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How to Develop a Great Story Idea by Tapping into the World Around You

October 23, 2017

Coming up with a story idea is easy. Coming up with a story idea that excites and inspires, on the other hand, is not. According to the all-seeing eye that is Google, almost 130 million books have been published throughout history. That number probably pales in comparison to the number of books left half-finished, destined to turn to dust, forgotten and unread in someone’s attic.

People walk around outside on a day with blue skies and large white clouds. Going outside is one of the best things you can do to come up with a story idea.Why do so many stories fail to see the light of day? Probably because the idea they were based on was not compelling enough to keep the writer interested.

Many fiction and nonfiction writers can pluck an idea out of the air and write, just write, allowing the idea to bloom with each page. However, if you, like me and countless other writers, struggle to find unique and exciting ideas for your stories, you might be overlooking one of the richest sources of ideas: the world outside your door.

Streets Lined With Story Ideas

Nowadays, people seldom have the time to observe the world outside their door. Keeping up with the latest news on Twitter or enjoying a good series on Netflix can prove insightful. However real-life observations or interactions provide a rich source of inspiration too. For writers, the world outside is a canvas from which we can pick our next story idea.

Perhaps an argument between a well-dressed man and a beggar in the street catches your attention, or a crying mother struggling to control her children, or a one-legged clown handing out animal balloons in the market. Such scenes of life draw and capture the attention of passersby. Why? There’s a story there. People wonder why and how such a thing could have come about., That wondering keeps them interested. Many famous writers use their observations of life for inspiration, too.

Tried-and-True Story Ideation Method

One genre I love reading and writing is horror. Of course, it doesn’t matter what genre you prefer to write. If you are a writer, you know of Stephen King. His skill with words and his ability to create interesting characters is second to none. King’s ideas are also unique, original, and disturbingly realistic. He writes about the darkest sides of people, and where better to get such real examples than from the world we live in.

For example, his book Cell is clearly inspired by today’s world. The book is about cell phones and how sinister forces use them  to transmit a signal that turns anyone that was on their phone at the time into raving lunatics. Readers of horror find the idea attractive because it is based on reality. Stephen King took an everyday occurrence—people glued to their cell phones—and turned it into a story.

I once wrote a book using this technique, too. One night, I was standing outside in my garden after a barbecue. The air was growing colder and my guests were departing. I glanced up at the moon and began to wonder what its purpose was. Rather than merely wondering, I expanded my exploration and came up with my own theory.

That theory led me to writing my book, Chosen by the Moon, which, by the way, I still haven’t published. I blame that on my annoying habit of, “It’s not quite ready.”

You too can use this method of looking at the world around you for ideas. Go outside and walk. But actually look around you, and look more deeply. Look for the stories behind everything as a child would when exploring a park or wood.

Observing and Then Tracing Backward

Of course, observing alone isn’t enough. You still need to turn that scene into an idea that is so compelling, so gripping, that it keeps you addicted long enough to finish your story. Likewise, a dull idea won’t keep your readers interested, so a little exploration is needed.

Whenever you come across a scene outside that grabs your attention, be it a beggar in the street or a police officer crying, go back in time and imagine what caused their distress, happiness, or sadness. Perhaps that police officer is crying because he stumbled upon a sickly child living in a back street. After helping that child, the police officer thought of his own children and realized that he hadn’t been showing them as much love and affection as he would like.

By tracing back the origins of a story, you open limitless directions in which your story can unfold.

Story Idea Action Steps

In review, the next time you struggle to come up with an idea , follow these  steps:

  1. Step outside and take a walk to a public place of your choice.
  2. Take a seat and watch for an opportunity.
  3. Observe the scene and take notes.
  4. Reverse time and create your plot. How did the scene come to pass?
  5. Yield to your inner storyteller! Get the story down on paper.

All ideation takes is imagination—which as a writer you already have—and the patience to observe the world around you. If something compelling draws your attention,  and tugs your heart strings, or instills fear, then it is worthy of becoming your next story idea. Step outside, take a seat, observe, reverse, and yield to your inner storyteller. Then you’ll have a story that not only keeps you interested long enough to finish it, but also a story that keeps your readers hooked on every word.

By Richard O'Neill

Richard is a freelance writer, proofreader, and TEFL teacher.
Ever since he learned to read, he has been obsessed with the written word. Unless it’s raining outside, in which case he’ll be taking a nap, he’ll most likely be working on what he hopes will be the next great fantasy novel.

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