Friday, September 02, 2011

Shop Smart. Shop Idea-Mart: Coming Up With Story Ideas

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It’s got to be the single most popular question a writer hears: where do you get your ideas? I answer it every event I do, often more than once for school visits. I never mind, because it is something folks are interested in, and it’s a great icebreaker to get other questions rolling. I know I’ll get that question even if I get no others.

So where do I get my ideas? And better yet, where can you find them when you need them?


I know, cheesy answer, but it’s true. I get ideas all the time. This post was actually inspired by an idea that hit me when I made a casual comment to a friend in an e-mail. And the kicker? It’s a comment I’ve made a hundred times. One of those types of offhand funny comments you make without even thinking about it.

This time, it gave me an idea for a story.

I can’t tell you why. I wasn’t thinking about story ideas and there’s nothing else going on that connected to this idea, it just hit me out of nowhere. Ideas do that.

I immediately wrote it down. It’s nothing but a premise now, no characters or anything, and will take work to turn it into anything worth reading. But it’s an idea.

I’m willing to bet you get ideas all the time too. Writers are creative folk and ideas are our business. “That would make a cool book” probably pops into your head fairly often. But how many out there actually take the time to write those ideas down?

I didn’t for the longest time and I lost so many ideas. I finally started keeping them in a file called “novel ideas and hooks” with whatever info came to me. When a new thought hits me for a specific idea, I add it to the file.

Right now I have twenty-seven ideas in that file. That’s right twenty-seven.

Some are for multiple books. I have a trilogy that is barely more than three totally awesome titles my hubby came up with when we were thinking up new titles for The Shifter. Over a year after I wrote the titles down, I finally had an idea that fit those titles.

Not all of these ideas will turn into books. Even the ones that do won’t all be books worth reading. Some I might even give up on after a few chapters and put them back in the file. But I check that file all the time, add to it, and when I’m ready to start a new book I go there first.

Ideas are everywhere. The trick isn’t having them or finding them, it’s keeping and remembering them.

Try starting your own idea file. Keep paper with you so you can jot down ideas as they come to you. (I have a small spiral notebook in my purse and the car) Don’t worry if the idea isn’t fully formed. I had those three titles in my file for almost two years before I figured out a story to go with them. If you think up great titles, save them. Same with characters or even great lines. You never know when an idea to fit them will come to you. And if you have the ideas there and remember them, odds are your subconscious is churning away and will put the pieces together for you one day. You never know where that perfect story idea will come from.

And when those great book ideas hit you, write down where you came up with the idea. Because you will need that one day. Folks are gonna ask.

Where do you get your ideas? Do you keep an idea file? Do you have story ideas waiting for the right pieces to start writing them?


  1. Hi Janice

    Quote:"Ideas are everywhere. The trick isn’t having them or finding them, it’s keeping and remembering them."

    I fully agree. I write them down too. But it's not the generation of ideas that is difficult actually, it's the IMPLEMENTATION of them. :D In my opinion, that is.

    I often struggle with what to do with the idea in practice. The developing, structuring and presentation of the elaboration on the idea. Just now, I had an idea, to make this paragraph into a blog post. But from that point to actually writing and posting, it's a long way :)

    Oh, since you mentioned titles, that's a difficult thing for me > generating titles...I haven't sorted this out, yet. :)

  2. GreatPost!
    I started keeping a notebook with me with a distinctive cover. If I jot it somewhere else, its gotta go in there eventually, because otherwise that other paper will get lost in the sea of paper generated by my large family.

    Then once every few weeks, I will jot the stuff I collected in a Word file. I got a premise idea last christmas that I got to work on earlier this summer.

    You;re right about the subconscious working away at it. When I put my WIP on the shelf for a week. There was that idea and I churned out 16,000 words in two weeks, mapping out the story and some particular scenes. Its great to know when my main WIP is finished, there's something new waiting for me. Like a leftover present from Christmas that I can open whenever I'm ready.

  3. I find it useful to write one idea per index card, to be sorted and shuffled later. (You can buy spiral bound cards--then tear them out.)

  4. I keep an idea file, too. Ideas that have more than a line or two get their own file, and all of these files are saved together in a "backburner" folder.

    The individual files are based on what I call my "story kernel" template -- it has lines for things like title, subgenre, planned length (short story? novel?), mood (humorous? wistful?), a one-liner description, characters, and further notes.

    Every once in a while I go to that folder and read through it, adding ideas that occur to me and watching for pieces to put together. It's a slow process and I don't rush it. Eventually some of those stories get written (and some won't ever, but that's okay too).

    Sounds complicated, maybe, and of course YMMV, but it's been working well for me for the last couple of years.

    Also, hee, Bruce Campbell!

  5. I have at least 200 story ideas… the just come to me, and then I write them down for later use. I normally write a paragraph for the beginning, middle and end.

  6. I have a Moleskin notebook that is in my backpack right now, but I need to use it more often. I need to conceive some smaller ideas.

    By the way, I read The Shifter off a book list, and I really enjoyed it. Your sentence structures are good, and the premise was fresh. I want to voice my opinion about it on my own blog, and I have something typed up already, but I'm not sure if I should go through with it. I already returned the book to the library.

  7. Thanks all!

    Jacqvern, titles are hit or miss for me. Sometimes I get them right away, other times I have no clue what to call something. Sometimes it takes time between idea and execution. :) Until that last little piece clicks, it just kinda sits there.

    Robin, good tip! That's also very helpful for ideas per book. You could do a spiral book per novel.

    Siri, now you made me regret not getting an Ash photo for this post, LOL. Sounds like we have a similar process. I separate them like that too.

    Jeff, I like the para for the three stages idea. I'll have to try that.

    CO, thanks! If your opinion is a good one and you think folks will enjoy hearing it, post away. If it's bad, um, you can let it sit (big grin). But seriously, it's all about whether or not you think your blog readers will enjoy it.

  8. Nice post. :) I must admit I would struggle to come up with ideas that way. I usually don't see story ideas in every day things, perhaps that's a bad thing?

    Almost all of my story ideas come from my dreams. My dreams are vivid, usually make sense, and are in color. My book that comes out now is from a dream. I managed to dream the premise, the first chapter, the character names, /and/ the title.

    And I write down all my ideas, can't risk forgetting them!

  9. I have only just discovered your helpful posts. Any way< better late than never. Thanks for your easy- to -follow steps. I used them and I came up with this for my next story: A university undergraduate is faced with obtaining an average grade. He must perform excellently in his final examinations or else mar his prospects of admission into Law School. What do you think?

    1. Welcome to the site! It's a good start. The goal is clear--do well on his finals, the stakes look high--law school. What you might want to consider next, is what the conflict is. What is standing in his way of getting that excellent final grade?

  10. Daily living offers plenty of ideas but the difficulty is in recognisinf=g the potential of these and developing them. I often hear advice in writing classes to do free writing sessions and this can bring back memeories which can be used to form a story as well as getting started on doing some writing - you have to start somewhere and you need to be phlegmatic about producing material which you can't use.

    1. So true. Ideas are everywhere. They're the easiest part of writing.