Where do story ideas come from?

I am often asked; ‘Where do you get your story ideas from?’ and I usually reply, waving a hand around vaguely, ‘Oh, everywhere, anywhere. They just come to me….’

Which is easy to say, but not the whole story. So where do our ideas come from? In my Kickstart Your Writing workshops, I look at the three most common places we get ideas and inspiration.

  1. From inside ourselves: the things we know about
  2. From inside ourselves: the unconscious – the things we don’t know are there
  3. From outside ourselves: the word around us

So let’s explore….

From inside ourselves: the things we know about

We are like a set of Matryoshka Nesting Dolls, more commonly known as Russian dolls, and all the smaller versions of our selves are still there. Imagine a five or ten-year gap between those versions of ourselves and think about the spaces in between. This is where we find the love and laughter, the hurt and the tears. The things we have done, seen, felt, experienced and most importantly, learned. They leave a resonance here which we can tap into. Mining our past life, and our emotional landscape is the most powerful source of ideas and provides the background colour to the canvas of our lives. It is where we find the themes which run through our stories.  

From inside ourselves: the unconscious

The human mind contains within it a deep and rich source of creativity. It is the subconscious part of our brain and its capacity is vast. It is your own personal treasure trove.

I do Morning Pages, (from Julia Cameron’s: The Artists Way) which involves writing freely, without conscious thought, and through this, we may be able to tap into the unconscious mind. Some fortunate people have an open door into this most precious resource, through meditation, prayer, trance, hypnotherapy or even extreme exercise. In these states, things come up which we didn’t know were there. Do whatever you can to open it; this is where the real brilliance is and we all have it somewhere. Creative practice liberates it and makes it available to us so that we can find our most inspired ideas and have a constant flow of ideas.

From outside ourselves: the world around us

Ideas are all around us and embedded in our everyday lives. From newspaper stories to walking the dog and chatting with neighbours and friends. I love sitting in a café to watch the world go by. 

We access these ideas by observing the world with curiosity and asking questions; by noticing details with all of our senses; by being present in our lives; by turning up and experiencing it and translating those experiences into creative thought and insights; by using all of the senses as we walk, run, skip, work through our daily lives. We need to feel it, taste it, hear it, look again, see the layers; experience it and write it down

Read newspapers and books; be informed about what’s happening in our neighbourhood, city and the big wide world. 

By mining our own past lives, by being present and noticing the world around us; by reading a lot, and being up to speed with what is happening in the world, we find our head and heart teeming with ideas and stories which need to be told. 

The next stage is to apply the Creative Tools to our ideas; ask questions and maybe combine a few ideas – make connections between the character you want to write, the locations which mean a lot to you; the themes which keep coming back and the overriding concept which answers the nagging question: what would happen if … ?

So what makes a good idea
and how do we know whether to follow it?

Creative ideas have the power to entertain and inform the reader. But they also have the power to transform what we understand about the world or about ourselves. We want to make sure that our idea has the capacity do that. 

Some ideas may be red herrings and set us off down a cul-de-sac. Others may seem to be too big, or too insignificant. We may be overwhelmed or lose interest before these ideas have fully formed. The ones we need to follow are the ones which won’t leave us alone; which nag at us and begin to join up with other ideas to make something else entirely. 

Your idea could come from your interests or background and then be inspired by: 

  • a location
  • a time period
  • a character
  • a theme
  • a concept 
  • or even just a title can create an idea
  • A character, in a location plus a time period (The Spanish Civil War) was the inspiration for The Traveller and The Rose

My ideas usually come from a combination of these elements which often emerge together. Sometimes we get a title first which wraps up a concept, theme or character quite neatly, and this sparks the idea which becomes the story. 

I think The Art Forger’s Daughter does that. My best title however, was A Fax to God, a book which as yet, is unpublished and in the rewrite pile. Set in the 1980’s will make it a recent history romance.

“The title of a novel is part of the text – the first part of it, in fact – and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention.” 

David Lodge

There are great story ideas inside us, and all around us, if we ask the right questions and make connections; plant the seeds and let them grow.

Up next:
IDEAS – How to develop them: applying creative tools to the seed of an idea

Published by Anita Belli

Compulsive writer addicted to fiction

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