Ah, that familiar feeling– the one of having no new ideas. In this world full of literally millions of possible plots and characters, it shouldn’t happen, and yet it does, whether caused by a mental block or simply finishing one project and moving to the next. And what’s to be done? How can we glean from this hectic world what we need to retreat from it, and forge our own stories? Here are ten possible ways.
10. Use personal experience
Almost everyone’s heard the adage “Write what you know”. Often, that brings to mind our careers and hobbies. But there’s another wealth of information you can use that requires no research: your own past. Any seemingly boring childhood, with a little inspection, can unearth whole plots. Isolate a single memory. Get lost in the supermarket as a child? Seems ordinary. But what if it happens during a sudden economic crash, or the child is kidnapped? Ever miss the bus? Perhaps right afterwards the bus explodes in a mistimed assassination, or a suspicious car pulls up to the bus stop.
9. Use a personal cause
Writing is just as much passion as cold calculation. The author should also be emotionally invested in his story, not a puppet master controlling the readers. One way to guarantee this is involving a personal cause. Are you against euthanasia, or domestic abuse? Weave it in. Often times, the more controversial it is, the better. Novels have been one of the most influential objects in history. Look no further than Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the Communist Manifesto, and Common Sense, to name a few.
8. Use people-watching
This one is immensely useful, not just for finding ideas, but making your characters more flesh and bone and less cardboard cutout. Find any public place and look at how people carry themselves. Is anyone more or less confident? Do they have something on their mind? Eavesdropping isn’t the best habit, but listening to public conversations can improve your dialogue and fire your imagination. Are two people arguing, or trying not to talk? The two men at the corner table could be disagreeing about their app preferences, but they could also be discussing their latest mob hit and how it went wrong.
7. Use the news
This one’s more hit-or-miss. Its current events, politics and crime based approach can alienate the specifics of many genres. However, the basic concepts can still be used. Say that a dictator has been deposed, but forms a “liberation army” in exile in another country and starts a civil war. You can apply that to fantasy, even if a race of dwarves or aliens is involved. Has a new park opened in your town? Perhaps a lone kid, stumbling through a section of the construction, finds a strange artifact– or a body.
6. Use dreams
Keeping a dream journal is instrumental. You never know what ideas your own brain could form, given enough time. A dream is basically a blending of your various memories and feelings, which relates it to #10. A dream journal makes sure that none of these ideas fade, as most do within minutes. While many of the dreams themselves could be far too outlandish for any one genre, once again you can isolate a certain element, even a certain feeling that you felt particularly vividly.
5. Use a name
Sometimes, all you need is a good name to begin a story. Names can be found in various places: book covers, music artists, the news again, people who you know, street signs, and other books themselves. One of my favorite places to look is movie credits. Thousands of names are scrolling past for you to pick out, some quite unusual given the movie. One name can give you an emotion, a memory, or a connotation.
4. Use your dictionary
Simply open your dictionary to any page (a thesaurus works, but is less effective) and pick out a random word. Examine all its meanings, and try and fit each one to your genre. Still no ideas? Pair this with #5, if you need a person using an object or being somewhere. Even better, pick three different random words and try to combine them. Sometimes the most unusual combos can be the most memorable to a reader.
3. Use a “first line” exercise
This tip belongs to the literary great Dean Koontz, and it has been the one to give me the most results. Open up your notebook or word processor and jot down a first line. Don’t worry obsessively about making it gripping or memorable. If it does spark an idea, you don’t have to keep that line first, or even keep it at all. Pair this idea with #5, with your character facing a disturbance immediately, no matter how small.
2. Use poetry
Poetry is truly the great transmitter of emotion. When handled well, it has a unique connection. Does it give you a mental image, a setting? Plop a character there and see how the character reacts. Does it give you a feeling? Have a character experience that feeling– at the exact wrong time. Examine the way great poems make you think, laugh, and weep, and use that framework yourself.
Number 1: Use music
If anything is more powerful than poetry, it’s music. Hands down. I doubt that some symphonies could ever be translated into words– there are just no words to express them. Whether you get an idea from a song title, lyric, or melody itself, listen carefully and attempt to catch the feeling of the song as a whole and encapsulate it. Make a playlist of songs from the same time period or genre. You could even have a song/playlist for each character or setting.
None of these ideas are new. Ironically, the process of finding new ideas has been given as much thought as new ideas themselves. But while they may be old, they’ve yet to go out of style. These methods are even more powerful combined, as I’ve already noted. When writing one book, you could use all ten, and at any time you need. Results are certain. And the possibilities? Endless.
Michael Nellis, Copyright 2017