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The Writing Life: Idea Generators

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Where do story ideas come from? Characters? Settings? We all live in a rich and textured world that teems with possible stories, but they can seem so elusive once we sit down to write. It seems easy to break a story line when we’re sitting in a conference panel and the speaker takes elements from a dozen different participants, but how do we translate that to our own work at home?

The most important step, in my experience, is to sit down without disruptions and constructively work on developing a story. Waiting for a story concept from the muse or for one to coalesce on the page can make for a long wait while we fill our time with the day-to-day activities that eat away at our writing time.

Does clipping interesting news articles or bookmarking Pinterest or Tumblr tidbits work? Yes! Will it work for you? Give it a rip and see. If it’s not for you, move on. The key to making those random bits work is to create mashups rather than trying to cloak and disguise one fact-based story into a fiction of your own making. Drag out that file you’ve been collecting clippings in and choose one: “Local Humane Society Takes in Zebra.” Choose another: “Art Festival Takes Over Halifax Plantation.” Rummage through your Pinterest: A sign proclaiming, “With sandy toes and salty kisses, we became Mr. and Mrs.” And choose another: a picture of three men in kilts. Can you fit these ideas into the genre you write? You can with a little thought and creativity.

Write down your characters, settings, and situations separately. A whiteboard or index cards or Scrivener or Snowflake can help in the process. You have all the characters you need working in the Humane Society or attending an Art Festival, plus men in kilts and a pair of newlyweds to figure in somewhere along the way. A setting or two: A plantation, a beach. And situations: a stray zebra, a festival, a wedding. Like Mad Libs, write down ten varied combinations. Consider it a challenge to yourself and give it fifteen minutes of tinkering before you draw another prompt if you need it. Write down names as they come to you, occupations, connections. Who’s the sleuth? Or the lover? Is the beach on Earth or elsewhere? Is that zebra feral or tame? Is it really a zebra? Do the newlyweds know each other at the start or get married at the end? Is that Art Festival a front? I bet you won’t even need to write down ten before you’re off and running, whether you’re a seat-of-your pants writer or go for a sturdy outline.

You’re a minimalist and clippings are clutter? You hate Pinterest. And never heard of Tumblr? You have a genre, but you just can’t nail down a compelling concept. We’ve all been there. Consider your favorite books in that genre. Then choose one from a totally different genre that you enjoyed. Can you break the stories down to log lines? Can you swap that Romance log line for the Sci-Fi setting? Does your favorite Mystery logline spark your imagination when you populate it with that Fantasy character you enjoyed? For example, can you convert all the character intricacies of Rocket Raccoon (Guardians of the Galaxy/Film/James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) into a female detective investigating the death of an ambassador (Cockroaches/Jo Nesbo)?

A third way to go is prompts. Google on writing prompts. Find them on LiveJournal or Tumblr. Ask two of your co-workers for word prompts, your spouse for a situation, and your mom for a setting. Randomly land a pointer finger on words in the dictionary or in a poetry book or the book on your nightstand right now. Make a list of the first word or line of ten songs on a random shuffle in iTunes. Describe the eighteenth, sixth, thirty-second, twenty-third, and fortieth photo stored on your phone or computer. Ask for prompts on Facebook with a tailored request or ask for random words and phrases. Make a mashup from the results of any one of these suggestions or mashup five results chosen randomly from among them.
Sparking ideas for story lines, engaging characters, and unique settings is more a matter of technique than craft. And once our story fires are burning, concepts and themes and structure follow.

Please share your idea generators below! Join me on the first Friday of each month for exploration, discovery, and discussion of the writing life.

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Elle Andrews Patt’s speculative and literary short fiction has appeared in markets such as The Rag, Saw Palm, and DarkFuse, among others. She has earned RPLA awards for her published short fiction, a published novella, Manteo, and an unpublished mystery novel. Her short story, “Prelude To A Murder Conviction” won an Honorable Mention from Writers Of The Future. She’d love to hear from you! Website

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6 Responses

  1. Ann Henry
    | Reply

    Many interesting ideas here. Thanks for sharing!

    • Elle Andrews Patt
      | Reply

      Hey, Ann! Glad you found it useful 🙂

  2. Ken Pelham
    | Reply

    Great tips on generating ideas, Elle! I’m going to give them a try.
    I’ve never really purposefully tried to purposefully generate ideas in the past. Not much anyway, although I sometimes do a “what if?” exercise. “What if the postman is really the repo man?” I almost always carry a notepad and pen with me, as random ideas, thoughts, phrases, environmental observations, whatever, seem to spring up when least expected.

    • Elle Andrews Patt
      | Reply

      Thank, Ken! You’re right, lol. At the gym the other day, I had to stop and write down the last line that popped into my head for a short story I was writing. Later on, I was casting around for a suitable ending and remembered I’d written down that line. So glad I did that, cause I’m bad about not doing so usually. It was perfect 🙂

  3. Jackie Layton
    | Reply

    Great ideas. Thanks!

    Last night I had a dream and woke up briefly thinking it’d be a great short story. At that moment, I should have turned on the light and written it down because I can’t remember it now.

    I often clip items from the newspaper. If your local paper has an arrest report, you can get great ideas and even interesting quotes.

  4. Elle Andrews Patt
    | Reply

    Hi, Jackie! You’re welcome 🙂 I’m always regretting not writing down ideas at night, so I feel you on that one. Oooo- arrest reports, that’s a great generator! :writesitdown:

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