People often ask me how I come up with the ideas for my stories. They ask me if it’s difficult. I have to admit, it’s rather easy! And you can do it too.
Ever since I was a child I have been voraciously consuming stories. I was one of those cliché kids who went to the library the minute I could read. I devoured books. However, I didn’t only consume books. There were TV shows and movies. Later documentaries, museum visits, podcasts, travel, conversations, philosophy, mythology, the list is long.
There is a story in everything, and that’s how you will find inspiration in everything. Whether it be a story idea, a piece of dialogue, a beautiful sentence or a character based on someone you’ve met.
In order to write you need to consume. Actively and passively. Actively in your own life, with your experiences, relationships, emotions, trials and triumphs. Passively through other people, stories and art.
Your active and passive experiences will result in a magnificent well full of ideas, thoughts and directions for your writing.
In this article, I want to focus on passive experiences.
Your active experiences are your own, they make you unique in both the way you live your life, but also in your writing. It will largely determine your “voice”.
Your passive experiences come through the consumption of other people’s efforts. Efforts you can be inspired by, learn from or simply steal and alter (check Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon).
The passive experiences will help you decide what you want to write about. Think about the books you like to read, or the movies you like to see. Are there any common themes?
So what passive experiences may contribute to your inspiration?
- Reading: for obvious reasons of course. To get lost in stories, to analyze great writing, to find subjects you love, to become more emphatic, to escape, etc. Shantaram, Harry Potter, The Alchemist and the Fountainhead are among my favorites. (I wrote about how reading influences your writing voice and how you should picture your readers when you write). And let’s not forget non-fiction, books or articles. When you read about diverse topics, you diversify your inspiration well. I like to read articles about self improvement, philosophy, futurism, technology, crime, psychology. Even though these topics range widely, I pick out little nuggets from what I read and combine them in my stories.
- TV shows/Films: People sometimes say that watching a movie or TV show demands less effort of the consumer. I agree, but up to a point that is. If you mindlessly keep up with the Kardashians or any reality TV show around, you’re being entertained sure, but it is less likely to help you grow. The differences in quality are huge! Compare Scary Movie 3 with The Godfather part 3. Or The Sopranos with The Bold and the Beautiful. You see where I’m going here? Quality television and film can definitely inspire you as good as a good novel! The TV show Black Mirror is one of my biggest inspirations for my short stories.
- Documentaries: real situations or simulations. Real people. Mysteries, histories, victories, crimes, humanity. Documentaries are packed with inspirational nuggets. Some of my (recent) favorites: HUMAN (available on Youtube) and Wild Wild Country (available on Netflix).
4. Museum visits: I went to an exhibition a couple of weeks ago. There were solely portraits of the High Society, from the 1600s to the 1800s. Works by the greats such as Rembrandt, Van Meer and Monet where displayed. The accompanying texts to the paintings and drawings were hilarious and revealing. I’m currently writing a short story about gluttony and greed in 1800 aristocratic England, inspired by the exhibition.
5. Travel: see and meet other cultures. The people, the food, nature, cultural differences, religion, habits, everything will change the way you look at the world. For me this was especially eye-opening because of a couple of backpacking trips through Asia. We live in our own cultural bubbles most of the time. Step out and wonder.
6. Conversations: with your friends, family, co-workers, strangers. Conversations you overhear. You never know when you can steal a piece of dialogue from real conversations. Sometimes I catch myself typing along in my phone while I’m having a conversation. (I know, kinda rude).
Find your inspiration
So through all your observations, of the things you consume, your inspiration well starts to fill. Drop down a bucket every once in a while and hoist it up. Pick, combine, find common ground.
Write down what inspires you. In a notebook. On your phone.
What subjects do you enjoy the most? What makes you tick? If you have a discussion with someone, what subjects ignite your fire? Mix and match the musings from your well. What are you drawn to?
I approach every story as a puzzle. For instance, when I visited the exhibition of the High Society, I looked up some drawings. I thought about the characters and setting in Downton Abbey, Jane Eyre and Sense and Sensibility. I use pieces of dialogue from conversations I overheard. I combine it with a quote from a movie. I may read some articles about greed. I think about the scenery in England. For me, it’s a big part of the fun of writing!
It’s your turn. Watch, read, wonder and experience.
Clueless? Finding yourself with an empty well? Go for a walk. Exercise your writing and idea muscles. Go out and sit in a coffee shop and eavesdrop. Visit an exhibition. Go to the movies. Study people, their mannerisms, habits and speech. Describe them — just for yourself.
Observe nature, sounds and movements.
Get out of your comfort zone, talk, ask, listen and see.
Soon you’ll pick up on anything you read, see, hear or watch. You will develop a kind of sixth sense. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, write your inspirations and ideas down. Make your own puzzle, combine, fill your well with musings, and… write.
Would you like listen to short fiction stories while you’re commuting, walking, running or cooking? Listen to the Turner Stories Podcast.