How do I come up with a story?
- Keep a notebook
If you’re a writer, you know how it feels to sit, waiting for inspiration to strike. And even if it does strike, it’s not always under perfect circumstances. Maybe you think of an awesome metaphor but can’t fit it into a scene. Perhaps you read a book, feel inspired, and then feel totally overwhelmed (e.g. “This book makes me want to write, but I could never create characters or a plot like this!”).
But before you go comparing yourself to the greats, just remember they all had some ideas that didn’t amount to anything. Alternatively, some of their ideas ended up giving them a lot of success. Above all, they found things that inspired them.
Today we’re going to focus on the ideas. How to come up with them, collect them, and eventually use them.
Keep a notebook
A lot of people don’t like the idea of keeping an inspiration notebook. You might even have arguments against it. Here are some I’ve heard
and have even said myself:
- I don’t carry a bag or purse.
- Notebooks are too expensive.
- All my best ideas come to me in the shower.
- I have my phone. I don’t need a notebook.
Did you know you can actually buy pocket-sized composition notebooks at virtually any office supply store? And they are cheap. Really cheap. I think I got one for 40¢ once. And you can get a pack of them for less than a latte. So, if you’re avoiding those leather-bound prices or don’t carry a bag, go buy a cheap notebook and stick it in your pocket. And for you shower geniuses, there are notepads for the shower now. Just stick this funky little notepad in your shower and voilà! Your story ideas are no longer going down the drain.
There’s no rule that says you can’t put notes on your phone, of course. Personally, I like notebooks, because phones are more likely to stop working, explode (obviously lookin’ at you, Samsung), or be stolen. And even if your ideas are Pulitzer-worthy (and they very well might be), people won’t often think to steal your 40¢ notebook. (And by scribbling notes illegibly, you’ve added an additional security measure. Nice!)
Okay, I know how this sounds… but I’m not saying you should pick up the landline at your grandma’s house and listen to her gossip. I’m not saying you should eavesdrop on your loud, arguing neighbors when they fight at 3 am. But if you go to the mall, sit on a plane, or grab a coffee at a coffeehouse, I do think you should allow yourself to listen.
It’s possible you will hear something fascinating or hilarious. A horrible customer, for instance, can be great comic relief. A sad story can make for a unique character study. AND… the best part of this exercise? It’s an easy and effective way to practice writing dialogue.
I remember getting coffee at a painfully crowded Starbucks during the Christmas season. Everyone was miserable; only one barista was working the bar. And while the rest of us waited patiently, one woman kept saying, “This would never happen in Chicago! We would never wait this long in Chicago!” I wanted to ship her to Chicago at the time, but now… the story is funny to me. And if I ever need interesting conflict in a written scene, I have that experience.
Yeah, you gotta read, but hopefully if you’re a writer, you like to read. Plus, no matter what you read, it can give you ideas. In fact, it’s almost better to be diverse in your readings, because variation will offer fresh perspectives and facts.
So, whether you’re reading a cookbook or a science journal, that knowledge can come in handy. Maybe your protagonist has an affinity for baking. Maybe your antagonist is a scientist. Either way, reading will prepare you. Plus, storytelling relies on connection. The more you learn, the better your connections, and thus, the more your readers will benefit.
How does journaling differ from an inspiration notebook? While they can be one in the same, they don’t have to be. Perhaps you want a notebook for ideas, but you don’t want a personal diary that could potentially fall from your pocket. If that’s the case, keep a day-to-day notebook in your pocket and a separate journal near your bed. Write your thoughts and dreams in it. This will not only help you organize your feelings, but dream journaling is said to promote emotional health and creativity.
I have often seen writers who keep to themselves instead of engaging with others. (Myself included…) I think ultimately, this makes sense. Writers by nature record what they see, so observation is natural.
The most genuine characters, however, have pieces of real people in them. By socializing with others, you consistently learn phrases you didn’t know, psychological tendencies you never considered, and ways of conversing that are new to you.
For instance, I worked with a southern belle who said things like, “Golly Pete,” and “Lordy Bee.” Sure, I could do a quick Google search and find these phrases no problem. But experiencing them firsthand gave me a point of reference. If I ever choose to write a southern belle, I will have real-life experiences I can use.
If you’re comparing yourself to the greats, don’t. Not yet, anyway. Remember, you’re trying to start a story, not finish an epic. For now, concentrate on getting an idea.
And whether your thoughts seem good, bad, or innovative, write them down. Come back to them when you’re stuck. Remember to experience things by going places, reading books, and meeting people. You’ll eventually come up with an idea you really love.