Do you ever wonder where your favorite authors get all their amazing story ideas?
Are you waiting for a flash of inspiration, or maybe a visit from a muse?
Have you got writer’s block – before you’ve even started?
Get ready to say goodbye to that empty notebook and that blank screen, because I’ve picked some of my favorite tricks to help you come up with your own brilliant idea for a unique story. Let me be your muse!
I have fifteen sure-fire, crazy creative, writer’s-block busting ways to find your unique novel idea.
For a character-driven plot
Start with people
Characters are the lifeblood of any story, so the creation of your MC (Main Character) can be a great place to start your novel.
Not sure who would make a good MC?
1. Mix & Match names
Naming a baby is a massive responsibility, and so is naming a character! Writers agonize over the perfect name to fit their character, but what if you started with a name… and wrote the personality to fit?
I’ll show you what I mean. What kind of girls do you picture when I say…
Adriana De Luca?
Sunshine Blue Wilder?
I bet they’re quite different characters, right?
So flick through a baby-name book. Or just scroll through Facebook. Pick a bunch of first names and then a few surnames, write them in two columns, then pick one name from each list to make something new… and just see what characters pop into existence!
2. Take up People Watching
The next time you’re on a train, or out for a walk, or in a waiting room, or at a wedding making small talk with people you don’t know… pick someone – anyone – and study them. Try to look at them as if you are an artist, preparing for a portrait.
Make note of all the little details: the color of their shoes; the ink stain on their cuff; the way they play with their rings; the smudge of makeup under one eye; the size of their handbag; the way they blink when they smile; the neat way they eat; their wrinkles and laugh lines; the streak of color in their hair; the tattoo poking above their collar…
Ask yourself: where are they going? Why are they smiling? What caused that scar? What are they hoping will happen today? Let your subconscious supply the answers… and a possible story!
3. Take a good look in the mirror
Inspiration could literally be staring you in the face. If creating a whole new character feels a little overwhelming, start with you.
Choose one thing that’s important to you and build on that. Maybe you’re an artist, or a tennis player, or a coder. Perhaps you’re an incurable romantic, or suffer from anxiety, or hate all things girly.
Once you’ve locked in that one thing that you and your character have in common, start flipping other key aspects. If you’re an only child, give them six brothers. If you’re shy, make them the life and soul of the party. If you’re a responsible, straight-A student, write them a rebellious streak.
Ask yourself… what if things had been different? What if you had grown up on the ‘other side of the tracks’? What if you didn’t have supportive parents? What if you discovered you have magic powers..?
4. Identify your ‘Type’
We all have a ‘type’, am I right?
My type is INFJ. How about yours?
(Obviously, I’m talking personality types.)
I am a HUGE fan of using personality tests for character creation. I usually encourage all the writers I work with to put their characters through personality tests. It might sound crazy… but I promise you it’s a crazy brilliant way to find character inspiration.
If you use this personality test, you can read through all possible ‘types’: their strengths and weaknesses, preferences and quirks – and you might start to get a few ideas of your own.
Fun bonus: you can even look up the personality types of your favorite characters. Like Katniss, who’s an INTJ. Anne of Green Gables is an INFP. And Daenerys is an ENFJ!
For a rich and complex world
Start with setting
Your world is more than just a backdrop for your plot. It’s where your characters will live – and aren’t we all influenced by our homes?
5. Write what you know
Some people think ‘worldbuilding’ only applies to fantasy, but that’s not true. Every story exists in its own story world. Sometimes that world happens to be our version of Earth. Maybe even our home town or city. Maybe the school we go to, or the hospital we’ve checked in to, or the company we work for, or the street we live on.
Even the most boring place imaginable could be a great setting for a story. In fact, it could be the perfect place because it’s the last place anyone would expect something interesting to happen! Try thinking about the most shocking thing you could ever imagine happening in your hometown. That's always a good place to start.
6. Travel the world
Our planet is an incredible place, full of inspirational locations just begging to have a story written about them! If you’re lucky enough to travel, make sure you take it all in. Keep a notepad with you to write down the sights and sounds and smells. Talk to locals. Eat the food. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Learn to experience life like a writer. (Writers know that everything has the potential to spark a story).
