Generating Story Ideas: Where Do You Start?



"The writers who discover what sets them apart are the writers with the best chance of succeeding." -David Morrell in A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing



800px-Ballpen_head_macroGenerating story ideas is a process.

More often, it is a tedious repetition of experiences, words and texts that create voices in our heads, souls and hearts, which may or may not consume our time, focus and energy.

In one of my trips to memory land, I found one question waiting to be answered and analyzed: where do these voice-creating texts and words come from? This question leads me to where ideas live: from within.

Looking Inside Yourself

According to Morrell, author of the novel First Blood*, fiction writing is a self-psychoanalysis. Writers' life events largely determine their written material. The memories from these events shape the foundation of their subject matter. As such, story ideas are distinct from research, which acts as a support rather than the foundation, specifically for literary creation.

To drive a point, Morrell detailed in The Successful Novelist that Hemingway and Dickens had their shares of fears and traumas that they idealized to create a narrative. They crystalized and mirrored their attachment to these events and created distinctive work of fiction. While the bestselling author limits his definition to fiction writing, I believe the perspective applies to all writing pursuits.

Generating story ideas start with knowing ourselves. If we observe our selves carefully; if we try to understand the things and events that often baffle or lighten us; and we go back and forth between them, we will find an ocean of ideas ready to be cruised from different directions.

For all those who have wrestled with words, thoughts and concepts, there is no denying that any writing pursuit starts with generating powerful story ideas. And powerful ideas do not fall into our laps or on our fingertips. They are unearthed from within through a welcoming yet critical frame of mind.

Your Life Events Make Your Story Idea Unique

Central to the tenet of writing as self-psychoanalysis is the contention that story ideas dwell in the depth of a writer’s soul. The writer is the only person who can narrate his/her story effectively.

Each person’s unique life experiences create a buffer tailored against duplication. If ever a writer attempted to imitate, the material produced out of the copycat process has the potential to fall flat. Have you read a material that seems great, but fails to move you a bit? As if there is something you don’t like about it that you cannot pin down for some reason? It could be because the writer has attempted to narrate a story with soul that is not aligned to his/her.

A writer’s raw familiarity to an event renders his/her material a touch of reality. And only when a material presents an experience as naked truth that it develops the capacity to resonate well to the readers. This aspect cannot be researched, though research can improve it. As Stephen King puts it, when your tale is based on a reality you know and personally experienced, written with total honesty, the result is always brave and uniquely satisfying.

The Two Conflicting Skills

The ability to discover and to question certain thought is crucial to generate story ideas.

Say, you realized you abhor a certain color because it reminds you a negative childhood experience (discovering skill). Afterwards, you begin to probe the association (questioning skill). Why this color? Is someone from that childhood experience strongly identifies with the said color? Who is this person to me? How this experience affects me today? Is there any scientific, logical, analytic way to explain this? From here, you will be ushered by these skills to research, another aspect of writing, which deserves its own space in this website.

In journalistic writing, this approach can be applied by looking for a new angle (discovering skill) to a given story, and then developing it through critical assessment of existing data and assumptions (questioning skill).

The important point here is that discovering and questioning skills are both necessary to any kind of writing. For every discovery of an idea, the writer has to carry out a probe to uncover tributary ideas necessary to spell out other complementary thoughts that have been or have yet to be discovered. These two skills do not necessarily undermine each other.

To do an idea-generation exercise, simply force yourself to write about your thought on that moment and then follow it up with a question and an answer and a question and an answer again and so forth. Sometimes, you will discover certain thoughts you haven't realized are just lurking within. Sometimes, you will find yourself going nowhere. Sometimes, you will be glad you’re doing it because you have produced quite a record of your stream of consciousness without trying. Remember that the goal of a story-idea generation is in the process first, product second. This is also true to writing.

*It was adapted into a film in 1982 that starred Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo, the first of the Rambo series.

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