Story ideas are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. They’re everywhere in the things you see, but if you are not looking for them, you might not find them. They’re in our daily lives and in the lives we encounter. They’re in the news and in the people we pass on the sidewalk. Finding story ideas can be like walking through life, looking for just the right fruit to pick.
Perhaps you’ve had ideas in the past, and they started out strongly, then just kind of fizzled out on the page. It happens. Something magical in a moment somehow doesn’t transpire onto the blank page. But that doesn’t mean those story ideas are lost. They’re just on hold until you can find a new approach.
The truth is, if you’ve ever had a great story idea and never committed to writing it, or you’ve tried writing it, and you got stuck, there might be a reason why it didn’t work as you hoped. This article will give you writing tips to find story ideas, help you understand how to develop them, and train yourself to have new ideas every day.
Where to find story ideas
Everywhere. That’s it. Easy answer, right? Too easy. Ideas can come from real life, and they are all around you in the present and in the past. They can be in your own life. Look at the world around you. The young couple sitting in the park might be a blind date or a love story. That time your best friend saved you from a grocery store in a small town. Your super awkward first date when you both ended up waist-deep in mud on the side of the road.
You might know exactly what you want to write already. It might be inspired by something in your life or something that you think would just make a great story. Maybe you’ve been carrying the idea around for a while, but it’s still just an idea. What do you do about it?
This is the secret sauce to every story. It is, essentially, the main idea for short stories, films, books, TV, comics. Even a romance story needs conflict. We are tuned to love it because it engrosses us. It can be a soft conflict (two elderly sisters disagreeing about whose turn it is to make the tea) or a hard one (a plane is going to crash if the main character doesn’t somehow fix the engine problem.)
The guts of any story is the conflict, and how a main character or characters feel about it and react, and how it might or might not be resolved. How they handle that conflict is what the story is about.
Conflict doesn’t have to be the central focus of the story, but it makes any story have something inherently engaging about it. Even if the main character is experiencing inner turmoil, that is still a form of conflict.
Have you ever had a previous idea fizzle out on you? Maybe there wasn’t a conflict. If this has happened to you, go back and look at the idea again. Was there a reasonable amount of conflict to drive the story forward, or did you just lose interest?
The List of Potential Conflicts
You might have first seen this list in elementary school. It doesn’t hurt to revisit it as a reminder of what potential conflicts (and story ideas) we might consider:
- Human vs. human (James Bond vs. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, or the North vs. the South during the Civil War)
- Human vs. Nature (or animals, or rivers, or anything you dream up)
- Human vs. Elements (weather, climate, disasters)
- Human vs. Tech (cyborgs, machines, the internet)
- Human vs. Self (inner turmoil, haunted by a memory or experience, self-doubt)
- Human vs. Society (religion, politics, social expectations)
- Human vs. Fate or the Supernatural (horror movies, ghost stories, prophecies)
Can you think of a story that didn’t have one of these conflicts? Very unlikely. And that’s why you should ensure that your idea comes with a conflict. It’s going to be the engine of your story.
You’ve got a great conflict, so what’s the outcome going to be? If you have the answer, then you know what has to happen in between. Someone or something must struggle to resolve that conflict.
If you don’t have a resolution yet, it’s going to make it very difficult for you to tell the story. You might wind and twist and turn, but it will still be directionless without a resolution in mind. You might end up having to cut a lot later to fit in the resolution you come to.
To have a complete story idea, you must have answers to these two questions:
What is the conflict?
What is the resolution?
If you know the answers to these two questions, you are ready to move on from the story idea.
Short story, novel, or something else?
You have a great story idea, but you’re not sure what format fits it best. The most important thing you will do no matter what form it will eventually take is to write it first. Write a version or a complete overview of what you want to write. It is really just a rough draft that captures your entire idea for whatever it will grow into. Who knows, maybe it will turn into a short story, and that is that. But for the overview to be complete, it will need to have the conflict and the resolution.
Perhaps the story and the word count keeps growing, and you will have to consider a novella or a novel. Or you might want to adapt it as a script. It’s all your choice. But most importantly, you must have some sort of fun writing it. If you’re not having fun writing it, who will have fun reading it?
Write the idea down in full to make sure your idea is complete and that you are ready to move on. If you try to skip this step, you are more likely to get stuck later (also known as ‘writer’s block’). Once your mind really starts to wrap around the story, then you will get a better sense of which direction you should take it and all the details that might come in between. The story will sometimes tell you how it will best be told, whether it be a short story or film script.
Still Having a Hard Time Finding Story Ideas?
There are numerous ways to find your own ideas, and there are even some exercises you can do. The goal will be to train yourself to see ideas intuitively as they come to you. If you can train yourself to see story ideas in everyday life, you will never run short of things to write about.
