Where do story ideas come from?

This post is approximately 900 words. Feel free to take a water break along the way.


I read a lot about other writers (published or no), agents, musicians, and movie directors. I’m curious to hear from creative people, and those in creative industries, about what makes a good story. It gives me a chance to connect with others when I see that I’m doing something similar. I love to absorb any knowledge from people who are successful in their particular field.

Invariably, the question comes up: “Where do you get your ideas from?” And equally consistent, the response is a drawn out version of “I’m not really sure.” I find this fascinating because that’s exactly how I feel.

Perhaps they peer at us through the looking glass, leap out of the wardrobe, or maybe they come to us from the second star on the right, having traveled straight on till morning.

butterfly-netI used to convey a really bad simile to answer this among my writing friends. “It’s like I’m trying to catch invisible butterflies in a net with gaping holes in it. I know they are fluttering around me and only through blind flailing and luck will I capture something.”

Awful, yes, but it still felt like it answered the question for me. I know there are ideas all around me. And if I flail about at the keyboard long enough—and have a bit of luck—I will catch an idea worthy of sharing with others. That said, I do have a few moderately reliable exercises that I use. Here’s a short list of how I (try to) find my story ideas.

  • Brainstorming or “How I learned to tune out the world and let my mind wander” – Sometimes you just need to stare into space and think. I’ve missed lectures, sermons, and television shows because I let my mind wander a little. But sometimes, I just fall asleep.
  • Names Without Characters – One of my structured brainstorming activities. It’s as simple as trying to find an interesting character name, such as Filo McTavert or Meredith Snow, from which an idea will spring to life. Sometimes, I might want something a little more focused, like a Western character or hostile alien. Now, I don’t really have any ideas for a Western or Sci-Fi story, but I might start to feel the tickle of an idea when the name Old Bart MacIntosh or Kreslohk Temuk suddenly appears on the screen. I have long lists of names, many of them unusable and awful, but every once in awhile, I’ll check a list and find something inspiring.
  • Titles Without Stories – My other structured brainstorming activity. Much like my character exercise, I start writing down titles that I might find intriguing as a reader. They might be as bad as “The Johnny and the Amazing Coconut”, or they might drive a hundred hours of writing as did “The Demon and Mrs. Chang”, which sat on my list for over ten years.
  • Sudden inspiration – Both wonderfully satisfying and horribly frustrating. Completely unreliable. It’s like getting the perfect surprise gift for Christmas, except it doesn’t fall on the same day and it might not happen every year. It’s like staring at a patch of sky where I once saw a shooting star and hoping to see another (it was probably an airplane anyway). But sometimes, I get that X-wing fighter toy or a Leonid meteor shower.
  • Stuff I see (I might need to brainstorm a better name for this one) – It’s as simple as seeing the mundane and thinking differently about it. What if my loveseat finally came to life? or What if I look under this rock and see a deep pit with tongues of flame near the bottom? or What if a person’s unusual name were deadly to others? Dibs on that last one.
  • Dreams – They show us the vast capacity our minds have for imagination. I sometimes try to plant the seeds of an idea as I fall asleep, though I want to vomit when I hear the phrase “dream journal”. I did briefly keep one. For about a week. I’m not a morning person and it became a chore. Regardless, there are few things as inspiring as a delicious nightmare that raises the hairs on your neck as you try to tame it for the page.
  • The Idea File – Most of the ideas get stored here in a number of different documents. I don’t open them often enough, but when I do, it’s sometimes like going into your closet as a child and finding that amazing toy you forgot you owned.

thinking-008.jpgDid I say short list? Well, I just used my brainstorming exercise, and look what happened. But that’s the beauty of having reliable exercises. Suddenly, there’s that rush of adrenaline that fuels the furious typing of my fingers. There’s the feeling that something wonderful is about to happen. Time slows down as the words begin to appear on the screen, giving me a chance to get everything out of my brain.

And sometimes, nothing happens.

I’ve written stories long and stories short. For some, I know exactly where the idea originated, but often I don’t. The idea wasn’t there, then it was.

Where do story ideas come from? I really don’t know. To be honest, I’m glad I don’t. It’s much more fun.


Enjoy what you just read? Leave a comment or like the post and we’ll ensure that you see more like this from Michael!

© Michael Wallevand, January 2017


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