How I Come Up With New Story Ideas

This weekend, I spent my #Blizzard2016 at my desk, writing for the Writer's Weekly 24-Hour Short Story Contest.  It's a competition that runs on a seasonal basis every winter and summer.  Once you've signed up, all contestants receive an email at 12PM CT with the prompt for this season and the word count their story should be completed in.  They then have twenty-four hours to complete their story, as the title suggests.

It's been a long time since I've worked in a short format for anything other than screenplays.  In general, I tend to write more on the prolific side, so for me, the challenge of short stories tends to root from wanting to write too much, rather than not knowing what to write.

Writing short stories is one of the best exercises a writer can engage in, no matter what medium they specialize in.  Writers from every field tend to unanimously agree that concise writing is the best kind of writing.  In screenwriting, it is absolutely essential, and applying this skill to fiction only ever hones the craft of prose.

Getting rid of the clutter and being able to tell a concise story is what makes storytelling a tangible and accessible form of communication.  But in order to communicate succinctly, the first step a writer must take is to form a clear idea of the bigger picture; what does, and does not matter.

All storytelling contains some sort of an arc, a through line of development that leaves its main subject at a completely different destination from where their story began.  This does not always have to be a physical journey, or even an eventful one.  Often, story arcs are more subtly crafted by an emotional or spiritual transformation, even if the subject's external world is still left completely unchanged.

The arc forms the core of the story; I tend to think of it is as the glue that holds the rest of the pieces together.  How or from where you draw these pieces together varies from writer to writer, but I personally like to think of them as though they were parts of a puzzle, complementing that concise whole.  Some of my favorite methods for pulling together puzzle pieces for a new story include:

  1. Writer's Journals

    I've personally been keeping less of a journal and more of a "writer's notebook" ever since high school.  Very simply, it's some sort of notebook that you can carry around with you on a daily basis, and in which you keep a log of any "writerly" thoughts or story ideas that might occur to you.  A lot of writers feel that it's easier for them to keep track of their writing process purely mentally, but I find that the simple act of writing stuff down helps me retain a lot more information, and also allows me to access ideas which had occurred to me years ago.  That being said, my thoughts tend to be a little random and disconnected when captured entirely within the moment.  Lines of prose, like "every step was like walking on broken stints of bone", often are only a few lines away from sparse premises such as, "a world where saints are just people with special abilities", on the same notebook page.

    I go back to these notebooks whenever I'm in a rut, or need a new story idea, to see if I can't string two seemingly unconnected thoughts from two very different times in my life into that one cohesive whole.

  2. Writer's Blocks

    As I mentioned in my post about ways to beat writer's block, writing prompts are one of my favorite ways to generate new ideas.  It's like having access to the journals of thousands of different writers, and sometimes it can be just the jump you need to make that connection between your own concept and the next.  The blog Writeworld is by far one of my favorites.  They have a varied collection of "blocks" which are general prompts of some sort to get writers unstuck, from "image blocks" which challenge writers to come up with a story based off pictures, to "sentence blocks" that vary from scene descriptions to lines of dialogue, to "music blocks" that compile songs to get writer's in the mood.

     

  3. Pinterest

I may be a tiny bit addicted to Pinterest, but if pinning isn't your cup of tea, I would venture to say that there are plenty of other social platforms that will probably fit this same niche.  I'm the type of person who loves to maintain this illusion of being organized, and after years of lurking around the site, accumulating literally thousands of pins for recipes I will never cook and DIY tutorials I won't ever craft, I recently discovered that I can utilize Pinterest's "board" scheme to create yet another hub for writing inspiration.  I follow the boards of other writers who frequently pin a hodge-podge of writing prompts, tips, and infographics and keep my own board for inspiration.  If I'm working on a longer piece, like my NaNo novel "EVA", which requires a lot of world-building, I might also pin photographs of models and actors who resemble my characters, as well as art and illustrations which fit the mood, theme, or setting of my premise.  Much like my writer's notebook, having all these disconnected thoughts compiled in one place gives me a fallback if I find myself in the middle of a piece with nowhere to go.

You can take a look at my writing board and all the pinners I follow here!

There are a lot of others resources for great story ideas, but these are by far my go-tos, and these are all the methods which got me through my long, snowed-in weekend of fast-paced writing.  If you have any of other favorites, share them with the comments below!  Part of becoming a better writer is also remaining open to new sources of information and inspiration.  Mixing it up is how we discover new ideas!

Shai Cotten