Let's say you have a few stories running around in your head and want to turn them into stories. Suppose you do. What then? You need to be constantly searching for ideas, But where do ideas for themes come from?
Have you ever had one of those family members whose life stories always seemed to capture attention? People experience life from different perspectives and they are never exactly the same. As an author, you can change such stories to work for you. I call it having fun telling lies, a student of mine called it creative embellishment. Most of the best authors do it. They bend original thoughts, personalities, and storylines. And these original thoughts can come from a variety of places.
All writing uses real experiences. Sometimes, writing can be therapeutic. Be constantly aware of your feelings. Release your anger, happiness, stress, joy, depression, and so on over situations by writing about them. Many writer starts with life experiences, and then expands on them.
However, it doesn’t always have to come directly from you. Using the experiences of others can lead to interesting stories as well. In No Plot? No Problem!(1), Chris Baty said that you can find interesting stories by interviewing strangers. You can take some basic ideas from their stories and rework them, infusing a different personality into a character.
Doing something different
The more we experience, the more material we can draw on for our writing. If you feel your creativity is becoming lethargic, change your routine. Take a different route to work, travel on a train, or visit a museum you never considered before.
There are many opportunities to help you see life from a fresh angle. Don’t put yourself at unnecessary risk, but if you always wanted to try hang gliding, try it. If you always wanted to take a sailing lesson, take one. Try ballroom dancing. Justify it by saying you are looking for writing ideas, and stay in tune with your emotions as you do so. New experiences generate mental growth in areas not necessarily associated with the experience.
If you have children, you may have noticed this in their formative learning years. A child can fall into a pattern of learning that is heard to break away from. Traveling to a new setting, and seeing new sites, suddenly seems to crank up their brain to a different level.
When my son was younger, he was using words for things that didn't sound very much like they should. One weekend, our family took a trip to a place hours away from home. The next week he was suddenly pronouncing all the words he knew correctly. It's truly amazing how experiencing new things, even as adults, can enhance our cognitive abilities.
Go to the mall or any place where there are lots of people and make up stories about them based on what you see. Take a train ride, and watch mannerisms and interactions. Take notes and describe characters you see. Remember, all writers are voyeurs first and liars second. Just try not to get arrested for stalking.
Be alert to conflicts in real life. When you meet someone real, observe their actions. Listen closely to what they say and how they say it. Notice how they relate to other people and how other people respond to them. Look for clues as to their motivations, emotions, and internal conflicts that you can use.
Writing down snippets of conversation
Jot down those that catch your attention. Not only might one trigger a story, but the conversation could be used as dialogue. Just don’t use it verbatim. Use your imagination and make it believable. Turn those conversations into dialogue between characters and have them talk about a story, its plot direction, and other aspects.
There is an episode of the television show Friends (1) where the character Phoebe decides to write a book. Instead of using her imagination, she just writes down everything that the characters Chandler and Monica do and say. It's okay to use what people do and say as a starting point, but you'll want to use your own words and write your own story.
Collecting photos from magazines
Clip and save photos from magazines. One way to start writing is to view something that gives you a scene or some action that will lead to a story. Don’t discriminate, just clip. What may not affect you emotionally today may do so tomorrow. However, focus on people, not scenery. When you write, it must be full of characters. When beginning to develop a character, model him or her after one of the pictures.
Clipping newspapers and magazine stories
Turn fact into fiction. Check newspapers for possible clues to fiction. Read, or at the very least, skim. A headline, a thought, or a quote may trigger an idea for a story. Take notes or clip the information that interests you. You have opinions about news events. Turn them into stories. Go to pages you don’t normally go to.
Jotting down song lyrics
Write a list of song titles or lyrics that appeal to you. Try to capture the emotion of the particular lyric or the point behind it in a different way.
Using the dictionary
You would be surprised the stories you can come up with if you just randomly select words and try to make a story out of them. Use that as a starting point, and refine stories from there. Try this as practice: select three random words from the dictionary and write a short story that uses all three words. You might be amazed at the result.
Finally, open yourself to new ideas. Let your mind wander. Sit with your shoes up on your desk and drink a cup of coffee, go for a run, walk your dog, or perform the lotus position and chant. Do whatever you need to do to allow yourself the freedom to think. Free your mind without letting it go blank—let thoughts come and go—or let it go blank if that helps. Do what seems best for you to tune into something greater than yourself. Jot ideas down, and never give up on an idea. Go back to see if there is another slant you can take on it.
Remember, your goal as a fiction writer is to convey the substance of life—it's ups and downs, its triumphs and tragedies ... and to do so in a way that's relatable to common everyday human emotions and experiences. Your stories are all around you, whether you write in the past, present, or future. Whether you are in outer space, in a 14th century castle, or on the beaches of Normandy, you are conveying what it means to be alive. So look around you and feel the heartbeat of the world, notice the interplay of human relationships because they don't change. Then open your imagination. Your stories are there just waiting for you to write, like apples on a tree waiting to be plucked.
(1) Koepenic, Brad (Producer). "The One Where Ross Meets Elizabeth's Dad," Friends, Episode 6.21. New York: National Broadcasting Company, 2000.