Every writer, published or unpublished, inevitably asks themselves and others that one haunting question: how can I come up with story ideas that get people interested?
I cannot begin to tell you how many creative, innovative people have been stumped by this question. They sit in front of their laptop, watching that cursor blinking on a blank Microsoft Word document. When they try to force themselves to think of something, nothing pops up in their mind. Frustration simmers. Inevitably, they give up for the day.
Sounds terrible, right?
This process has become so notorious in the fiction writing world that we’ve even made a name for it: writer’s block. Even saying the name itself is enough to give certain writers shivers. Eeugh – sorry, I think I just felt a draft come in.
If I sound experienced in this realm of the writing process, I am. At one point, this is what stumped me from writing short novellas and stories for many years. Luckily, there’s a system I’ve personally used to develop dozens of story ideas in the course of a month. I want to share it with you today, and hopefully you can find a use for it within your own writing regimen.
To understand why this system works, its first important to understand how creativity actually works.
Psychologists refer to the creative process as primarily being a result of what is called divergent thinking, which is a type of thinking in which a person starts from one point and comes up with as many different ideas or possibilities based on that point (Ciccarelli, 2007)
For example, let’s say I gave you a pen. How many unusual or useful uses could think of for that pen, other than a writing utensil?
Well, let’s see … a weapon, a sharp object to cutting tape open, a tool for scraping gum off of my shoe …
You might find that this is a slightly difficult exercise if you haven’t used your creativity much (which many of us don’t). The art of seeing things for what they could be as opposed to what they are require practice. However, you will find that once you have developed proficiency in this area, you will no longer be in a shortage of ideas. If anything, you will have simply too many to work with.
The system I use is fairly simple, requires no special skills or equipment (other than a pad and pen), and can be used any time.
1) Keep a list of images, nouns, character features, tidbit scene ideas or verbs that stick out to you. Turn off the filter in your head that tries to determine what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – write freely and without care. It doesn’t matter if you saw it in a movie, TV show, or another book. The important thing is that you free yourself. Do not try to make a story out of any of these elements yet.
2) Pick three things at random. No peeking!
3) Begin asking questions. Let’s say the three things you randomly select is ‘bank robber, Wyoming, old school muscle car’. Could these elements make up the next New York Times bestseller? Maybe, maybe not. It’s up to you. Begin asking questions, and a whole lot of them. With each question ask you slowly unearth a little bit more of what these elements make up. It could be a possible short story, a novella, or even a full-blown novel.
For these three images, the following questions immediately came to my mind: Is this bank robber from Wyoming? Did he come from Wyoming? Is he stealing the muscle car, or does he own it? Why is he in town? Is he running from someone?
This is divergent thinking. From here, you can begin making mind maps to help visualize your thought process. As you follow the rabbit hole deeper and deeper, you might surprise yourself by what you come up with.
4) Rinse and repeat. Got nothing with those three? Pick another three and see where it takes you! Continue this process as many times as you need until you find yourself facing a possible story idea taking form.
NOTE: Though you may not have guaranteed success with all of the ideas you procure, do NOT make the mistake of labeling those ideas you don’t use unusable. You’ll often find that a scene, character, or idea that is simply not working out now will make a great addition to a future projects. When it comes down to it, the art of creating novel ideas is simply forming relationships between certain things.
Use this process, and within a few weeks to a month you’ll think writer’s block was just a myth Stephen King uses to scare others! Good luck and feel free to leave a comment!