In previous posts, I have discussed drafting, revising, and editing, but however difficult these stages of the writing process may be, all of them rely on one thing: a story idea. Deciding what to write about is arguably the hardest part of the writing process. You might have a vague idea about a character or a theme you want to explore and don’t know how to build that up, or you might have just finished a project and aren’t sure how to start your next one. Either way, it’s nearly impossible to start writing a story without knowing—to some extent—what it’s about.
Maybe you know what message you want to share with the world but aren’t yet sure how to convey that message. To figure out what your other literary elements should consist of, ask yourself the following questions:
What kind of person would need to learn this lesson? Think about their traits, their background, and their ambitions. Tell their story.
How can you convey this message to this character? Are they more likely to learn through opportunities or obstacles? This can help you set the tone of your story.
Even if you don’t know every event that occurs over the span of your novel, knowing your theme allows you to determine your character and your tone. From there, you can let your writing lead you wherever it desires.
What person or people do you know (real or imaginary) that the world needs to meet? What character traits do you find underexplored in the world around you? While a character is the foundation of a story, a story consists of more than a character. Still, knowing your protagonist inside and out can make it easier to come up with the rest of your story. Think about:
What does your character want? Consider their inherent goals and what conflicts may arise from them.
How did your character become the way they are right now? Think about societal impacts and the world they live in. Maybe dive deeper into some flaws in their surroundings.
Place your character with those goals in that setting and consider the problems that could arise from this situation. Eventually, you will get a story.
Perhaps you have an idea for a world in your head. You might not be sure what happens in that world, but the setting is so cool it can set up a story of its own. Consider:
What kind of people live in this world? Think about the social classes, technology (or lack of it), and history. What conflicts could arise from these? Also pay attention to the government system and how it impacts your characters.
What problems could the setting cause? Winter leads to a shortage of food, an island may be prone to volcanic eruptions, and a highly technological world may be taken over by artificial intelligence.
A setting can lead to a conflict, and once you have a conflict, you can zoom in on the events preceding and following this conflict, as well as the characters creating it.
Maybe you have an event in mind—a climax that your entire story will revolve around. You don’t yet know what characters will create that conflict or where it will take place, but you know it must happen. Think about:
What caused the conflict? A large medieval battle between warring armies is probably the result of a dispute between kingdoms or members of royalty, whereas a high schooler might freeze onstage because her attempts at avoiding stage fright were not successful.
What could happen as a result of this? Are the impacts large-scale, affecting cities or worlds, or is the impact focused on a few individuals? How do the affected characters react to this conflict?
A conflict is more than enough to base a story off of, though it may require some thought to come up with the remaining contents of your story.
And sometimes, you might have no clue what you want to write about. You think it’s about time to start working on your next story, but know absolutely nothing about it. This means it’s time to look to other sources for inspiration.
Books, movies, and TV shows let you take a step back from writing itself and engage with the art of storytelling. Rewatch your favorite movie or finally read that book from your reading list while thinking about what you love about the story. Is it the protagonist’s witty quotes, the intricate magic system, the unexpected ending, or something else? Draw inspiration from the work of other creators. Without copying your favorite character, you can pick traits or goals you think would be interesting to explore and apply it to your own, original character.
Basically, consuming media allows you to exercise your creativity.
Prompt generators or other sources of writing prompts (Instagram, books, etc.) are also a wonderful way to draw inspiration. Even if you don’t respond to a prompt directly, reading several prompts is bound to get the gears in your head working. When you find one that calls to you, write away. If you find yourself straying from the original prompt, that’s okay. Now that your imagination has been triggered, let yourself write freely.
And other times, you might have so many story ideas that you can’t possibly explore all of them just yet. In that case, it is important to keep a writing journal of some sort, where you can write your ideas as they come for future reference. The last thing you want is to forget your incredible ideas and face writer’s block in the future.
Whether or not you choose to outline before writing, knowing the general gist of your story allows you to direct your writing. It helps you make sure you have a target in mind and prevents you from wasting time writing three pages only to realize you have no clue what happens next.
How do you come up with your stories? Let me know in the comments!