Quick Tip Tuesday: Coming up With Story Ideas


It happened again the other day. I was at a holiday party and someone I know — someone who knows I’m a writer — told me that he had an idea for a story, and that I should write it. This actually happens quite often, and I told him what I tell everyone else who makes such an offer: that I have plenty of ideas of my own, thank you very much.

And that’s the truth. Once upon a time, I worried about running out of ideas and not knowing what to write next. Now I worry about having enough time to write all the stories I’ve imagined.

But I know that early on in my career, I did have trouble at times figuring out what to write next, and I know as well that I still get lots of questions from aspiring writers about where I my inspiration comes from and how I come up with plot lines.

So, for today’s Quick Tip, a suggestion for coming up with story ideas.

Let me preface the suggestion by saying that I love being invited to submit stories to themed anthologies. What’s a themed anthology? It’s basically what it sounds like: an anthology in which all the stories are linked by a common narrative thread. One fine example is the BIG BAD anthology (and THE BIG BAD II) edited by our own John Hartness and Emily Leverett. The theme for BIG BAD was simple: Write a story from the perspective of a villain. My story, “The Cully,” in BIG BAD II, is the origin story of Sephira Pryce from the Thieftaker books, and it’s one of the best stories I’ve written. “The Dragon Muse,” another of my stories with which some of you may be familiar, also grew out of a themed anthology invitation.

With that in mind, I would like to suggest that you use the idea of the narrative theme to stir your imagination.

It can be really hard to come up with an idea on demand for just a generic a story. On the other hand, it can be much easier to come up with a story idea with a little bit more of a hint. In other words, create your own prompts.

It’s newly 2016 — what about a story about a New Year’s Resolution gone bad?

Tennessee is supposed to get its first snow of the winter this weekend (I’m writing this a few days before the post goes up). How about a story about first snows? Suddenly, I have an idea for a tale about the awakening of a snow demon.

It doesn’t have to be seasonal. I saw a guy having car trouble earlier today. Can you think of a story that involves magical mechanics, or engine gremlins, or a used-car salesman who specializes in cars that have something in common? They were all used in suicides, maybe. How’s that for creepy?

The point is, with a little imagination, and a bit of observation, you can create your own story prompt themes. Before you know it, you’ll have more story ideas than you know what to do with. And there’s never anything wrong with that.

Best of luck with the stories. And join me again next week for another Quick Tip!!


7 comments to Quick Tip Tuesday: Coming up With Story Ideas

  • […] Today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post is up at Magical Words. This week’s unsolicited, free, you-get-what-you-pay-for advice is on the subject of story ideas. I hope you find it useful. […]

  • sagablessed

    Good advice. I also like the tale of how ‘Temporarily Out of Order’ came to be. 🙂

  • Thanks, Donald. Yes, I like that story, too. For those who don’t know, Joshua Palmatier, the editor of TEMPORALLY OUT OF ORDER and a frequent guest here on Magical Words, saw a sign on a broken pay phone in an airport. But the sign, rather than saying that the phone was “Temporarily Out of Order” said it was “Temporally Out of Order,” and a themed anthology was born!

  • I love how the anthology concepts give me ideas, even if I don’t get a chance to submit in time (or just barely don’t make the cut, but lead to a great story). One recent one let me finally play with an idea I’d been considering for a series of short stories set in a particular location. I can’t wait to think of more, because it’s a concept I love.

    Have you been on the other side, where you have to come up with an idea for an anthology? Do you have any recommendations for how to decide on a theme?

  • Razziecat

    I like responding to prompts, but it doesn’t work as well for me when it’s a prompt I came up with on my own 🙁 I think that’s because it has to be something I would never think of myself – that way, it’s unexpected, and it seems to jump-start the creative parts of my brain 😉

  • Thanks for the comment, Laura. I’ve come to enjoy prompts very much. I have not, though, been on the other side and come up with my own anthology idea. At least not yet. Someday, though. I’m not sure how I would come up with an idea for one — I think it’s a matter of having that moment of inspiration, like Joshua did with Temporally Out of Order.

    Razz, I totally get that. But sometimes we don’t have the luxury of waiting for someone else to come up with a prompt for us. That’s why I’m suggesting that you brainstorm prompts. It may be that coming up with that idea will be the catalyzing force for creativity. Sometimes we have to create our own epiphanies!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I definitely agree about having plenty of my own ideas, at least for novel-length work. Except that for me the ideas usually focus around world-building so it can still be a struggle to figure out what the idea for the actual *story* is. So, David, if you have any quick tips for coming up with plot ideas…

    As for short-story type ideas. Yeah…not so plenty. Partly because I don’t read a lot of short stories and so don’t have a good handle on how to structure them, but definitely partly because I work a lot better with more constraints. Also, I’m slow and so don’t get around to trying short stories very often. However, I did find a prompt that works for me in particular, and in my case the key was to pick a theme that I love but that doesn’t have anything to do with stories. I love flowers – all different kinds – so I’ve made a list of flowers I think could be inspirational. Next step is to pick one, and then pair it with some other interesting contrasting element. I’ve got one story I’ve been working on that started by pairing the imagery of marigolds and snakes. Maybe if I can ever get myself writing faster I’ll try one that pairs lily-of-the-valley with the lunar landscape. 🙂