Stories, whether they’re a book, a play, a film, a game, or any number of formats they appear in, all come from an initial idea. Something sparks something else and that eventually snowballs into a final product. Everyone has their own way of writing and everyone has their own way of handling the ideas in their heads, but the ideas that become the stories you see around you all come from somewhere.
If you’re just starting out writing or just want to think a bit more about writing, this might help start you off on a new writing journey.
In my mind, initial ideas for stories generally come in one of six forms:
- Building on what has come before
- A concept
- A moment or interaction
- A phrase
- A character
- A message
Often, a combination of those forms come together, sometimes it could be a combination of all of them, but each is its own individual ideological building block to start you off.
Building on what has come before
How many stories out that have you seen that are blatantly inspired by something else? Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is directly inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Rooster Teeth’s RWBY series is directly inspired by classic fairy tales and anime, The Lion King is clearly based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
What has come before often gives us ideas of what could come next. Reading Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle when I was a kid (Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance), it was clear how inspired it was by other stories like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, and it in turn made me want to write fantasy which was part of what led me to write The Burning Ash. My novel was also directly inspired by games like Bayonetta, Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. I saw parts of all those things that inspire me and thought it’d be interesting to see what would happen if I brought them together in a slightly new way.
There are also those who see one story and want to write a sequel or something in that world. Think of all those Sherlock Holmes stories written after the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or almost all of the fanfiction in the world.
In today’s world, it’s impossible not to have ideas formed by stories that have come before. But there are near infinite possibilities for what comes next.
A magical nanny who comes to help a family. A man journeys through hell, purgatory, and heaven to see the one he loved. Hamlet told with lions. What if toys came alive when we weren’t looking. Right there you have four concepts of stories we all know: Mary Poppins, The Divine Comedy, The Lion King, and Toy Story.
Sometimes ideas for a story can be spawned for these simple concepts. My second book which I’m working on was spawned by the concept of a story about a ghost in my home city of Nottingham and my love of musical theatre. The current idea I have for my third book is also based on a concept: a sci-fi murder mystery taking inspiration from classic literature. Knowing what I do about where I want my novels to go, I suspect the rest will also come from concepts (I really want to write a superhero story at some point)
However these concepts come to you, they’re always a great starting point. In one sentence you can interrogate whether the idea makes sense, whether it has any potential to progress into a story, whether you are the right person to write that story, and so on.
Not all concepts work, even if people see them through to the end. I once saw a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III where the concept was ‘what if the character of Richard III was split into two halves, a ‘good/weak’ half and a ‘bad/strong’ half.’ It was a confusing mess of a show and actually ended up being somewhat offensive as the weaker side played by a woman ended up being killed by the strong side played by a man. That was a concept that might have worked with a different director or approach, but was not something that probably would’ve ever worked because Shakespeare’s play couldn’t function properly within that concept.
With that said, if the concept seems strong and interesting enough, it’s worth seeing where it’ll lead.
A moment or interaction
Moments in life can lead to ideas for stories. Douglas Adams famously told a story about an interaction he claimed to have had involving a mistaken case of stolen biscuits. Whether the story actually happened or not is somewhat irrelevant as the interaction (real or fictitious) lead to Adams’ ideas about perspective which heavily influenced the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.
A lot of my ideas for my second book came from the time I spent working at the Theatre Royal & Royal Concert Hall. The backstage tour I got from one of the then stage managers was particularly inspiring as I got to go all the way up the fly tower of the Theatre Royal and into the ceiling of the Royal Concert Hall. The ghost stories both historical and current that were discussed while I was there combined together to cement the direction I wanted to go for my second book.
Chance encounters can also be illuminating. There’s definitely a story that could be told based on how I first met my best friend. Both of us separately went to see Dear Evan Hansen in London and I was in the seats in front of him and his boyfriend. It was a fantastic show and I loved it and I didn’t think much at all about the two guys sat behind me. The next week I come into work and I’m talking to one of my colleagues about the show and how much I loved it and this new guy hears the conversation and clocks me and asks if I’d seen Dear Evan Hansen the week before on whatever day it was. He was the same guy who’d been sat behind me at that show. We’ve been friends ever since. If that isn’t a meet-cute for a story I don’t know what is.