You don’t have to pop on a plane to explore the world, though. I used to collect those free brochures from travel agents. (Do they still do those?) Now we can just use Google, or Pinterest, or Instagram for travel inspiration. One of my favorite Instagram accounts is @photosofbritain. It’s full of stunning photos taken practically on my doorstep – but some of them look like fantasy realms! Try it for yourself. Pick one photo and just stare at it. Imagine the people who live there. The secrets they keep. The wishes they hold. The deeds they get up to when no one is looking…
7. Travel outside this world…
Of course, you could be writing Fantasy. Or Science Fiction. Or maybe a dystopian. If you fancy setting your novel in the future, or another world, galaxy or dimension, it can be exciting… but also a little daunting. Where do you even begin, when anything is possible?
Try changing just one key thing about our world and then ask yourself: What if..?
For example: What if… we lived on a planet with giant, vicious, dinosaur-like creatures?
Ummm… I would imagine it would be a pretty dangerous place to be a human. Maybe we’d all have to live in heavily fortified settlements to protect ourselves. That would probably make traveling between settlements dangerous and, of course, resources would have to be carefully managed. In order to keep us safe, I predict that the strongest, fastest and fiercest among us would rise to positions of power – oh, and we all know what happens when warriors take charge of scared groups of people who might be running out of food… I’m already seeing a story take shape, and I literally just thought of it!
Why don’t you give it a go? Think about how different weather inspires different architecture or fashion. Think about how history or politics influences religion and gender roles. Think about threats to the environment and how they affect agriculture and health. It only takes one change and it’s like watching a row of dominoes fall over. Just follow those dominoes until you discover your story.
8. See through the eyes of a child
Do you remember when you were little and climbing frames were castles, your bunk bed was a pirate ship, and a cardboard box was a space rocket? Wasn’t the world just full of stories then? Well, it still is… we’re just not so good at recognizing them anymore.
Try to remember what it felt like to be a child, looking up at the sky and seeing pictures in the clouds. It doesn’t have to be clouds: try the foam of your cappuccino, or the patterns in your tiles, or the stain on your ceiling. It doesn’t have to be pretty. That’s kind of the point. It’s about finding beauty – and stories – in unexpected places.
For a reason to write
Start with conflict
Conflict gives your story purpose. It’s why readers care about what happens to your characters, and what keeps them reading – to find out what happens next.
9. Think BIG
Conflict usually comes after you have created characters: your character wants something but for some reason they can’t have it – or at least not without a struggle. But if you come up with an overarching conflict like… a series of natural disasters causes worldwide chaos, separating families, destroying infrastructure, and disrupting the rule of law… you can see that no matter who your characters are, there’s plenty of potential for conflict.
With a really big idea, you can start with a large-scale conflict and then identify the characters you want to focus on and how that conflict affects them specifically.
10. Look to the news
The sad truth is that the news is full of conflict. Whether it’s armed conflict, the effects of climate change, religious tension, social injustice, or corporate corruption, the news is a never-ending source of ideas from which to start your book.
But it’s not just the big headlines that are story worthy. Just flick through a magazine… You’ll see plenty of possible plot lines: marriage breakdowns, feuding celebrities, hero worship, fertility struggles, health scares, career downturns, political scandals, and – above all – an obsession with youth and beauty.
People all over the world turn on news channels, read newspapers, buy magazines, surf gossip sites, and debate current events on social media. If they’re talking about it, it means they’re interested in it and care deeply about it. Try to tap into that passion to find an issue your readers will connect with.
11. Bring the doom and gloom
You don’t have to start from a place of doom and gloom; you could bring the doom and gloom! No one wants to read a novel that’s just happiness on every page. So why not start from a place of happiness but put on your evil genius hat and see what you can do to derail that happiness?!
