How to get story ideas

I’ve written several articles on ideas for stories. I believe ideas should be the easiest part, is the easiest part, but for a very many writers it is the first and biggest stumbling block.

The fact is, though, ideas are everywhere. Literally. You cannot open your eyes and avoid ideas. You cannot close your eyes and avoid ideas. You cannot wake nor sleep, eat nor drink, move or lie prostrate without encountering ideas. You can’t even breathe without bumping into ideas. They are, as I say, literally everywhere.

You can look at a floor and see ideas. How long has it been there? Does it squeak? Who has walked over it? What coverings has it had in its lifetime? Who changed them? Why did they change them? What has been spilled on it? Who has done what on it? Where have the feet been before that have stepped onto it? What steps will be taken to it and from it? Is there a door? Where does it go? Are there cupboards along it? What is in them and why?

You can look at an empty bench and see ideas. What is usually made, prepared, stacked, served, collated, sorted, fiddled with, opened, packed, crafted, played on it? Who does these things on it? Who has to clean it afterward? Has anyone ever slept on it? Who? When? Why? Who put it there in the first place? Why?

Or a blank wall; or a wall covered in marks, smudges, wallpaper, artwork, photographs, diagrams, appointments, reminders, newsletters. Again, there are a myriad questions and thoughts to be had about that wall – not to mention the windows in them.

One of the first writing exercises I did at college was to describe the room we were in. We were given 15 minutes, the lecturer then collected each piece and took them away. The following week in the same class she handed them back and we each read them out. I’m proud to say that out of only two that actually described the room, mine was one.

Mostly, the other students wrote about what they could see outside the window; what they were feeling; about travelling to class; how they felt about college; and about the other people in the room. They hardly described the room at all. Yet, it was a very interesting room with many things in it, an ambience and a history of its own. Since then, it is the first exercise I give to students, including some high school students who I took for remedial reading. It hones both the observation muscles as well as the ideas muscles. The two are and should be inextricably linked.

There is nothing wrong in writing this exercise and not writing the room. At least the ideas of started and from there, more ideas follow.

That’s the trick, really. Start with an idea, any idea, stream of consciousness, existentialism, plagiarism if it comes to that (don’t forget to remove that later) but start. Fresh ideas will follow, and following them are more ideas, and behind them yet more. you get the idea.

And never tell yourself you can’t get ideas. That’s a sure fire way to knock all those ideas down like a line of dominoes and you know what they say about ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

So, next time you can’t find an idea, just look on the end of your nose and follow its line of sight and start to question what you see. How’s that for an idea?

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