The most asked question I get is: where do you get the ideas for your stories? The answer, of course, varies depending on the writer and many other things. We would all love for ideas to be selected like we pick food in a grocery store. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Despite not having a secret recipe on how to obtain stories to write about, I can share where I got some ideas either for short stories or novels. The little experience I have may be useful to you and maybe you can use it in the future.
Before sharing some idea sources, I want to briefly address the topic of originality. Something I learned at school, thanks to a teacher that led the Literary creations workshop I chose to take as an extracurricular activity, is that the originality of a text has nothing to do with the selected theme or main idea. That teacher said something like: “In this time it is impossible to write on an unknown theme. Take any of the classic writers like Shakespeare, and you will see it wrote about almost all possible themes like love, war, hate, family, treason, death, social status.” The key is in the details, on what we do with that theme and how can we approach the idea in a way it is worth writing and reading.
1. Situations of our life that we wish to change.
In any moment of our lives, we find little details we would like to change or actions that we cannot do in real life. This can be a great origin for ideas, because you can write a story about those changes. I will give you an example. I am not a fan of driving and do it because I need to, and I hate traffic jams. Many times I imagined myself lifting the cars in front of me with telekinesis, or making myself intangible and passing through the vehicles in front of me to arrive at my destination without delays. I could write a story about someone doing just that.
2. Create a world where things are like you wish them to be.
Would you like to be in a place where sleeping was not necessary? Would you like to have as a pet any kind of animal of the planet? That which is impossible in the real world, can be great fuel for a story. I do not know the exact origin of the idea that became Harry potter, one of the most famous and popular book series in modern times, but maybe its writer thought: what would happen if besides the normal world, at the same time a magic world existed?
3. Based on real facts of ourselves or others.
Anecdotes can also be a good source of inspiration. No matter how regular or non-adventurous we are, we can all have an adventure or misadventure we can turn into a story. It does not have to be something extreme like when someone went to some dangerous river rapids or when they camped three days in the jungle hunting their own food. One trip to the supermarket in which something peculiar happened, can make a good story. One of the short stories I wrote, called “Frontier”, was based in an experience I had: while going by bus between two countries and leaving the bus so my passport was sealed, the driver thought everyone was already at the bus and left me in the frontier; I added some supernatural events but the base of the story was a real fact: the bus left me there holding only my passport.
4. If you were in X situation, what would you do?
This might sound similar to the first point, but I wanted to separate it because I mean using situations or actions that we may not have experienced ourselves. What would happen if you were at a bank and a robbery happens? How would you react if there is a stranger at your door with an unwavering creepy smile? What would you do it you were on a flight and it landed in an unknown city that was not your destination? All these hypothetical questions could be used to write what would you, or one of your characters, do in these situations.
5. What would you change from a story you know?
Has it ever happened to you, that you love a story but something in it was not as likable as the rest? It has happened to me, many times with books and short stories. Just be careful on creating the story based on the change and not just exchange a word for another. It would be ridiculous for me to write a story called “Lord of the necklaces” because I prefer a necklace over a ring. What would happen if a knight killed a dragon to rescue a princess, but the princess tells him that she was happy there and the dragon was her dear pet?
6. Phrases that get your attention or inspire you.
Reading books, articles, listening to songs, watching movies or series, sometimes we hear a phrase that caughts our attention and we can use to get a story out of it. That is why it is common to find, at the beginning of a text, a phrase, paragraph of a poem or a song that was likely to inspire the work. Hence the importance of what some people call “reading with eyes or a writer”, because in addition to improving our vocabulary and knowing different styles, you never know if you will get an idea of your own.
7. Dreams or nightmares.
What happens while we sleep can be a good form of inspiration. Some dreams or nightmares we have are so illogical and crazy, that it would be difficult to put them in an order that makes sense or are interesting. But we can do it with some of them. It is not necessary to transcribe the entire dream exactly as we remember, you can take an idea from a dream and develop it. I once write a short story called “Ice”, of a girl that started hearing the voice of a dragon that froze everything in its path, which was based on a dream I had where a girl was ice-skating on a lake that said it was frozen by a monster.
8. Places, events or people that leave a mark.
There are people and places that impress us in such a way that will remain in our memory maybe for the rest of our lives. It is possible to transform that impression into a text; it being based in the entire situation or a part of it. I think we should be careful not to use an overused event, unless we have a very original theme. Go to any bookstore or library and see how many books are based in historical events like the world wars, a civil war, revolutions, battles. To help with originality, I like to base my ideas in events that are not as used. In a trip I did on my own to Cartagena, Colombia, I visited the San Felipe castle, a walled fortress, that I found so incredible that I wrote a short story that happened in that same castle. I have also used people I met to base some characters on them, because I find them appropriate for a story or simply because I would love to see them in one of my stories.
Before finishing this article, a piece of advice. Always write down the ideas you have in mind, no matter where you are or what time it is. You can use the cellphone that most of us keep close during the day (or at night on our table next to the bed). For a writer, there are few things worse than having a good idea and forgetting it later. In case you have a work in progress, and some situation gives you an idea to include to the story, also write it down. No matter if in the end they are not used, it is better to have them as a list of possibilities.
There are probably way more sources of ideas to write about. These are just some that helped me fill my list of pending stories to write. I hope these are useful to you in case you feel like writing, but do not know exactly what to write about.
Feel free to contact me for questions or additional comments in: firstname.lastname@example.org.