Think of something wonderful: a blissful marriage, a peace accord, the birth of a child, the discovery of a miracle cure… And then ask yourself: what threat has the potential to ruin this happiness? Perhaps the loving wife reveals a dark secret from her past. Perhaps rebel groups attack the signing ceremony. Perhaps a fortune teller makes a dark prophecy about the child’s future. Perhaps that miracle cure leads to the creation of a new, much worse, disease. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
The possibilities (and the threats to happiness) are endless. This is where you’re actually allowed to be really, super mean. So pick your happy story and then have fun trying to wreck it!
12. Turn pain into a positive
Maybe you don’t have to think very hard about the kinds of things that could derail happiness. Maybe you don’t need to turn on the news to learn about pain and suffering. Maybe you’ve lived through conflict. Maybe you’re living with conflict right now.
From surviving in a war zone to battling through a divorce; from fighting cancer to fighting addiction; from hiding who you really are to facing discrimination; from the pain of losing someone to the confusion of losing yourself… if you have lived through any kind of adversity, you have the advantage of starting your novel from a foundation of authenticity and, let’s face it, expertise.
Turning your story into your novel is a way to take control of the narrative. It could help you work through any unresolved pain. And the truth at the heart of your story could help someone going through something similar. In this way, you have the power to take something ugly and turn it into something beautiful.
For a fresh perspective
Start with a classic
There’s no rule that says you have to start your story from scratch. In fact, you might be surprised at how many of your favorite stories were inspired in some way by earlier stories!
(hint: almost all of them)
13. Time travel
Imagine if Pride and Prejudice were set today. Or Cinderella took place in the future. Actually, you don’t need to imagine either of those because Helen Fielding already wrote Bridget Jones’ Diary and Marissa Meyer wrote Cinder.
You could do something similar. You wouldn’t be copying; you’d be making an old story relevant again.
What if Robin Hood lived today? What would robbing from the rich to give to the poor look like in our age of technology and cyber banking? Maybe… it would make sense for Robin to be a hacker. What about the Little Mermaid? Is it so crazy to think there could be mermaids in the future? Perhaps she’d be the result of genetic experiments, or water pollution.
How could you explain fairy tales in a world with no magic? What would your favorite classic look like in today’s society? Think about how you could enchant your readers with a fresh, modern take on a familiar story.
14. Bend the rules
Don’t feel limited by the original plot, or setting, or cast of characters. They’re only important as a point of inspiration.
If you’re sick of the princess always being the victim, or the hero always being a man, write your own story! Swap those stereotypes around. Or, even better, get rid of gender stereotypes altogether.
Perhaps Jasmine and Aladdin are the same person… Maybe Aladdin was simply Jasmine’s disguise so she could roam the streets of her city free of her bodyguards. Maybe, during her adventures, she’s drawn to the thrill of a life of crime.
Feel free to re-home Snow White and the Seven Dwarves from the Enchanted Forest to an urban jungle. And, while you’re at it, maybe Snow wasn’t so white… maybe she was a Woman of Color. Think about how that might affect her story.
15. See it from THEIR side
We’re so used to hearing the same tales, always told from the hero’s perspective. But I can’t help feeling we’re missing out on the real story. What do all fairy tales have in common? An evil villain. It’s always very clear: good on one side, evil on the other. But it’s rarely that simple in real life. No one is ALL good, just like no one is ALL bad. We’re complex beings!
Villains get a bad rap, but what if you gave them a chance to tell their side of the story..?
Ask them: why do you do the things you do? You might be surprised at the answer. Everybody wants something. Maybe it’s revenge. Maybe it’s power. Maybe it’s love. But go deeper. Ask why they are so desperate for these things. Do they feel the weight of parental pressure? Did they get their heart broken? Were they bullied? Abused? Neglected? What made them the way they are?
Of course, there’s always a chance that the history books got it wrong. Maybe their story has been twisted over time. Maybe the hero was the true villain, and their final act of villainy was to have their lies immortalized in book form. In which case, don’t you have a responsibility to se the record straight?
Phew! That’s all 15!
As soon as you’ve found that super exciting story idea you just can’t wait to start writing, hop on over to my Story Tester. That’s where you can make sure your story is the right story – AND if it’s strong enough to hold the weight of a whole novel.