Where do you get your ideas?

Recently, I received an email from a fiction writer who was nearing completion of her first novel and wanted to know how to generate a list of ideas for future stories. I’d like to start by saying that I applaud this writer for thinking ahead. It is always best to have a bunch of ideas waiting to be written when you have finished your most recent manuscript.

But how do you find ideas? And how do you know which are worthy of spending your time on? First, it helps to know that there is no magical formula for generating ideas.


With that said, here are 6 suggestions on how to generate ideas for your story that have worked for others:

1. Read a newspaper.

Newspapers are full of human-interest stories, bizarre crimes, and all sorts of interesting situations that can be exploited for fiction. Small and local papers in particular can be treasure troves of story ideas. In fact, one of my author-clients built an entire novel around a series of crime reports from his hometown newspaper.


2. Ask “What if?”

Stretch your mind to come up with “impossible” situations: For instance, Michael Crichton’s iconic novel Jurassic Park was based on the question, “What if dinosaurs were brought back to life?” When Mitch Albom’s uncle, delirious from fever, woke to find all of his dead relatives sitting at the edge of his hospital bed, that vision inspired Albom to ask a big “What if?” question. This very question became the premise for his novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Inspiration for a story can strike as simply and unassumingly as that.


3. Go to a museum.

Art museums, historical museums, and museums of oddities can be treasure troves of ideas. Paintings, for instance, can give you ideas for characters, settings, or situations. If you find a painting that especially holds your interest, ask yourself questions about the characters. Think about what is not seen in the painting and about what happened the moment before or the moment after.


4. Use what haunts you.

What past mistake do you regret? What do you wish you could do over? What are your biggest fears? When author Stieg Larsson was a teen, he failed to help an acquaintance who was being sexually assaulted. Though he begged her for forgiveness, she never gave him the absolution he so desperately needed. That incident haunted him and became the vision for his blockbuster trilogy that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.


5. Combine disparate ideas.

While flipping through the channels late one night, Suzanne Collins caught a glimpse first of a reality TV competition and then of war footage on the news. The two images melded together overnight, and when she applied her thoughts to paper, the bestselling The Hunger Games trilogy was the end result.


6. Allow spontaneity.

Finally, don’t ignore the bolt from the blue. Ideas can strike anywhere: in the shower, on a train, while waiting to pay for groceries, while stuck in traffic. Because ideas can be fleeting, get them down as soon as you are reasonably – and safely – able. The spark of an idea for your best selling novel could come to you at any moment.


Now it’s your turn. These are only a few ways to come up with ideas. If you have your own methods of generating ideas, please share!

4 comments on “6 Ways to Generate Ideas for Your Story

  • Thankfully I do not have this problem. Ideas seem to just show up in my head at all times of the day! I have a computer file of ideas. I do believe I will be good to go with novel ideas for the rest of my life. And if any don’t work out there are many more waiting in line.

    I like your suggestions and have garnered some of my ideas through those venues.

    Happy Writing

  • Hi Diane. I’ve written 5 books (ficctional) until now, but in spanish. My english knowledge is not deep enough as to write in my mothers languaje. I think 3 of them are very good. What can I do?

  • I have such difficulty in coming up with ideas although my writing skills, grammar, punctuation, spelling and such are pretty good. I got an A at GCSE in English and a B in English Literature at A-level. but I am beginning to wonder if it is possible that I have no imagination.

    Has anyone heard of this, and is there a name — and a cure — for such a condition?

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