you think?

    The story would open with that first conflict on tv; back weave in the past; move through the conflict- bring in a possible second appearance on the show- ratchet up pressure on him not to do it from boss, wife, etc.. and then.. see where that goes.


    1. While a publishing house might have reason to be a little skittish about acquiring a novel that presents a real-life person in a less-than-glowing light (particularly if that person is living), a compelling and well-written story still has a chance for publishing success. A recent example of this is Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan.

      Of course, you can always change the names and write whatever you want and note that the story is “inspired by” the real-life person, if you prefer. Just don’t make the mistake James Frey did and make up all sorts of stuff, then call the book “non-fiction.”

      Sounds like an interesting story to me. Keep at it.

  4. My ideas come from asking questions, sometimes from things in the news, sometimes from other things. For instance, I asked myself what makes Christians reticent about fantasy? Answer: magic being presented as good or as a metaphor for divine power. Combine that with the question, what have I never seen in fantasy? Answer: a wizard turning his back on magic. I ended up with a story about a wizard in a parallel universe where witchcraft was the state religion. But his faith is slowly crumbling away and when he is sent to retrieve a book from the Other World, it shatters entirely when he encounters the living God. His life was already complicated; now it gets much worse.

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