How to come up with story ideas

I am currently studying creative writing with The Open University in the UK and I have to come up with ideas for stories for all my assignments. This may sound like fun but finding a story idea that actually inspires you to carry on writing is actually really hard. Of course, you could do life writing but this has all its own problems, how far to stray from the truth, when does it become fiction, whether to make up details you can’t remember and I found that I started to muddle what had happened and what I had made up in my head. Therefore, these days I tend to stick to fiction. I struggle to come up with ideas for stories so I spend lots of time writing one page scenes to prompts from various sources. Below I am going to list some of the things which have helped me.

Free writing. Normally you have a small phrase or word as a prompt, ‘my favourite film’ or ‘the colour red’, and you just write the first thing which comes to mind. This is best done by hand as if you type then you tend to get ahead of your thoughts. The whole idea of this is to go completely off track, a sort of Chinese whispers effect where you start with pumpkin pie and end up with scarecrow. (This was the start and end of a particularly memorable game played in a backstage dressing room with about thirty children when I was seven.)

Book prompt. Open a novel at any page and then count down any number of lines. Take the sentence on that line (or the nearest one which makes sense) and write in at the top of your page. Then do the same thing on a different page and write it at the bottom of the page. Now fill in the space in the middle. There’s something about having the beginning and something to aim for that makes filling in the middle with a story a lot easier. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a book that you’ve read before or not as one sentence doesn’t define the story. If you have read it though it’s quite interesting to see if your story has any resemblance to the mood of the original book. I have also tried doing this with songs that happen to be playing on the radio when I am writing in the car but it really makes you realise how many songs are about love and how the lyrics really don’t make sense!

Random prompts. So this one does kind of require a willing friend or mothership to give you the prompts but I find that it really does work. First they give you three characters, a mixture of people you know and famous people works best, e.g. Nelson Mandela, your cousin Sam and your cello teacher. Then they pick three objects and/or places e.g. St. Agnes in the Isles of Scilly, an ironing board and an overripe banana. From each of the three people you must pick two characteristics, they can be as simple or as deep as you like e.g. Nelson Mandela – South African and likes sour milk, cousin Sam – likes watching the weather forecast and has a younger brother, cello teacher – has a black labrador and wears glasses. You combine these characteristics to make one character who is the narrater for your story. The three objects and/or places must all make an appearance in your story. It doesn’t necessarily have to be set in the place, it could simply be mentioned in passing but they give some direction to your writing.

Consequences. I’ve never actually come up with a story idea using this but they are great fun to do and hysterical to read out afterwards. This is the game (for at least two people) where you write at least two lines of a story at the top of a page then fold the page over so that only the last line can be seen. This is then passed to the next person who does the same thing, carrying the story on from the line they can see. My father and I did one the other evening which ended up with a giraffe and a dog flying to Cape Town with passports made from banana skins then being locked in the dog pound, which was a vast improvement from their previous underwater existence.

Even using these techniques I normally only get about one page in ten which I think might have enough potential to explore further. Writing isn’t easy, it requires work and time dedication but at the end you have a story or article which you can go back to in the future and think ‘Wow, I wrote that’… or possibly just press delete on…


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