How To Create A Never Ending List Of Story Ideas
8 techniques to keep your idea machine humming
Is there anything worse than staring a blank screen and flashing cursor?
The start is the hardest part of the writing session. Every prolific writer has a secret to generating consistent content. Inspiration happens all the time, but never when you need it. That’s why I use a simple two-part system.
- Capture ideas
- Transform ideas into stories — otherwise known as writing
Before I dive into my methods, we need to focus on source material — capturing ideas. I journal every night. Most of my story ideas source begin with a journal entry. There are more forms of journaling than there are journalers. I follow a simple process. It has served me well for the last three years. You can read about it here.
Four of the idea transformation methods I share with you produce eighty percent of my stories. The remaining techniques produce the rest, but they come in handy when I feel like I’m going through a rut or when my writing feels stale.
How do we transform our ideas into meaningful stories? Let’s dive into the eight techniques.
This method is my go-to formula for most of my daily blog posts.
Here is how it works.
It begins with observation.
- The conversations you participate in or overhear
- Random thoughts
- Unusual, funny or interesting experiences
- Events you witness
Jot down the highlights throughout your day. At night, record them in your journal. The next morning, pick out two or three entries that interest you. Ask yourself a series of questions to formulate story ideas.
1. What did you learn from this?
2. What’s the hidden lesson embedded in this experience?
3. What is this an example of?
3. What conclusions can you draw from this experience? What does it mean?
Write a blurb about the experience. Then segue to the lessons from your experience. Draw a conclusion or make a hypothesis. That’s the basic formula for half of my blog posts.
Need an example?
A few months ago, I attended a conference and declined an offer to socialize at a bar afterward. That experience became the basis for this story.
2. One concept many domains
Have you ever noticed how ideas and concepts are equally valid in multiple disciplines? Re-imagining existing concepts produces fascinating results. A former mentor of mine used to lecture me about one of his mantras.
“The act of getting ready is a subconscious act salespeople employ to avoid doing things they fear.”
I took that concept and applied it to the domain of productivity. I wrote a successful story about it here. I could have just as easily applied the getting ready concept to relationships (have a difficult discussion, ask someone out).
A core concept in one domain is equally valid when broken down and applied to others.
Here is an example that I haven’t done yet.
This morning, I reviewed the concept of “bracketing.” It’s a technique to move a potential client to a higher price point. It works like this.
You: “Do you feel more comfortable in the 10–15K per month range or 15–20K range.”
You: “That could be a problem.”
The client will either say he can’t go any higher or will suggest he has wiggle room.
How would you apply “bracketing” to relationships, productivity, employee relations, creativity, or your areas of focus? Break it down to its core concept and see how it fits.
Where do I find all of these concepts? I maintain a separate document I call the wisdom bible. It is a book of my accumulated lessons learned.
3. Speculate and explore
Do you enjoy speculating about what might be? Questions like “what if” or statements that start with “let’s pretend” prove useful tools in sparking your creativity. Fictional writers use these techniques to dream up worlds or storylines. Nonfiction writers and bloggers can benefit too.
Here are some variants you can try.
What if everyone’s wrong about [fill in the blank]?
What would happen if I [fill in the blank]?
What would happen if I[fill in the blank] instead of [fill in the blank]
Let’s pretend I had gotten this result instead of that result? What would have had to have changed?
One of my favorite stories from this technique came from the question, “what if price didn’t matter?” I was thinking of this at work when my client objected to our price. I jotted it down in my notebook.
The next morning I reviewed my journal entries to find a story idea. I saw the line item about price and recalled a lecture a former mentor had given me years ago. It led to this story.
Remember show and tell as a kid? This is try and tell. How many self-help, business or other personal development books have you read? How many times have you put those suggestions into action? Every attempt is an experiment. You should write about those attempts, even if you fall flat on your face.
Here’s an example of a thirty-day experiment that failed.
CBD oil as a sleep aid
Last month I bought a bottle of CBD oil. I had read stories about how it helps people achieve higher quality sleep. It was an experiment. I had no idea if it would work.
Did it? No, it didn’t, but it made for an informative story.
5. Answer a question
Questions shortcut the process of generating ideas. A question implies interest in seeing it answered. Keep a log of questions people ask you. You can also mine questions on Quora that draw in a lot of readers.
Try this experiment.
Spend one day with the goal of noting every question you see or hear. Emails, meetings and online forums are excellent sources. Which questions repeat most often? Which ones can you answer? Are there any that interest you but sit outside your area of expertise? Would you be willing to research and write about them?
While browsing a writers forum a few months ago, I came across an interesting question.
“How do you know when you have finished?”
That question prompted me to write this story.
Everyone loves nostalgia. We like to reminisce. Comparisons between then and now make for a compelling story, especially if you’re targeting an audience who can identify with your nostalgic memories.
Remember when flip phones were cool?
Remember those clunky old cable boxes with switches and buttons?
Remember when politicians put country before party?
You won’t create a ton of stories from this technique, but those nostalgic moments serve as quality source material.
The formula to create a story from this technique is simple. Compare then versus now and draw a conclusion or make a hypothesis.
This story came to me from a memory of growing up in the 1980s.
One of my favorite books is Aesop’s Fables. The stories are short. The lessons are clear. If you don’t have a copy of the book, buy one. I own a print copy (translation by Laura Gibbs) and an audiobook copy (Tantor Audio).
Every so often, I’ll skim through the book and land on a fable that resonates with me. Sometimes I’ll see the moral of that fable play out in real life. It happens often, but you only notice if you attune your mind to the possibility.
I like to do this exercise when my writing feels stagnant. It forces me out of my normal routine. The story that results from this process may have nothing to do with the fable itself. That’s fine. It’s part of the fun. The purpose of this exercise is to force your mind to escape routine thinking and recharge your creative batteries.
The story you are reading is an example of aggregating several ideation techniques into one master list. Some people love lists while others hate them. It’s no different than any other type of story. Are you providing value? Are your suggestions specific and actionable?
The problem with clickbait lists is that the advice is too generic or unrealistic. The reader cannot benefit from it even if they try.
List articles should be a culmination of lessons, ideas or conclusions. Ideas for aggregation come from asking yourself questions like these.
What have I learned from [fill in the blank]?
What techniques do I use to achieve [fill in the blank] result?
What are my biggest takeaways from [fill in the blank]?
You can create different variants of these questions.
Creating these lists also requires big-picture thinking. Most of my other stories are deep dives on a specific concept or issue. By switching from narrow detail to big-big picture thinking you keep your brain from getting too comfortable and falling into a rut.
Use life lessons as a means to find aggregation possibilities.
Let’s suppose you’re a salesperson, and you closed a big deal earlier in the day. You might ask yourself what techniques you use to close large deals. What if you failed to close the deal? Ask yourself what lessons you learned from the failure. There is no limit to the possibilities.