Searching For Good Ideas

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Sometimes the ideas seem locked in an old, musty chest in the attic of your mind, a chest you can’t open no matter how you try. It’s infuriating. You might have a deadline looming for some short-story project, or you might be wanting to enter a prestigious writing contest, or you just might be searching for an elusive subplot that you can’t quite put your fingers on. It doesn’t matter. That chest is locked up tight. Here are a couple of ways you can help yourself unlock that chest, to let the ideas loose and get your writing moving again.

There was a game we used to play, back in my younger, less busy days. We called Dictionary, and all that was required was a dictionary and enough paper and pens for every player. Whoever was “it” took the dictionary, chose a word that he was fairly certain no one else would know (the game ran on the honor system, so you were expected to admit if you actually knew the word), and wrote down the real definition on his own paper. He then told everyone else the word, and the players had to make up their own definitions. Each definition was handed in to “it”, who read each one aloud. The players chose the definition they believed was correct. The real one was revealed – anyone who chose the right one got a point, and anyone whose fake definition was chosen also earned a point. It was great fun, and I learned quite a lot of new words in the process. I also took to searching the dictionary in my spare time, hoping to find funny words I could use in the next game. One of those words was “quotidian”, which caught the eye of my writer brain. Instead of using it in the game, I found myself creating a short story based on the word instead.

It’s easy to do. Get your hands on a big dictionary, the thicker the better. You might have to zip down to the library for one, since most people don’t have the humongous dictionaries on their own bookshelves, but the big dictionaries have the best selection of words to choose from. You can stand it on its spine and let the pages fall open, or you can choose a letter and start scanning the pages. Either way, it won’t take long for you to come across a word that you’ve never heard, a word that chimes in your imagination. When you find that word, write it down on a sheet of paper and start doodling notes around it. Before long, you’ll find yourself writing phrases, then sentences, and suddenly a story is forming around that one word.

What? You say you can’t find a dictionary anywhere in the house, and you’re currently snowed in and can’t get to the library? That’s okay, I’ve got another trick. It’s the same idea as Dictionary, except that instead of letting single words inspire you, you go for images instead. I went to a writing seminar long ago, during which each of us was given an 8×10 black and white photograph of an ordinary person. Mine was an old man in faded overalls, standing in front of a wornout tractor. We were given twenty minutes to describe our subjects – their names, their background, where they lived and what they liked to eat, all that. It was a wonderful exercise. You can do the same thing, with pictures in a magazine or a picture book. Heck, open up Google’s image search, and type your name, or your favorite color, or any word that pops into your head, then click ‘Search’. You’ll get dozens (maybe hundreds) of results. Start looking at them. Don’t worry about choosing a person’s picture – the exercise will work with any picture that rings a bell in your soul. Glance from picture to picture until there’s one that speaks to you. Stare at that one. Think about it. Let it tell you its story. Pretty soon you’ll notice that the locked-up chest has opened wide, and the light of creativity is pouring out on you.

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16 comments to Searching For Good Ideas

  • Good idea, Misty! You might get a kick out of old (seventies) video clips of a BBC game show called Call My Bluff on Youtube. Sounds like basically the same as your dictionary game.

  • I know this isn’t the focus of today’s post, but it took me down memory lane. I used to peruse my mom’s old huge 2-book dictionary when I was kid. When I sold my first novel, I confiscated (read stole) the dictionaries. They are maybe 50 years old, and still the best I ever found. My favorite word? Vug. :)

  • When I was in 6th grade, our teacher did a similar thing with the pictures. Once a week, he showed us something — once was a painting of a waterwheel, once was a serial number — and had us come up with stories. Later we’d read each other’s stories. Not only did I learn that you can find inspiration for a story in anything, but also that the number of stories from the same inspiration is infinite. Great post, Misty, and thanks for pulling up an old, happy memory.

  • Nice ideas, Misty. I always loved playing dictionary, and as a photographer I’m drawn to the idea of using photos as inspiration. Might have to try that the next time I’m searching for a story idea. Enjoy the snow!

  • Sarah Naumann

    I find it fascinating how small and seemingly trivial things can help you come up with a great story to tell!
    In addition to words and pictures I also like to use song titles to get me started. I simply take the title of a song or a line from it and voila – there I have a new story, new places and new charcters swirling around in my head. The last time I did this I used the songtitle “Radio Ga Ga”(Queen) and the line “and everything I had to know I heard it on the radio” from it. I had some much fun planning out and writing my Radio-Ga-Ga-story. It was amazing.

