In the writing sphere, there’s a lot of discussion on how to fix your story or your characters or your plot, but not a lot of discussion on how to find the ideas to tell said stories. Finding an idea can sometimes seem impossible, especially when a teacher or editor is asking for something new. In truth, there’s no real answer or quick-formula to finding new ideas. It really does come, to some extent, from some place in your head that you only occasionally engage by accident. And in fact, if discovering ideas was easy, then we’d likely have far less trouble with the ideas once they were fleshed out. However, just because finding new story ideas isn’t easy, doesn’t mean it’s impossible or something out of your control.
You’ll notice I say “discover” and not “create” or “generate.” That’s because creating ideas is a lot of pressure on the human spirit and I don’t actually believe we create ideas, not on a conscious level at least.
Of course discovering ideas doesn’t mean waiting around for the ideas to find you, it just means conditioning your mind on various levels to search for them, even sometimes by force. When I spitball a bunch of random ideas by force, I find that people often tend to love those ideas more than the ones I waited to come my way. I imagine it’s because these ideas come from some weird subconscious part of myself I usually tend to ignore because I’m searching my conscious for something “good.” In fact, every time I’ve had to come up with ideas for a creative class, it’s usually been the idea I came up with at the last minute because I had to that everyone loves most.
You may argue this process is not organic, that we should just wait around for ideas to come to us. But I disagree. If you wait around for ideas or inspiration, you’re not going to get much work done at all. Sometimes in working on ideas we have sought out, even more ideas find us. Whereas if you’re just waiting around, you’re aren’t actively excising your creativity everyday which sparks habits and engages the subconscious regularly.
I find that the best place to start the search for ideas is always with an interview with myself. At first it may seem silly, but after asking yourself some questions about your curiosities and going from there, you’ll realize you don’t know as much about yourself as you thought. And that’s so exciting! That’s why we write – to understand ourselves.
Here are some questions I use to start. You can ask these questions out loud to yourself, or take the time to write them in a journal. Or if you’re like me and you are desperately in search of something to write about, you’ll ask yourselves these questions everyday.
I usually find that at first, I don’t have quick or clear answers to these questions I ask. But that the more I probe, the more questions emerge and the more glimmers of a story I find. Sometimes you’ll find just an image here or an issue you’re passionate about. That may not be a story – yet – but with these questions you can get to the heart of things you care about or just want to know about. Those will turn into passions, passions which will make the whole writing process easier and more lovable.
Because all writing, even the visual kind, is a verbal skill, when you’re searching for an idea it is good to engage in other types of media that do different things than yours, namely visual ones. It stimulates your brain in a new way, which is a key element to finding new ideas.
However, unless you’re interested in art, you likely don’t seek it out on a regular basis. Additionally, if you don’t live in a major city that can make finding art even more difficult. Luckily with the Internet and things like WikiArt, there are endless pieces of art out there to inspire you! You don’t even need to use art that embodies real people, you can find inspiration in a modern, Jackson Pollock-esque piece if you wish or an Etsy artists shop. Every painting tells a story and it’s up to you, the spectator to find it!
Just as with art, music is a great place for inspiration and idea hunting because it engages a different part of your brain. In fact, music used to be associated with math and science degrees in college and only recently was moved over to fine arts!
Though you are welcome to select any song, I highly recommend looking to music that doesn’t have singing in it, or at least not in a language you understand. Why? Because when searching for inspiration and ideas, when you are given words you eliminate a lot of interpretation. A painting doesn’t tell you what it means or what to think, and while musicians can play with meaning like storytellers, it’s good practice to try and get back to this speculation you used when examining art.
For instance, I remember first hearing Swan Lake in elementary school. My music teacher was narrating the swans and the entire plot and I remember being so baffled by what she was saying. There were no words in this song – how could she know? While it’s very likely she was going off of the ballet this piece was composed for, I love the idea that classical music tells a story too without actually saying anything. Not sure where to start? Look out top classical songs on iTunes or Spotify and go from there, or find a score from a movie you love and try to imagine it outside the film!
If you are lucky enough to travel around the world regularly, or at least to new portions of your country, exploration is a great way to expand your horizons and get your mind out of habit. While I know the habit of trying to be creative is important, there are other habits in your life that make it difficult for you to be creative sometimes and see things differently. Being in unfamiliar cultures or terrains sparks ideas, especially in small bursts where you cannot become too comfortable in your new location.
However, if you cannot afford to travel often, there still is a way for you to explore your universe and see things around you differently. You can visit new places in your city or take a different route than you usually would – anything to change your perspective. Additionally, something you can find anywhere, even in a small town is people.
Go outside, to a coffee shop, hop on a train – do anything – and you’ll find people. People not only teach us great things about dialogue and character, but offer a wealth of wonderful ideas too! You can eavesdrop, people watch or even ask people questions if you’re bold enough. Everyone has a story to tell, and if you’re having trouble finding one of your own, explore the world for a story tucked away somewhere or within someone.
Using writing prompts may seem like a technical approach to finding ideas, but it’s actually one of the best methods out there. Why? Because usually they are meant to produce stories and new ideas!
There are tons of places to find writing prompts. There are books, blogs, Twitter accounts, Pinterest, etc. The list is never ending! If you’re at a loss for where to start, I recommend Faye at Writerology’s Twitter account or my friend Eva’s 30 days of flash fiction prompts, though these two only scratch the surface as to what is available! You can do something as simple as make a list of your favorite words and write a story for each of them or find a more involved improvisational group exercise. Anything to get your storytelling mind to a place of intuition.
It’s no surprise that I would suggest exploring new mediums of storytelling – what my Storytelling System is all about. But I truly do believe that by engaging in storytelling in new ways that go against what you are used to, your mind will produce new content. For example, when I first tackled video game writing and playwriting, I had a wealth of ideas flooding my way and I truly believe it’s because I was challenging my notions of storytelling. Another time I wrote a short film that no matter how hard I reworked, it never felt right. I turned it into a short story and it came out almost exactly as I had always envisioned it. It’s these experiences that make me wholeheartedly believe that changing things up – the theme of this post in many ways – is the best way to find new ideas. You can download my free Storytelling System ebook! It has a guide to each medium in addition to a workbook section dedicated to working your own story through the system.
Still feeling lost for ideas? Besides reading your favorite books or seeing your favorite movies, try sitting down and just randomly spitballing ideas. Start from the stupid and write down everything that comes to mind. I like to buy a stack of notecards and write out an idea on 25 of them. It’s an incredibly freeing process creatively speaking and when coupled with some of the other places to find ideas here is sure to guide you towards some glimmer of an idea.
Because that’s all you need to start – a tiny little idea that will grow into something big. Don’t pressure yourself for anything more. Put yourself in a creatively open space, free of fear that anything you’re doing is bad or unworthy or not a “big enough” idea.
And when you finally find that idea – write it!
Are you in search of an idea? What method will you use to find one? Are you using it to fill the void of a story you’ve recently broken up with?