How to Find An Idea for A Story
“Where do you find your ideas?” readers ask me.
Here’s the most popular methods for finding a story idea (in order of popularity):
1. Steal from other writers
All writers throughout history have done this. I bet Homer borrowed Odysseus’ tribulations from an earlier work. Shakespeare certainly did: Hamlet was based on an earlier play, and the idea of Troilus and Cressida was taken from a work by Chaucer.
C.S. Lewis probably read The Aunt and Amabel, a short story by Edith Nesbit, in which a girl enters a magic world through a wardrobe. (You can read the Aunt and Amabel in Nesbit’s story collection called The Magic World.) And who knows, possibly Nesbit borrowed her idea from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland!
Interestingly, there’s a book by Eva Ibbotson called ‘The Secret of Platform 13’ about a platform at Kings Cross Station that leads you to another world. This book came out at least 3 years before Harry Potter. Ibbotson herself says she’d ‘love to shake JK Rowling by the hand – I think we all borrow from each other as writers.’
This highlights the difference between plagiarism, which is theft of an idea and passing it off as your own – and ‘borrowing.’ At its best, plagiarism is unethical; at its worst, it’s a crime. If you come across a story that starts your own mind wandering, that’s one thing. It’s a whole different matter to say you wrote the original story. Don’t do this. Fanfiction sites usually have guidelines on what’s okay and what’s not. Check out this guide on Wattpad.
However, if a work is out of copyright you may steal with impunity. One of the commonest sources is Shakespeare – my favourite stolen Shakespeare is Warm Bodies, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but between zombies. (The movie is pretty good too).
2. Steal from real people.
I never take something that’s happened to anyone I know – but frequently something appears in my writing and I wonder wow, how did that get in there? In my current WIP I’ve written about a woman begging, and I’m positive it’s because I walk past homeless people way too often. One of them has obviously made her way into my story.
Sometimes friends say, in tones of deep suspicion, ‘You can’t use that,’ or ‘are you writing this down?’ No-one trusts a writer. It’s best not to overtly steal, or you’ll find yourself friendless. (But if someone’s annoyed you, that’s a whole different matter….)
3. Steal from history.
You know the phrase – you couldn’t make it up? Frequently, you can’t. Who-ever would have dreamt that an average Austrian painter would one day form the Third Reich?
4. Steal from fables.
Legends are the biggest source of stories. The humble orphan discovers his destiny; a beautiful girl marries a prince. Monsters are killed; children are rescued. Witches are destroyed. There are endless stories to be had from myths and legends. Want more info on this topic? Here’s a link to my blog post on How to Write a Fairytale.
And lastly (if you’re truly desperate)…
5. Steal from yourself.
There’s an old saying: write what you know. I’m not so sure about this. I think it’s best to write about things that make you curious. If you’re wanting to find out how something works, then find out and write it down. If you want to learn about your ancestors, then find out – and, yes, write it down. Something weird/sad/terrifying happened to you: write it down.
I have mixed feelings about journalling. It’s a lot of work, and you can end up with a huge amount of paper. (I talk more about it in this FB live here). But your own life belongs to you and no-one else, and it’s your story to tell.
Want more story idea tips? Here’s a short ebook you can download and print off.