  • Deb S

    Ah, Dictionary. We used to play in college and there were some great definitions employed. Or so we thought. No, of course we didn’t turn it a drinking a game. Why do you ask? 😉

  • At the risk of sounding simplistic, I like these ideas because they get people writing but remove the pressure. I think a lot of what holds writers back is artificial, internal pressure. Exercises like these allow people to play. Play is good; it opens doors to creativity while eliminating that sense that we should be creating a masterpiece that will win awards and be on best-seller lists.

  • Unicorn

    I once entered a writing competition where you had a choice of (I think) six photos. You picked one and wrote a short story inspired by it. It was so interesting to see the other entries and their different perceptions of the same picture.
    Another suggestion: Music. (No, A. J., not while I’m writing, not anymore, in case you were wondering). Songs inspire scenes, plot points, characters, even whole short stories. I like listening to a song, then sitting down and writing a piece of short fiction about it. And then every time I hear the song, I get to sit back and watch the little personal movie on the back of my eyelids. And every time I read the story, the song plays itself in my head. It’s pretty cool.
    Also. A question. I know it’s a bit off topic, but… well. What do you do if you reach the middle of a novel and you find yourself in the doldrums, if indeed that ever happens to you? It’s not quite time to introduce the climax. You hang about in the middle there, plodding along mundanely towards the end, stuffing the story with useless filler because you can’t think about anything else to write. I’m there now in one of my projects and I’m not sure what to do. Sorry it’s off topic.
    Thanks for a brilliant post, Misty. I’m definitely going to try both those exercises. And Dictionary… that should be fun.
    Unicorn

  • The surest way to get ideas for new stories is to have something that you *must* be working on for an impending deadline.

  • Wolf, I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with you. Having something “you *must* be working on for an impending deadline” is a good way to get the project done if you already know what you’re writing about. But in my experience, if you’re looking for ideas, that kind of pressure stifles creativity. Pressure doesn’t bring coal into the area to make it into diamonds; it keeps it away. Pressure only turns coal into diamonds if the coal was already in place when the pressure was added.

    That’s, as I said, my experience, anyway. Your own mileage may vary.

  • I always find that when I’m working on something an idea for something else invariably tries to interrupt. Though not a deadline scenario per-say, it’s still me working on something I want to get finished. Seems to happen bout every time. Since starting my WIP I think I’ve written down 5 other things I want to pursue in the future. I seem to have no problem coming up with ideas, just keeping them at bay till I finish the current one.

    The second exercise reminds me of something that was done as a contest when Star Wars ep 1 came out. They picked a guy out of the crowd at the pod race and wanted you to write out what his story was. The best one was supposed to win something, can’t remember what, but it was a cool exercise as well.

  • Deb, I seem to remember the definitions becoming more ridiculous with every round of tequila… 😀

    Yes, y’all, music is also a great inspiration. I remember going to music class in third grade, being given a huge sheet of paper and a handful of crayons and being told to draw what I heard. The beginning sounded like winter to me, so I drew a forest of bare trees. Turned out the song was the 1812 Overture. *smile*

  • Misty,
    I sort of did this the other day when spell-checking. I had servant wrong in my ms (servent) and serpent and savant came up. I posted on FB that servant is not equal to savant or serpent. Somebody said combining them would make a cool character. A savant serpent servant might appear in a short story in the near future.

    Words are great.
    Cheers,
    Dave

  • I see I wasn’t at all clear in my comment. When I said “The surest way to get ideas for new stories is to have something that you *must* be working on for an impending deadline”, what I meant was that ideas for *different* projects come floating freely down from the hands of one’s Muse (baskets full, I swear) – just when you least need them and most need to concentrate on That One Important Thing.

  • I start with a small crazy idea and then write a really short story from the idea. I have one now that I’m devloping into a longer story. Thanks for the great idea Misty.

  • Young_Writer

    This osunds like a fun idea, I’ll have to try it. I know it sounds strange, but I act things out when I need an idea. (I’m in drama club). Then you feel like you’re the character, and you’ll know which path they’ll take.