If anything, you’ll have to become more selective about what really makes or doesn’t make good short story ideas. You’ll have so many ideas that you will be ready to let some go away. (However, really good story ideas are sneaky – more on that later.)
Every day life
Your daily life is a wealth of story ideas. You might not think so, but the fruit is there – it’s just a bit obscured against the trees. You can think of any conflicts you have, whether it be with the neighbor’s dog or the DMV (Department of Motor vehicles). They don’t have to be epic burn-down-the-town conflicts, but small breakdowns or misunderstandings in human communication often make for entertaining conflicts because we can relate to them. Many comedy shows feature humor based on that type of conflict.
If the guy at the DMV hadn’t had his lunch yet and was acting a little hangry, his rudeness to you might be a result of that. Even though his hunger isn’t the most significant conflict in the world, it is a backdrop for why he might cause another conflict. Again, it doesn’t even have to be serious – it can be completely humorous. The idea is that with a little imagination, a frustrating experience could turn into a humorous short story.
Think of conflicts you have in your life (large or small) that might help you write a story.
News stories or current events
The world has a never-ending cycle of news and current events. Most are calamitous, and some are not. You can find more ideas than you need here, though, and often in the areas of your own interest.
Online media is endless. Type in something of interest to you in a search engine and see what random ideas come up.
You’re not looking to just take someone else’s ideas; you’re looking for nuggets of ideas that you can start with or marry with other things floating around in your mind. Which ones make interesting conflicts? The more original you are, the more possibilities you will have, and the more opportunity you will have to grow as a writer.
Creative writing prompts
Creative writing prompts are short story ideas that exist all over the internet. They are meant to be story starters. The idea with a writing prompt is to give you something to write about and see what comes of it. It’s really like a workout for your imagination, to see how creative you can be with an idea, thus giving your mind that kind of stretching room in the future (just like muscles).
Writing prompts might go something like this:
You are on safari with your partner and three-year-old child. Everything was going well until you took a wrong turn and ended up in a narrow dried riverbed filled with sand, and there is nowhere to turn around. When you slow down, you find the car sinking into the loose sand. Finally, you are stuck. You can’t watch out for any wildlife because you are down in a ditch and must get out of the car to see if you can free it. What do you do?
Or they might even be a lot shorter, like this:
In a coffee shop, a character finds a missing tooth and a stolen ring with a note attached. Meanwhile, the main character’s dog finds a body behind the counter.
If you are stuck with your own ideas or you just want some writing practice, writing prompts can be a rich source of inspiration. However, remember that your own story ideas will always be best.
‘What if?’ ideas
Pretty much as it sounds and often with a profound notion. “What if we had a really cute dog character, but he was also half-shark?” It’s an absurd idea, but someone at Netflix said “great!” and now it’s a hugely popular kid’s show.
‘What if’ ideas are forms of writing prompts and allow your mind to ask the most improbable questions and don’t necessarily have to be ruled by logic. ‘What if a hedgehog from a small town was recruited to go to space?” “What if a young boy from Wyoming was born looking like a bat?” You don’t have to be so absurd. You can come up with ‘what if’ ideas that are well within your own fields of interest.
Writer’s block is anything that makes you stop writing. If you find that you are struggling with coming up with good ideas, that is still a block. It could be that your conflict isn’t really a conflict, or you can’t think of a conflict, and your short story ideas are going nowhere.
The best practice is to stop writing for a moment (or stop thinking about it, which is still a form of writing) and clear your head completely. Any form of exercise is great because it gets your blood flowing, and that helps your brain. Don’t be afraid to walk away from an idea for a while and come back to it later, but just make sure you do come back to it.
Sometimes you have to accept that your head has been in the idea for too long, and you have to allow yourself time to step back and assess if it’s still the right idea or what is missing from it. It also helps to tell someone you trust about the idea. Sometimes they can ask a question that ignites your mind again, or in the act of talking it through with them, you might find yourself suddenly coming up with a resolution to your problem.
There are two parts to finding ideas for stories: what is my idea, and what am I going to do with it? To answer the second question, you need to be able to know what your conflict is and how you will resolve it. Everything in between is window dressing (make it really nice window dressing, though).
Once you are in the habit of seeking and finding story ideas, you will surprise yourself with some of the things you can come up with. Soon you’ll need to decide which ideas are best and which ideas are not the best.
If you can’t tell the difference, don’t be afraid to walk away from your ideas for a while. Let them steep. Work on other ideas too, because the thing about good ideas is that they’re like ghosts. You think they’re gone, but they keep coming back to haunt you eventually. They keep sneaking back around for a reason – they’re the excellent ideas that you haven’t yet told. They keep coming around because they want you to find the right conflict and resolution to tell their stories. So, go ahead and release their souls and write a story. It must be a really great idea.