How do you come up with good story ideas?
Some writers simply force themselves to write, even when they have no idea what to say. That's just how they get things done. I call this "Forcing Inspiration" versus "Cultivating Inspiration." For me, this approach works best while I'm brainstorming a story's first outline because everything is still in flux, at that point. I need to force myself to finish the outline. But what about before the outline? What about when I'm considering what idea to begin with? Before I even hit the premise stage? I believe that if a writer cultivates inspiration, he will not have to desperately force this initial inspiration.
My "Long-term Inspiration Cultivation" = a word document filled with headings such as "Characters," "Situations," and "Themes." There are also genre headings for ideas such as "Contemporary," "Fantasy," or "Non-Fiction" under which I can record project ideas and themes. I make these headings big and bold, and list my ideas by bullet point. Below is an example of what my page looks like right now.
- A teenage girl races against a good friend in the dangerous "Scorpio Races" to save her family home. (Premise for The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.)
- A girl determined to become a knight. (Keladry from The Protector of the Small Quartet by Tamora Pierce)
- A boy with stellar instincts who can't remember anything about his identity. (Thomas from The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner)
- Living in a world filled with death. (A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle.)
- Sexual Assault. (Just Listen by Sarah Dessen.)
- Anorexia. (Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.)
Some writers describe "forcing inspiration" as staring at the wall and coming up with something brilliant because they just keep writing. They write out of desperation. But, for me, that kind of forging ahead yields results that only sound good because...I'm desperate. I save these kinds of "desperate measures" moments for when I really have no other option--that is, when I have a story to continue and I have no ideas with which to continue it.
To create my inspiration page, I do some freewriting and soul-searching, then I record the results all in one place. They bleed together in surprising ways. It's an enjoyable, unconscious process.
My "Idea Page" came in handy this week in my short story class when the professor said, "Two pieces of flash fiction! Chop chop!" I had some ideas ready for digging and planting. I threw some other ideas at them, and they connected in my mind to become something better. (And let me just confirm that no story or story-process is the same, even after cultivating inspiration. One of my stories practically wrote itself in the course of 6-7 hours. The other changed theme, tone and cast several times, even switching back at times. It took me about 3 days to write.)
Writing out of desperation is not fun. I see no reason to do it more than we have to, no matter how romantic the harried, desperate writer trope might seem. If we cultivate inspiration over time instead of grasping for it when we're desperate, we'll write better stories and we won't be as stressed about it. We'll have what we need when we need it- characters, conflict-filled situations, images, themes, whatever. It'll be there.
By David Revoy / Blender Foundation (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons