Monday, April 03, 2017

A Fun Way to Brainstorm Story Ideas

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I think for most of us, ideas are pretty easy. They pop into our heads all the time, either as a general concept, or a fun character, or an interesting situation. What’s hard, is turning that idea into a workable conflict with a plot. That’s where the real work comes in.

Next time you’re stuck on what to do with your idea, or just need a way to generate an idea, turn to your favorite movies and books and “steal” what you love about them (and no, I’m not advocating plagiarism here, bear with me).

One of my favorite movies is Mama, a creepy, horror/psychological suspense that does amazing things with the idea of conflict and what it means it be an antagonist. While I enjoyed the details of this story, what really blew me away was how the writers built a multi-layered conflict with no actual “bad guy,” even though one of the main characters is a homicidal, yet maternal ghost.

After seeing it, I wanted to write a story like it. Not the ghost part, but the “problem where there is no clear-cut right or wrong” part. A story with no real “bad guy.”

And that’s what I mean by “steal.” Take the concept or technique of a story you love or were impressed by, and use it in your own way.

For example, if you used Mama:

Don’t Copy:
Two children are adopted by a creepy monster who wants to keep and care for them.

Do Use: An emotional story with layered conflict where no one is truly right or wrong.

It’s much easier to come up with an original plot using this concept. Any type of story could fall into this structure, and all I have to do is find a good conflict that works on multiple levels (which I did, and that’s the foundation for a middle grade fantasy I’ll be starting in a few months).

(Here's more on why all writers should watch  Mama)

You can use this technique on any story. Say you’re a big fan of the superhero movies, and love superhero teams. Maybe you love The Avengers and Age of Ultron is your favorite movies. You might try:

Don’t Copy: Superheroes team up to defeat a killer robot one of them created (Age of Ultron).

Do Use: A group of gifted people with strong personalities must work together to overcome a threat.

You could set this format anywhere—a hospital, a middle school, another planet. But if the fun aspects of the “team movie” is what you enjoyed, you can a team into any circumstance anywhere.

Look at your bookshelf or movie library. What types of stories are the most common? What elements from your favorites could you play with?

Try taking a handful of your favorite stories and breaking them down into single sentences as I did in my examples.

Next, re-describe the stories using the conceptual things you enjoyed about them.

(Here's an easy tip for developing story ideas)

Here are some of my favorites movies as examples:

Don’t Copy: A woman with alien experience must advise a team of space marines when they go to an alien-infested planet to rescue colonists (Aliens).

Do Use: The sole survivor of a disaster must face and overcome her fear to protect those she cares about.

Don’t Copy: A weird young girl adopts a destructive alien as a pet (Lilo and Stitch)

Do Use: Two misfits find each other and discover what makes them weird is just what the other needs to be happy.

Don’t Copy: A young woman disguises herself as a boy to fight a war in her father’s place (Mulan).

Do Use: A person goes undercover to protect a family member, and discovers hidden strengths they never knew they had.

In an afternoon, I could probably come up with several rough plot ideas for each of those concepts. It’s just a matter of finding the story details that work within that conceptual framework and character arc. Once you have something to guide you, it’s much easier to direct your brainstorming along those lines. It’s the blank “what to do?” page that tends to stump us.

The trick with this technique is to not try to make your own version of your favorite story. You don’t want to write an alien meets space marines tale, or a girl adopts and alien story, or a girl pretends to be a boy to fight saga. Those are too close to the original.


If what you love about Aliens is the space marines kicking alien butt, then you’d have to get a little more creative about finding the conceptual idea. If might be:
  • Soldiers encounter an unknown and dangerous foe.
  • Space marines encounter something they’re utterly unprepared to fight and must somehow survive.
  • A highly skilled team goes up against creatures who put their skills to the test.
Using the same general details is much harder, but it can be done. Just find ways to make your alien-butt-kicking space marines different from James Cameron’s. You’re not copying what he did, you’re using an aspect of his story to inspire you to write your own.

As the adage says, there are only seven plots in the world, so we’re all “stealing” inspiration from each other to tell our own stories. Don’t be afraid to build off another idea, as long as you’re respectful to the original creator and take that idea in a new direction.

What are your favorite stories? What might you use for inspiration? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Could this be perhaps applied to characters as well?

    1. Sure, why not? I think it could work with almost anything. It's all about looking at something conceptually and building off that concept. I imagine reducing a character to a concept would work just as well.

    2. So for instance if I was taking from Tony Stark could I do this?
      A genius and cocky billionaire with hidden powers he never realized until later

    3. Sure. Of course, if you made his hidden powers the same as Stark, it would be too close, but if his powers and genius fell into another area, you could create something new.

      Basically, if someone could see your character and think "that's Tony Stark with X" then it's probably not different enough. But if not, then you're probably in good shape.

    4. I don't know what this means

    5. It means if you used an existing character from someone else's story/movie/book and copied them exactly except for the name (or very close to exactly), then it's plagiarism and you can't do that.

      But if you use a favorite character, and change them enough to make them your own, you can still use the things you liked about that character in the first place to inspire you. So if what you like about Toby Stark is that he's a cocky billionaire with hidden powers, you can make him a cocky billionaire, you just have to make the hidden powers something different than a ironman suit and scientific genius. Anyone an be cocky or rich, but a genius who builds ironman suits is too similar.

  2. I steal characters a lot. I swiped a gruff but deeply protective mentor who is at first feared and resented but later loved by the hero from the "Deltora Quest" series (and also from "Crispin:Cross of Lead" because why swipe your mentor from just one source?)

    1. Swiping from multiple sources is a good way to not copy one source too much.

  3. Oooh! So many possibilities here. Thanks, Janice, for some great food for thought.