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Writing fiction: light a fire, start a story

“Flame” by Abdullah Najeeb Photography

Where do story ideas come from?

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, he describes Inspiration Particles. In the fictional Discworld, these particles constantly sleet through the atmosphere, striking the susceptible with unstoppable ideas.

Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) described Gletch, a land of ideas, where all his inspiration originated.

Without inspiration particles or a land of ideas to visit, the rest of us must find our own sparks of inspiration. Here are ten ideas to add to the tinderbox.

1. “Borrow” an opening line. Let me preface this by saying I am NOT endorsing plagiarism. Do NOT copy or paraphrase the opening line from any book or story or other source. Raise your hand if you heard me. Good. Moving on. Read and reread the opening line to yourself and imagine what other story this line could start. Write that story.

2. Mix and match from The 36 Dramatic Situations. For an instant story challenge, write the numbers 1-36 on slips of paper, mix them up and draw out two or more. Build your story around the situations you picked.

3. Subscribe to writing prompts. I tweet a daily writing prompt on twitter (@ThatBarbPerson), and I’m not the only one. Search for the hashtags #writing #prompt to find more. You can also Google “writing prompts” to find blogs and newsletters with prompts.

4. Eavesdrop. Don’t look so shocked. We all do it, whether it’s intentional or not. Take advantage of it. Start with a snippet of conversation you heard while standing in line at the grocery, or waiting for the bus and let your imagination run wild.

5. Take the basic premise from a story you hate, and reinvent it. Have you ever gotten excited about a story, read it, then thought in disappointment — that was SO not what I expected? Maybe you’ve even thrown a less-than-stellar book across the room. What would you do differently? Do it.

6. Play a storytelling game. This requires you spend a little time with friends or family. You’re welcome. You were getting a little pale from sitting inside hunched over your keyboard anyway, and nobody likes a hermit.  You can pick from one of the commercial ones available like Once Upon a Time, or try a classic parlor game like Fortunately, Unfortunately. Sometimes the brain needs a little playtime to loosen up the imagination.

7. Create an unlikely combination. What do you get if you mix Mary Poppins with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? A Ninja Nanny! Okay, maybe that’s lame, but you see where I’m headed, right? Take two things, mash them together, see what new thing you can dream up. Write about it.

8. See the world through someone else’s lens. Sometimes when I’m stuck for a story idea, I like to browse other people’s photos on flickr. This is the visual counterpart for eavesdropping. the images can spark a setting, call to mind a character, or even steer me toward an inciting incident. Plus, who can resist looking at all the pretty pictures?

9. Find a quote, create a character. Famous people are notorious for talking about each other (and sometimes themselves). Read books of quotations and you’ll see what I mean. Take a quote and use it as a jumping off point for a whole new character. I often offer quotes in both my tweeted prompts and here on the blog.

10. Visit a thrift store or yard sale. Yes, once again, I’m getting you out of the house. It’s almost habit-forming, isn’t it? Once there, locate the oddest, tackiest, coolest  item you can find. You can buy it if you like, or take a picture with your camera phone, or commit it to memory. Once home, and hunched back over the keyboard, weave a tale with the item its center. Where did it come from? Who bought it? Who owns it? Why is it important?

How do you ignite your stories?


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