“What If….” Generating Story Ideas
One of the most common questions I get asked when people find out I’m a writer is “Where do you get your story ideas?” It sounds like a straightforward question, but answering it is much more complex, however, than I think most people realize.
The simple answer is “They just come to me,” but that makes it sound like some sort of mystical dreamlike process involving fairies or a magic spell or something.
Honestly, sometimes they do come in dreams, but the majority of them don’t, and I don’t know anyone who’s tried to write who didn’t struggle with this issue when they first began.
For me, every story begins with daydreaming about a “what if” scenario.
- What if vampires were real and one sat down and told his life story to a reporter?
- What if young medical student found a way to bring the dead back to life?
- What if on the other side of the mirror, there was another world?
- What if a poor girl meets a rich guy at a party and they hate each other right away because of bad first impressions?
All of those are the basic premises of books that went on to become wildly successful, but each started from a simple “what if” situation.
The vampire series I wrote began as “What if Marie Antoinette was a vampire and was still alive?” Everything else in the plot developed out of that with a series of reporter’s questions – who, what, when, where, why, how.
- If she’s a vampire, where is she living now?
- Why did she move there?
- How did she adapt to the modern world?
- What does she do for a living?
- How did she escape the guillotine?
- Who helped her?
Once I answered those questions, I continued asking more “what if” questions to keep searching for a plot.
Asking “What if she still has enemies?” led to more reporter’s questions.
- Who are they?
- Why do they hate her?
- What do they want?
- Where did she meet them?
- How long have they been searching for her?
My plot grew out of those questions/answers.
Whenever I find myself stuck, I return to asking myself questions to think through the next scene or plot point.
I keep multiple notebooks where I write down these ideas whenever they come to me. But I find that just waiting around for a muse to arrive doesn’t work. I have to give it a push. My muse is lazy, and she doesn’t seem to bring me story ideas in some magical way. For me, it comes from consciously seeking out story. Allowing myself time to daydream. Actively encouraging daydreaming, in fact.
If I wake up from a dream with an idea for a story, it’s because I’ve been asking myself those what if questions before bed, and my brain worked on the problem while I was sleeping. There’s nothing mystical about it.
There isn’t a trick to suddenly having good ideas for stories. You can’t just sit with blank paper and wait for the story to arrive. Generating them takes effort and practice. Not every idea is going to work, and not every story will become successful. But the more you actively train your brain to daydream in a productive way, the more you learn how to generate interesting stories.
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