If you are writing fiction novels or short stories, you need story ideas.
Nothing happens on a blank page, and looking at it is the worst way to start writing.
A lot of writers use creative writing prompts, but they aren’t the best way to come up with original ideas.
Some writers wait for the muse to arrive, which usually works on a very unreliable schedule.
Fiction story idea germs
I’m not referring to germs that are contagious.
What I mean is that a germ of an idea was the starting point for many great fiction books.
Instead of agonizing and wringing your hands, keep your mind open to small questions or thoughts you have every day.
These little germs of ideas can develop and grow very quickly into fabulous story ideas to write a book.
To give you a concrete example, I came up with a simple idea while I was teaching.
My class of English beginners was learning about ordinal numbers. Naturally, I used dates and monarchs as examples.
While my students were working together in pairs, I had a weird thought.
What if Queen Elizabeth’s parents had a sense of humor and had named her June, or May, or even April?
My thought about Queen April the First led me to funny ideas about monarchs, rulers, and the Gregorian calendar.
The result was a science fiction farce, February the Fifth, which became the first book in a four-book series.
The germ for me was ordinal numbers. Who would ever think one could write a story about that.
It is surprising how simple some of the ideas, or story starters, were for many famous books.
Here are some simple examples of what famous authors said about how they came up with their fiction story ideas.
Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games
One night, I was lying in bed, and I was channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage.
On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war.
I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way. That’s the moment when Katniss’s story came to me. Quoted from the School Library Journal.
George Orwell – Animal Farm
In explaining how he came to write Animal Farm, Orwell says he once saw a little boy whipping a horse.
It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the [worker]. Quoted from the Sara Blog.
Mark Haddon – Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
It came from the image of the dead dog with the fork through it. I just wanted a good image on that first page.
To me, that was gripping and vivid, and it stuck in your head. Only when I was writing it did I realize, at least to my mind, that it was also quite funny. But it was only funny if you described it in the voice that I used in the book.
So the dog came along first, then the voice. Only after a few pages did I really start to ask, Who does the voice belong to? So Christopher came along, in fact, after the book had already got underway. Quoted from Powell’s Books.
Kazuo Ishiguro – Remains Of The Day
It started with a joke that my wife made. There was a journalist coming to interview me for my first novel.
And my wife said, Wouldn’t it be funny if this person came in to ask you these serious, solemn questions about your novel and you pretended that you were my butler?
We thought this was a very amusing idea. From then on I became obsessed with the butler as a metaphor. Quoted from the Paris Review.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter
In 1990, my then-boyfriend and I decided to get a flat and move to Manchester together. We would flat hunt every once in awhile.
One weekend after flat hunting, I took the train back to London on my own, and the idea for Harry Potter fell into my head, Rowling told Urbanette magazine.
Coincidentally, I didn’t have a pen and was too shy to ask anyone for one on the train, which frustrated me at the time, but when I look back it was the best thing for me.
It gave me the full four hours on the train to think up all the ideas for the book. Quoted from Newsweek.
Although it is only a sample of thoughts from a few famous authors, you can see that all the ideas started with extremely simple thoughts.
It proves that some of the best novels have often come from only an inkling of an idea, and not from a grand plan.
Ask yourself simple questions
Many well-known authors think that a good idea comes from a simple question. What if?
Stephen Kings says this:
I get my ideas from everywhere.
But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question.
‘What if?’ ‘What if’ is always the key question.
Neil Gaiman on story ideas
You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.
You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…?
(What if you woke up with wings? What if your sister turned into a mouse? What if you all found out that your teacher was planning to eat one of you at the end of term – but you didn’t know who?)
Another important question is, If only… Quoted from Neil Gaiman.
I can imagine that Douglas Adams wondered one day, what if aliens blew up Earth?
Or Jasper Fforde might have wondered, what if nursery rhyme characters came to life and started committing crimes?
What if is the key question when you are idea hunting.
Avoid writing prompts
You can find thousands of writing prompts on the Internet.
They can be useful for writing practice, and especially for writing short stories. But there is no spark or germ of an idea.
If I take one at random, you can see that it is, in fact, a story outline.
Write a story about how a little boy is running toward your main character, a look of absolute joy lighting up their face. Then they freeze, their joy turning to anger, rage. Your character cocks their head, confused, and then the truth hits them. He must be one of the Ruin Children, born from the people affected by the Great Tragedy.
It’s fine to use prompts like this if you are just starting out as a new writer.
But prompts such as, write about one of your family members, or about a fantastic thing you did in high school, are ideas that are definitely not going to help you write a great novel.
The downside of writing prompts is that they are not original.
As a writer, you need to rely on your own thoughts and not those of others.
The key to finding great ideas to write about is in your simplicity of thought. Listen to your mind.
Don’t make it a complex process of searching the Internet for clues that could end up paralyzing your ideas.
Think about using what if and I wonder questions to help you get started.
What if I discovered that my husband of thirty years was a foreign spy?
I wonder what would happen if you could clone the dead back to life?
Then, once you have the spark of a great idea, you can move on towards creating an outline for your terrific new story.