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A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Vishvesh P. with a handful of questions. They were all great — in fact, they were so good I really need to dedicate a column to each of them to answer properly! This is part one. Look out for my next two answers over the coming weeks.
Question 1: Where can I find the inspiration for writing a story?
This is a great question, Vishvesh. Unfortunately, it’s a little hard to answer.
The truth is, every writer is different. I can’t tell you exactly what will inspire you and help you unleash your inner creativity. That being said, I have a few suggestions that you can try — hopefully by experimenting a bit, you’ll find what works for you!
Idea #1: Try some writing prompts.
Sometimes, it’s hard to jump-start your creativity. You sit down in front of a blank page and simply stare at it, wondering where to go from here. That’s when pulling out a writing prompt can help.
There’s no shortage of writing prompts available for free online. (In fact, if you’ve been reading The Renegade Word for long, you probably already know about our ever-growing collection of prompts and our free ebook!) Honestly, just doing a quick Google search for “writing prompts” will instantly bring up more ideas than you’ll know what to do with — it’s basically impossible that you won’t find a single one to spark your interest.
So how do you use a writing prompt? Well, that’s up to you. You can write a passage strictly focused on the subject of the prompt, or you can take it in a less literal direction. It all depends on what sparks your interest and gets the words flowing.
Idea #2: Read the news.
The news can be a depressing and uncomfortable read sometimes, but it can also be a powerful source of creativity. For one of my freelance gigs, I end up doing a lot of research on cutting-edge research and technology, a great source of inspiration for a science fiction writer. I’m often left wondering what the world might look like if one of the devices I’ve written about becomes a daily part of life in the future.
Even if you’re not that interested in science, you can use this approach to spark all kinds of story ideas. Human interest stories, interviews, and even obituaries can give you ideas for developing characters. Off-beat news could be adapted into a comedic plot. Even terrifying stories like a hostage situation could inspire you to write an action story or a thriller.
Just remember that if you use this trick and you’re writing fiction, you need to make the stories and characters your own. Change the names and details. Set it in a different location. In general, if you’re going to write a fictionalized account of a real person, you’ll need their permission. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing about actual people and events as long as you do your research, but that’s not the point of this particular exercise.
Idea #3: Turn a trope upside down.
Have you ever read a cliché that just drove you up the wall? Whether your pet peeve is stories about brooding vampires, mad scientists building doomsday devices, or stories about manic pixie dream girls, you have the power to take the stories that annoy you or bore you to tears and make them interesting again.
For example: I happen to think most zombie and vampire fiction is derivative and uninteresting. That’s precisely why I’ve written short stories about both zombies and vampires. It’s not that I think supernatural creatures are boring story fodder — far from it! I just think that some of the popular writers in those genres don’t explore what makes great.
Chances are, the types of stories that consistently leave you disappointed have already come to mind. But if you need help figuring out tropes you can subvert, go browse TV Tropes for a few hours and you’re sure to find something to work with.
Idea #4: Research your local history.
Why not try your hand at historical fiction? Chances are, something mysterious, thrilling, uplifting, or even terrifying has happened at one point in your community. There’s so much rich material to work with when you study the past: you can write about a time of war, about travelling to a new land, about embracing or fighting against cultural change.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could even tackle an alternate history. What if Hitler had won World War II? (Or what if he’d never been born?) What if Abraham Lincoln had decided not to go to the theater on a certain fateful night? You can even take your speculation in unexpected directions: what would Victorian England look like if the locals practiced magic? Which brings me to the next item on the list…
Idea #5: Ask “what if?”
This is a great exercise for writers of science fiction and fantasy. It starts thinking about a way the world could be changed, and asking yourself, “What would things be like if…?” The great thing about this exercise is that you don’t have to be serious about it if you don’t want to be. Just look to classic children’s literature for examples: “What would happen if you gave a mouse a cookie?” “What would happen if the weather changed to food?” “What would happen if a giant peach grew in a little boy’s yard?”
The technique works just as well for serious subjects. In fact, we have an entire article on how to expand your “what if” into a complete story — click here to check it out.
Idea #6: Ask for someone’s life story.
This one can be tricky if you’re an introvert, but it can also be extremely rewarding. The people around you every day may have amazing stories to share that you’ve never heard. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members can be a good place to start, but friends and acquaintances may also be willing to open up if you frame your questions the right way. (After all, most people love talking about themselves.) Ask about an important or life-changing moment they’ve experienced and just listen.
The point of this exercise isn’t to write a biography. It’s to help you develop an understanding of how different people handle the experiences in their lives — how they cope with hardship, how they celebrate success, and how they work toward their goals. When they’ve told you about their life, imagine how your character would deal with the same situation.
Hopefully these exercises are enough to get you started! Tune in next week when I tackle Vishvesh’s second question about first vs. third person in fiction.