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September 01, 2018

Acquiring Story Ideas

Again, here's a handout I use in my fiction/prose narrative classes that I thought might be useful to others.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your classes, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

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Acquiring Story Ideas

Where do story ideas come from?

They don’t just drop out of the sky into your head. Acquiring and developing story ideas is a skill that you can learn. The more skill you develop, the more ideas you’ll have at your disposal. 

This means activelyseeking out and collecting story ideas. Where do you start?

A storyhas a setting, characters, conflict, action, a narrative arc.  A story IDEAdoesn’t need to have any of these.

A story idea may be (but is not limited to):

  1. An IMAGE: something you see, hear, smell, taste or feel, real or imagined
  • “the long arm of a backhoe, folded delicately like a bird’s claw”
  • “the scent of oleander on humidity after a monsoon”
  • “fingers of a sudden cold wind thrust through the button gaps in my shirt”
  • “his cigarette ash, fluttered into my glass of absinthe, the taste still anisette but gritty”
  1. A PHRASE: a conjunction of words that just happens in your head or that you overhear. This can be the title of the story or a central image, or these can be the first words you write down that lead you into the story.
  • “Blue, everywhere”
  • “He said it first”
  • “All the icy stars came out”
  • "Wicked crow"
  1. An OBSERVATION from real life: something overheard or seen.
  • a piece of conversation overheard
  • the a gesture of a toddler and its mother’s response
  • an argument between two of your friends
  • lovers kissing on a bus, swaying with the bus' motion but not falling over
  1. An ABSTRACT IDEA OR QUESTION: maybe something that has been occupying your mind lately.
  • “Why doesn’t the left have violent fanatics anymore?” 
  • “Why can’t my mom and I get along? It’s like we’re programmed to fight, even when we’re happy.” 
  • “What, of all things is so precious to me that I wouldn’t give it up, even if tortured?”
  • “What if Ronald Reagan were cloned by environmental activists?”
  1. A STORY: from a newspaper, magazine, history book or that someone tells you. This is often just the outlines of an incident, begging to be filled in by a competent writer. 
  • A wanted profile in a paper about a drug dealer in his late twenties who was white but wore dreadlocks and “spoke like a Rastafarian” and was usually accompanied by a girl, 9 – 11 years old, who he claimed was his daughter. 
  • An article about the psychology of bullying in American high schools
  • My friend telling me that her boyfriend, who was mourning the death of his father with bad dreams, bit her on the nose while he was sleeping.

EXERCISE:

  1. Get a notebook, preferably one with a pen loop to hold a pen. Get a pen, or pencil. Carry these with you everywhere you go, from now on.
  2. For the next week, spend your free time actively seeking out story ideas; collect at least five from each category. Keep an eye/ear/nose, etc. out and write down images you experience. Write down striking images or moments from your dreams. Go to public places and eavesdrop on people and write down their actions, dialogue. Take note of phrases you see in your reading. Write down weird thoughts as they come to you (or force yourself to HAVE weird thoughts.) Read a lot of news.
  3. Keep doing this, for the rest of your writing life.

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