How to Come Up With Story Ideas

This post originally appeared on the blog Dragons, Zombies and Aliens on June 14th, 2019.

Your Book Idea Does (Not!) Suck

“Where do you get your ideas” is a hated question in the writing community. Most authors just do. Ideas just kind of appear from the nether, or are gifted from “the muse,” or hit us like a train while we’re taking a shower. It’s widely accepted in the writing community that story ideas are random. That they’re rare golden nuggets that only a lucky few get to uncover.

But. Did you know that you can actually generate story ideas at will?

The process tends to be a little different for each author. But it exists. Career authors need to be able to generate story ideas at will. But how do you do that? How do you “tame the muse”?

​Here are some ideas.

Creativity Begets Creativity

One of my favorite sources of writing ideas is other stories. This is true for a lot of writers. Read the ancient classic Beowulf and then Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and you’ll see what I mean. Creativity begets creativity. It’s really fun to watch a movie or read a book and think about how the story would have turned out if the characters had acted differently, or if they were placed in a totally different setting.

Recently, many people will ask these questions, like, “What if Harry Potter was sorted into Slytherin instead of Gryffindor,” and stop right there. They’ll write a fanfic story about that. Which is totally fine, and as both a reader and writer of fanfiction I’m not in any position to argue this. But if you want to be a professional author—that is, someone who gets paid for writing original stories—then you’re going to have to get…well, original.

Let’s take that Harry Potter idea and break it down. The idea is that there’s a new kid on the block—we’ll call him Barry—who’s going to a fantastical world that separates people into groups. Each group has its own stereotype: the brave ones, the smart ones, the nice ones, and the evil ones. Obviously it’s a lot more complicated than that (and as a Huffleclaw, I have a few choice words about how “awesome” and “good” Gryffindors are supposed to be), but that’s the impression Barry and the readers are getting. Note that in this story, you don’t need four groups. We can have three, seven, twenty, whatever.

So what happens if Barry ends up in the “evil” group, rather than the “good” group like he wanted, like everyone around him expected? You get a hell of a lot of character development is what you get.

The world-building is completely up in the air. It could be a magic school, but everyone’s going to see it as a Hogwarts knockoff, so maybe avoid that. Instead, we could make it a superhero academy, or a science fiction setting where the school is in outer space, or an underground paranormal school full of vampires and werewolves.

The story itself would focus on Barry, who now has to interact with people he initially thought of as jerks but turn out to actually be pretty awesome, proving that the “evil” house is really not evil, just stereotyped. He’ll probably have to save the world (it’s a YA novel, after all) and confront some parts of himself that he’d really rather not examine, like his tendency to let his ambition cloud his friendships, or how he feels he always has to be in charge, even to the detriment of others.

Basically, you ask a question of a story that you really like, and then create new characters and settings to answer that question. The story will then write itself.

Turn Your History Geek On

It’s a widely-known fact that George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series was largely inspired by the real-life War of the Roses, which took place in England in the 15th Century. He basically just added ice zombies, direwolves, and of course, dragons.

Studying history is a good idea for a variety of reasons, especially for writers, but it can also be a wellspring of inspiration. Especially when you take in ancient religious beliefs and mythologies. What if the ancient Aztec gods were real and angry at the recent lack of blood sacrifices? Can you create a space empire modeled after Imperial China? Maybe model one of your characters after an unknown or overlooked historical figure.

And it’s not just history. Science—especially biology—is another really great source of inspiration. Creatures of the deep blue sea are the stuff of nightmares, so stick them in a horror setting! Take a crack at paleontology to see what extinct animals you can dust off and use in a fantasy world. Base your next fantasy world off of poisonous plants in the Amazon. Go nuts!

The Internet!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the Internet. There are hundreds of websites specifically designed to cough out writing prompts. These can be serious to just plain silly. But they work. Google “writing prompt generator” and you’ll see what I mean.

The internet also has an endless stream of art, which in and of itself can be turned into a writing prompt. This can be for a full-blown story or just a basic writing exercise to get the juices flowing. (See “Rustic Pursuits” for an example.) But google something like “dragon art” or “post-apocalyptic setting,” choose an image, and write a story based on what you see.

Don’t Sweat It. (Seriously, Don’t.)

In the end, the story idea doesn’t actually account for all that much. It might encourage people to pick up your book, but if it’s not written well—that is, has engaging characters and an intriguing plot—then readers are going to drop it like a hot brick. Conversely, you can have the most overused story idea of all time—say, a chosen one selected by a prophecy to defeat the dark lord—and if it’s written really, really well, then you’re fine.

Your story idea may be the most ridiculous idea ever. But story ideas are really just the start. It’s all in the development and execution of that idea that a writer’s skill is judged.

How do you come up with story ideas? Share your inspiration tips in the comments!