Another moment that has stuck with me and may or may not have a mention in my second book was a journey on the tram into Nottingham with my mum. It was a packed tram and everything was fine until these teenagers got on. This lad spent basically the whole trip yelling to his friend a few feet away about how much he hated being on the tram with his trousers half-way down his backside terrifyingly close to my seated face. It was ridiculous and me and my mum couldn’t help laughing, especially when we had that moment of understanding between strangers with others on the tram who were also finding the whole thing hilarious.
These sorts of moments and interactions usually lead to characters or events in a story because we tend to write better when we write what we know. It’s why so many writers have little pocket books to write these sorts of things down when they happen because they can be so useful later on. I wish I was that sort of writer but I’m not. So I just live and make use of those moments and interactions that really stick with me. It’s worth finding out what type of writer you are and lean into it as best as you can!
I said in a previous blog that one of my dissertations at university stemmed entirely from the phrase ‘pandæmonium rose like an exhalation’ from Milton’s Paradise Lost. That single phrase had stuck with me and still does. I would not be surprised if it leads to something in my third novel.
That’s the power a word or a phrase can have. ‘What makes a monster and what makes a man’ from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye’ from The Little Prince, ‘Once upon a time…’ from so many different fairy tales. They all conjure different emotions and thoughts and could lead you to new ideas.
I’d be remiss to mention ‘A place where we belong’ which is part of the lyrics for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s final song Out of the Darkness (A Place Where We Belong) which is currently the working title for my second novel. That phrase ‘a place where we belong’ leads me to questions like ‘what does it mean to belong?’, ‘is it someone’s right to belong?’, ‘do we belong anywhere?’, ‘if a place does exist where we belong, where is it?’. Those questions are giving me new and exciting ideas that will likely influence where I’ll go with the novel.
Sometimes a character will pop into your mind before anything else. Sometimes you’ll think of disparate elements of character types and then they’ll suddenly join together to create a single character.
It’s hard to think that P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books didn’t begin with Mary Poppins herself. The same with A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books or the books by Beatrix Potter. When that happens, it usually becomes a case of figuring out a story that fits that character. Where would a magical nanny fit? In a story about helping a family involving magical hijinks of course.
You won’t always figure out the perfect story for your character immediately. But if you think there’s something special there, keep holding on to them and eventually the perfect story will turn up. It just might need some other ideas or events to happen to you first to figure out what the story is.
For example, I came up with the idea of a detective called Dante (inspired by Dante Alighieri and Dante from the Devil May Cry games) and then figured out that he could be a good fit for a sci-fi novel which led to my sci-fi murder mystery concept for my third novel.
Last but by no means least is the message. Some people tell stories purely for entertainment, but others tell stories to get across a message. The fairy tales we all know exist because those storytellers had a moral they wanted their audience to learn. It’s the same with Aesop’s Fables. Then you have stories like A Monster Calls with its messages on dealing with grief or The Great Gatsby and its condemnation of the rich and uncaring or the dangers of totalitarianism in 1984.
Those stories that have a message at their heart are typically the ones that are the most powerful. Whether you’re celebrating or denouncing something, having a message means that your story has potential depth. If you’ve got something to say, there’s so much you are able to explore, but also people are more likely to listen.
How do you know what’s going to work?
You never truly know if an idea is going to work until you’ve developed it a bit further. You’ve got to take it and investigate it and interrogate it to see if it has the makings of a good story. That said, the idea itself might be solid, you might just not have the tools or knowledge yet to make it work. It’s also possible that you might just not be the right person to make it work.
The hardest thing you can do as a writer is knowing when to stop with an idea for a story. Sometimes you can try so hard to make something work even though it never will. Only experience can really tell you what will or won’t work, so my advice would be to just keep trying and eventually you’ll learn what ideas you can work with.
I’m still early in my attempt at a career as a writer, but thinking about the different types of idea that could lead to a story helps me in my process. Hopefully it’ll help you too.
Keep writing and let those ideas flow!