How to Come Up with Story Ideas

Some light bulbs

People regularly ask me where I get my story ideas from. I think some people are just showing polite interest, but some people genuinely want to know. Most writers I talk to have no idea where they get their ideas from and there’s a good chance that they each get different ideas from different places. But I’ve been giving this subject a lot of thought over the last few years, and I think I have something to say.  I will be talking about story ideas, but I also think that this blog post could be relevant to anyone trying to make things.

Having an Idea Isn’t a Creative Act

Writing the story is very creative, but having the initial idea isn’t. I’ve been keeping an eye on myself and my writing habits over the last few years and I’ve noticed my best ideas feel effortless because they come when I notice something that interests me. It’s probably best to give an example, so I’ll look at one of the better story ideas I’ve had recently: a short story called Blisstec Ltd.

A little over a year ago I came third in a competition with a sci-fi story called Blisstec Ltd, which I’d written specifically for the competition. The competition brief asked for a science fiction story about medicine or healthcare and I tried very hard to think of an idea initially. This effort didn’t yield any useful results, but a few days later I was reflecting on how much of a shitty mood I was in and how I could get out of it when I had an idea for a story: Why don’t people implant computer chips into their brains so that they can change their moods whenever they like?  

Loads more light bulbs

This is how I have ideas: I reflect on something that interests me and if the writer part of my brain has had its coffee it grabs the interesting thing and ruminates over it. It doesn’t always feel like an idea at first; sometimes all I know is that I’m interested in something.

So, having an idea, for me, is an act of noticing, not an act of creation. The creation comes later. For me, it’s so important to have the time to relax and reflect on the things I’ve noticed. Sometimes I’ve been so busy I’ve gone ten or twelve months and not had one good story idea because I was too busy to notice all the things I found interesting. If you find something that interests you, an idea is probably not far behind.

Having a Concept is Not the Same as Having a Story

It’s important to make a clear distinction between having an interesting concept and having a story idea. There is a big difference and it’s probably better to explain this by going back to my Blisstec Ltd idea. As I described above, I had an interesting idea about people installing microchips in their brains that allowed them to change their moods, but I didn’t have a main character, a plot, or an idea about what I wanted to say. You need all of this stuff if you want to write a good story. The interesting concept is what sells on the blurb, but it’s the characters, themes, emotions, etc. that make a piece of writing worth something to the reader. Moving from an initial concept to a story is a much more active process and involves a lot of creativity.

With Blisstec Ltd, I thought about the different kinds of people who might use/abuse the technology and I came up with three options:

  • Drug addicts
  • People suffering from depression
  • Terminally ill people who want to be happy for the last few months of their lives

I didn’t have anything wise or interesting to say about drug addiction and I was tempted to write about depression as I’ve had first-hand experience of it. However, I got excited when I realised I could play around with the idea of living happily ever after and I knew the third option was right for me.

So, by that stage I had the concept and a rough story: a terminally ill person was going to get fitted with a Blisstec chip. I then had to figure out who that was and why. This was when I considered what I wanted to say with the piece, which leads neatly to the next section…

Figure Out What You Want to Say

Some tasteful light bulbs

As a writer, I think it’s vital to figure out what you’re trying to say. Think of this as the take-away message or emotion for the reader. I don’t think I’ve read a single good story that didn’t make me think or feel differently about a topic. With Blisstec Ltd, I realised that I wanted to highlight how messy and nebulous the idea of happiness was, and to use my story to look at whether happiness without context or cause was even that valuable. I also wanted to use my Blisstec chip idea as a comparison with other things we use to make ourselves happy, such as food, sex, alcohol, etc.

I almost never want to convince a reader of anything or change their mind; I’m more interested in intriguing them and showing them how interesting my initial idea is. So, with Blisstec Ltd, my goal was to interrogate the idea of happiness – authentic and artificial – and encourage the reader to do the same. A good way of doing this was to make the main character a sceptic who was getting the chip installed to appease his partner who was deeply worried about him. Having a sceptic as the main character allowed me to present a range of questions about the nature of happiness without it ever feeling preachy or unnatural (I hope).

Figuring out what you want to say with a story is perhaps the most important part. Ultimately, it’s this aspect of writing that defines you as a writer. I think I have about two or three things I’m trying to say as a writer, and all of my stories just riff off these ideas in different ways. I don’t think this limits me as a writer; I think it focuses me, as it allows me to acknowledge what is most important to me. If you figure out what you’re trying to say with your writing, then you’ll start having loads more ideas.

Find a Way to Save Your Ideas

Not light bulbs

Recently, I’ve had more free time, WAY more sleep, and regular exercise. All of this has resulted in a huge influx of story ideas. In the last few days I’ve had ideas for smartphone apps, a kind of dancing party, flash fiction, and a series of blog posts where I explain different parts of the modern world to an ancient goddess who has just woken up from a 100,000-year slumber… Not all of these ideas are necessarily good, but some are alright.

As I’m having so many more ideas than usual, I’m struggling to record all of them and I’m sure I’ll lose a few ideas as I focus on my favourites. This is why it’s important to take notes and to put these notes somewhere conspicuous. I don’t really use notebooks as I’m not in the habit of going back to them afterwards to see what I’ve written. Instead, I put post-it notes on my walls and I even bought a whiteboard that I keep in my living room; it’s where my flatmate, Joma West, and I put many of our ideas.

Whatever method suits you best, make sure you make a note of your ideas so that you aren’t relying on your memory. Your memory will pull a fast one or the idea won’t look as good in your mind a few days later as it did when you first had it. But if you write the idea down when it’s fresh and you’re a little excited about it, that excitement will be captured too.

In Conclusion

Notice anything that interests you, and ask yourself why it’s interesting. This may be where you find your initial concept

Remember that a cool concept is only part of the process; make sure to flesh out your idea by considering who your main character is, what happens to them, and what you’re trying to say with your story.

Take notes of all your ideas and put the notes somewhere you’re likely to see them.

We all work and think a little differently, and I’m really interested to hear how other writers and artists have ideas and how they develop them. So, leave a comment below if you have a different idea about how or where we get our ideas.


Have your say. Leave a comment.
  1. Angie says:

    ‘If you figure out what you’re trying to say with your writing, then you’ll start having loads more ideas.’

    Great tip! I don’t think I’ve ever really sat down and thought about this. Would be a really intersting exercise to reflect on my body of work and see what themes emerge…

    BTW, great light bulbs.

Comments are closed now.