I took a class once that focused solely on fostering creativity. Every week we’d engage in a different exercise aimed at provoking story ideas. One of the things I noticed about that class- and indeed many books on the subject- is that one of the most tried and tested techniques for creating ideas out of nothing seemed to involve combining various unrelated jumping-off points. For instance, combining the setting of “Jamaica” with the theme of “Loss of Innocence”, or the historical backdrop of “a British 1970s government housing project” with the narrative of “estranged brothers making amends”, or a “Game of Thrones-style court intrigue” with an “alternate history steampunk Quebec”, et cetera. You get the idea. It’s best understood that you need prompts and parameters to get your creative juices flowing. Necessity is the mother of invention. So following on from the theme of creative mixtures, here are 5 ways to generate story ideas if you’re suffering from Writer’s Block.
1. Photographs and Paintings
Simply looking at pictures- particularly those with people in them- and trying to imagine them as a still taken from an ongoing scene has given me so many ideas down the years. I have a poster in my bedroom of a Monet painting, where a woman is leading a little girl through a poppy field. In the distance, you can see another woman and child, almost identical to the one in the foreground. After staring at it absent-mindedly, I got this idea that the painting was somehow about the passage of time. Maybe the mirror image in the background is a childhood memory of the woman in the foreground? Pictures elicit creativity from the viewer because they don’t tell a complete story. When you don’t have context for something, you naturally fill in the blanks with your imagination. A picture doesn’t have to be particularly artistic to do this- social media is a great example from our day-to-day lives of the phenomenon of photos giving the impression of something that isn’t necessarily true. The same picture can be interpreted a dozen ways by a dozen different people. A selfie on our newsfeed from someone we haven’t seen in a long time naturally creates a storytelling process in our head when we see it. You can’t help but imagination everything a picture doesn’t tell you, and when you do, you’ve potentially got a seed for a narrative.
2. Visiting Historic Sites
I don’t think you have to be writing historical fiction to get creative inspiration from a historic site. Being active is very much conducive to creative health, and new experiences like day trips can help you break out of a rut. Historic sites are great because, much like pictures, they’re incomplete stories. There’s a hill just down the road from where I live, and at the top is the site of an Ancient Roman fort. You can stand on the ramparts and look down at the valley where I live. I must have made the hike a hundred times, and even though it’s been 2000 years and the once-thriving settlement has been reclaimed by nature, there’s still an echo of life about the place. There’s so much personality in the gnarly trees and mazelike gorse bushes. Sometimes I’ve traveled there and been struck by the atmospheric potential they have for a horror story, and other times I’ve climbed the wooden stiles and imagined a romance where an older couple are helping each other across. When I was in Asheville, North Carolina I visited the Thomas Wolfe House, and every time I entered a room I thought about him standing there. I imagined the family dynamics and the way the geometry of the place might have informed their conversations. I pictured him leaning in the doorway, lighting an oil lamp at his desk, or sitting on the porch and waiting for something to happen. I imagined him pausing outside his mother’s bedroom door, raising his fist to knock, then having second thoughts. Just looking at the arrangement of furniture or the selection of items can tell you something about the folks that lived there. So be sure to check these kinds of places out, whether you’re on vacation or exploring your local community.
3. Applying What-if’s to Workplace Scenarios
I got the idea for my current novel from my last job. I used to work at a warehouse where I spent all day picking apart outdated computer hardware for scrap. Everything that could be salvaged was then sorted into separate containers. The foreman came along one day carrying a heavy plastic box full of gold connectors clipped from the ends of power cables or plied off of circuit boards.
“There’s about three grand in this one box,” he said. That was more than two months’ wages!
I remember instantly being taken over by a criminal fantasy. I wondered how easy it would be to make off with that box and sell it- not that I was considering doing so of course; I was just curious. I imagined someone with a criminal/opportunistic mindset overhearing what my boss said and making a fateful decision to break into his own place of work at night to steal it. I played with the idea of this reckless character, and I ended up cutting the heist out of the book to take him in a new direction. But I would have never gotten that character if I hadn’t had that initial scene. First I imagined what kind of person would steal from their workplace, and once I had that person, I built around that seed of recklessness to explore new situations. It’s just an example of how ideas can come from random places and idle thoughts.
4. Re-Imagine Existing Plot Points
You can’t copy other stories- but that doesn’t mean they can’t serve as a resource for your own ideas. No work of art exists in a vacuum; even the most original novels have their roots elsewhere- in previously published works, in news stories, in life experiences, et cetera. Everything is, in some way, derivative. When I was at university, my professors encouraged my peers and I to strike a balance between the familiar and the experimental. Editors from publishing houses were brought in to best prepare us for marketing our work effectively after we graduated. They advised us to find a strong sense of belonging in the market, and to make subtle innovations from within that niche. With this in mind, a great way to develop new story ideas is to take a particular aspect of a book you’re reading and reconstruct it according to your own desires. When you read something for the first time, you naturally wonder where it’s going, and often you’ll find it never goes where you imagined it. Where did you imagine it going? How could it have happened differently? Take a single ingredient- a character, a place, a problem- and use it as a springboard to go somewhere new. For example, The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty opens with a woman finding a letter addressed to her from her husband with the instruction that it should only be read in the event of his death. Now, if you were to simply copy this but change the names or swap the genders, that would obviously be plagiarism. But what you can do is strip it back to its fundamentals and explore the idea of someone discovering a message with significant consequences. It doesn’t even have to be a letter. It could be an item, an unfinished email draft, a voice message, a diary entry, a note scrawled on the back of an old photo- anything. In many ways Moriarty is herself reworking the enduring appeal of a message in a bottle. Once you deconstruct the given element of a story, the possibilities are endless.
5. Mixing and Matching Story Beats
As I said at the beginning, every exercise in this post is in some way based around making connections that don’t exist. In point 1, we’re adding context to an image. In point 2, we’re adding characters or problems to an established environment. In point 3, we’re adding dramatic potential to the mundane. In point 4, we’re adding an existing ingredient to our own unique mixture. For point 5, all you need to hand is a large sheet of paper, a pen, and a pair of scissors. During my degree we tried this exercise a few times and the results were always surprising. All you have to do is write down as many key words as possible, from specific names to concrete nouns to vague concepts. The more words the better. You cut them into flashcards and experiment with as many combinations as you can. If you’re struggling to come up with key words, then there are several fun parameters you can apply to nudge yourself in various directions. You can cut the words out of newspapers, you can transcribe poems and cut the words from them, or you can do some freewriting and cut that up too. I find it’s best to have as random a mix as possible, with plenty of conceptual ideas to balance out the more concrete references. For instance, you can write something like “Atticus Finch” to conjure up a father-figure, “Vichy France” for a setting, and then “Betrayal” for a story beat, and all of a sudden, when you stack the flashcards together, you have a potential story. Here are some of my favorite flashcards: Chance Encounter, Near Death Experience, Fish Out Of Water, Unrequited Love, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Paranoia, Unwanted, Knock At The Door, Family Meeting, Car Accident, Breaking News, Retroactive Jealousy, Coming-Of-Age, and Fight-Or-Flight. Hopefully you get the idea. You can combine these sorts of catch-all flashcards with references as random as “Colonel Parker”, “Joe Gargery”, “Door County”, or even “Nike”. Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever used this technique before, and what prompts work best for you!