Category Archives: writer’s block
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.
Would you like to be interviewed on this blog? Let me know!
I write stuff because I don’t know how to not write stuff. It’s just something I have always done. I tell stories. Sometimes, when I think they’re interesting enough, I write them down. I would write for myself even if I thought no one else would ever read it.
However, I’m going to be honest right now. I want other people to read it. Not in an academic sort of way. I don’t care if something I write gets put into a textbook and studied 100 years from now. Well, okay, a teeny part of me would be flattered. But let’s be serious. That’s about as likely as winning the lottery. I just want to write stuff that people like. Things that entertain. And, yes, I would like to be paid for it. Because if I get paid for it, I can afford the time to write more of it.
I don’t care about writing a book that has a “moral” or a “message” for the reader. Frankly, if a writer cares more about a story’s message than about the characters and whether the reader is entertained, I’m not interested in reading it. That doesn’t mean entertaining books can’t teach us something. I’m just saying, I don’t believe that should be the primary goal of fiction.
Keats wrote in his letters about the purpose of poetry, saying that:
We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.—How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose! (Selections from Keats’s letters, Poetry Foundation)
I think you could substitute the word “fiction” where he says “poetry.” I don’t read fiction to be lectured to. If I gain some sort of insight after reading a story, that’s a bonus. But first and foremost, I want to be caught up by the words. I want to find the book so engaging that I can’t stop reading it. I want to be excited enough to share it with others.
That’s what I aspire to do as a writer. To create something that fascinates the reader. To tell a story that is worth the telling.
Character Questionnaire from The Script Lab – Whenever I get stuck and can’t seem to make forward motion on a story, I work on character. For me, character is where all story comes from. If you know the characters deeply, then every action and reaction flows from that. You can anticipate what they will say, how they will react in given situations, ways that they will challenge other characters, etc. Sometimes, knowing your character means doing research, though it may also mean simply digging deep within to conjure up those details that make the character come alive for the reader.
One last thing about writing that I want to share is this TED talk video with Amy Tan talking about Where Does Creativity Hide, which is a question I find fascinating as well: