Nine Ways to Find Writing Ideas

You’ve finally carved out a spare moment to write. You open up a blank document, and set your fingers on the keys. But then nothing comes.

You check Facebook thinking you might find something to inspire you there. No luck.

You wonder if your muse is hiding under the stack of dirty dishes, so you clean every bit of grime you can find but still come up empty.

You’re at a loss for ideas, and your writing time is dwindling quickly.

It may be too late for this session, but grab a notebook. Between this writing time and next (aka tomorrow), explore some of these ideas.

1. Look Around

As we head into the holiday season, it’s likely we’re all going to be traveling at some point or another. Instead of pacing back and forth across the airport or diving right into that bestseller, take a moment to notice the people around you. They may be the protagonist and antagonist of your bestseller.

See that Mom and Dad with their toddler in the stroller? What’s their story? Who are they going to see?

See the salesman running through the terminal? Who’s he in a rush to get home to?

If you’re traveling by car, look at the family in the minivan next to you. How did they decide to watch that movie? How much stuff is in their trunk, and who’s going to call for a potty break first?

2. Pay Attention

Author Ron Rash said his New York Times bestselling novel Serena began with the image a confident, tall, strong woman on a large white horse. He saw details of the scenery, the horse, and woman but didn’t know that meant. He just knew he couldn’t shake the image from his mind, so he wrote about it. That woman became the star of her own movie last month.

3. Day Dream

Close your eyes for a minute. What do you see?

4. Change the Scenery

The little boy in that picture could be practicing piano in his living room. He could be practicing in a concert hall. But instead he’s outside. Maybe his fingers work better there. I don’t know.

Maybe your fingers work better in a coffee shop. Maybe they prefer the library. The river. The floor.

Try sitting someplace different or in a different position and see what happens.

5. Play What If

What if the referee didn’t show up to the basketball game because he’s been murdered? What if the airplane lands in a different destination than expected? What if the turkey burns the house down?

6. Read

Allowing inspiration to come from books or movies isn’t plagiarism. Watch or read the scene then hit “pause” and let your own creativity take over rather than following the established plot-line. Think about how you would have crafted the storyline differently, and then run with it.

7. Use Your Own Life

If your family’s like mine, you’ve got some interesting characters. You’ve got some crazy stories. You’ve got some moments of “Is this really happening?” You can’t make up those things. Borrow them from real life (just change enough details to protect the guilty).

8. Revisit Your Favorite Characters

Maybe they’re your own or maybe they’re someone else’s, but we’ve all got favorite characters. Put them together in a box and see what happens. Trust them to come up with a clever story all on their own. You just get to be their scribe.

9. Just Start Writing

With your fingers on the keys, just start moving them. Sometimes words will come out and sometimes they won’t. Eventually something worth saving will appear. It just might take awhile.

Whatever you do just don’t keep staring at that blinking cursor. It’s a demon who whispers lies.

How do you find ideas when the well seems to run dry?

PRACTICE

Use one of these ideas to freewrite for 15 minutes. When you’re done, you know the drill, post it in the comments and comment on a few other practices.

About Katie Axelson

Katie Axelson is a writer, editor, and blogger who's seeking to live a story worth telling. You can find her blogging, tweeting, and facebook-ing.

  • Alyssa Phillips

    I put on non lyrical music, either meditation music or classical, then I close my eyes and think up scenes that go along with it. Sometimes they drift into my mind almost instantly or without me trying. That’s actually how I started writing, I would get these scenes stuck in my head when listening to music and couldn’t get them out until I wrote them down.
    It’s actually really fun because sometimes the music invokes emotions that are opposite from the song title. For example, while I was listening to one song I wrote about giving up hope in a dream. When I looked at the title of the song it was “Jesus Loves Everybody” by Paul Cardall. I was a bit taken aback by that.

    • Wow! That’s crazy. Another great writing idea.

    • Deborah

      This is what my literature teacher asked us to do in school. It works. I used to get lost in my own stories, always disappointed when the class was over.

  • If I’ve got a partly written story and I am completely stuck as to what to write next, I find it helps to (mentally) turn myself around: write a few words about the scene, or objects at the scene, or incidental characters. These might turn into mini-stories, or they might not. They almost certainly won’t end up in the final product, but I find it often helps unjam the works.

  • purple dragon

    I go back to my old notebooks, or research interviews. NaNoWriMo suggests “composting” (you can see a full description here http://afterwriterdreams.com/2013/11/07/nano-survival-2013-day-7-writer-compost-heaphow-to-generate-ideas/ ) – a special journal where you just dump a few thoughts every day. You let them sit, and “turn the pile over” when you need mental “fertilizer” and some seed will emerge.

    I “compost” in several places: I have a word document on my desktop called “Whiteboard” where I jot ideas. I also use a purse-size notebook where grocery lists have sordid affairs with meeting notes and lists of interesting words or similes I like. There is a digital version of that on my phone. Sometimes the new idea is something on the list, now suddenly ready to be written up, or sometimes it comes out of the random juxtaposition of two list items – a love child of other ideas. This value-from-random-juxtaposition is one of the main ideas in Surrealist art, a favorite style of mine. Finally, in each project notebook in the back is a page of “I’ll Use These Somewhere” ideas.

    “Luck is the residue of design and devotion,” says Tad Friend. If you show just a little devotion to your odd ideas and compost them, they (almost) design themselves after a time to what you need.

  • Brianna Worlds

    Change of scenery: sitting in the bleachers of my highschool while people scream over a volleyball game is definitely not my standard writing setting! I’ll see if, by any miracle, I write better when it’s too loud to hear myself think 😛

    ~~~

    “She’s awake,” the whisper from above me proclaimed, and I realized fuzzily that a dozen or so heads were bent over me in a circle, so that I was entrapped in a dome of human bodies.
    “Whah?” I said sleepily, trying to sit up, pushing sleep out of my eyes. I thought back, trying to remember where I was, to know if I was actually supposed to be here…
    Nothing. I remembered going to bed last night, nothing more.
    “Where am I?” I asked, suddenly sharp, my eyes darting around. The cluster of children– for I now realized the people around me were all children, no more than thirteen years old– shifted uncomfortably and shuffled back, glancing behind them.
    “You’re at the Arcorum.”
    A man stepped through the crowd of restive kids, and walked slowly up to me, deliberately, as if I were an animal that could be scared by sudden movements. I curled in on myself, fear trickling into a puddle in my stomach, ready to seep into my limbs, threatening panic.
    “Sure I am. What’s that?” I asked as calmly as I could, sitting up straighter now that I wasn’t constricted by the roof of human heads.
    The man chuckled, running a hand through graying hair, his eyes weary but kind. “Good question. It’s the entrance to the spirit world, a place where young, talented children are brought to be prepared for their journey,” he told me. I started, nodding hesitantly. Everyone knew about the Spirit World– and the children who were brought there. It was an incredible honour to be chosen, and I now doubted that I was awake. How could someone as mundane as I be chosen to go to the Academy?
    “But– I shouldn’t be going!” I blurted out. Embarrassed, I close my mouth, but didn’t retract my question.
    The man smiled a little, thinking. “Oh, yes. I think you should be,” he said softly.

    ~~~

    No Idea what that was…. Meh.

    • Great practice, Brianna. I have a piece that–like i think this one did for you–startled me to no end. After I wrote it I definitely saw the Hunger Games influence. While I don’t expect it to go anywhere other than the cavern of notebooks, it was still kind of fun to explore.

      • Brianna Worlds

        Thank you! 🙂 This is based off some strange dream I had a while ago, that I managed to dig out of my mountainous pile of strange dreams to write about.

    • purple dragon

      I love this! And it totally proves the point – the muse is where you least expect her.

      • Brianna Worlds

        Thanks! XD Yep, definitely more writing than I’ve done in a while! I don’t particularly like it, but it’s a good instigator.

    • The Cody

      I enjoyed this story! I particularly liked the line, “constricted by the roof of human heads.” 🙂 Is it part of a WIP?

      • Brianna Worlds

        Thank you!!! 😀 No, not really. It’s a more detailed scene of a dream I had a while ago that had an interesting premise. Actually, I think it was two dreams that I combined, but I can’t remember… Dreams are confusing that way. At any rate, thank you for your interest! 🙂

        • Deborah

          Dreams can also be novels in miniature – mine are, anyway!

    • Deborah

      I think you need to develop this into something longer – much longer. Keep going (please?)

      • Brianna Worlds

        Haha, that’s the plan! Thanks for the encouragement. I’m not exactly sure where it’s going to go yet.

  • The Cody

    Plink, plink plink, pliiink, pliink, plink, pliiiiiiiiiiiiiiink.

    Will Cook, self-professed promotional advertising expert, watched the little boy pound away at the piano. Rolling his eyes at the boy’s lack of talent, Will gave himself a self-satisfied smirk. Traditional, standup pianos just weren’t as popular nowadays, but people were flocking to this one like it was Jesus himself.

    At first, Yamaha had resisted his idea to put a piano in the street.

    “Pianos are elegant,” they said. “Ours are meant to bring images of ballrooms and vaulted ceilings.”

    “Maybe when Mozart was alive,” Will had countered. “Today, we need to take music to the streets, literally.”

    “Why do you think it’ll work?”

    “People today crave the extraordinary,” Will began. He had rehearsed this speech a hundred times. “With flawless graphics in video games, perfect special effects in movies, and toys that bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, people have seen it all. Duke Nukem had pianos in ballrooms. Yawn.”

    He had rounded on them, pointing a steady finger. “But put a piano in the street and people will be drawn to it.”

    The speech had worked, and Will watched the line of people waiting impatiently behind the little boy for their turn.

    “Sheep,” he said to himself. The piano was no different than any they’d seen. In fact, it was one of the lesser models, used in case it rained. But, to these people, it was magic.

    After two more minutes of pounding – just when a slight thumping began in Will’s head, causing him to consider yanking the brat off the seat – the little boy stopped and stood up. People clapped, but Will didn’t think it was in appreciation of the music.

    However, before giving up his moment in the spotlight, the boy walked to the side of the piano. Pretending to be one of those movie stars who could start a jukebox with their hips, he rammed the Yamaha with his butt.

    The piano began inching to the left on tiny roller wheels.

    For the first time that day, Will Cook wasn’t smirking. Instead, he was looking down the hill. It was his idea to place the piano at the very top, a king-of-the-mountain maneuver meant to give Yamaha symbolic dominance over the other brands.

    He suddenly wished, more than anything in his smug life, that he’d thought to lock the wheels.

    • LOL! Great job.

    • Deborah

      I love it! Your punch-line was brilliant, but I wanted the brat to roll down the hill instead!

      • The Cody

        Thanks! LOL I thought about it! But the idea came from just staring at that picture above, and the bench didn’t have wheels on it. Not sure why I was trying to be so accurate there… Next time, the kid goes down! 🙂

    • HaHaHaHa, this one’s got a lot of laughs in it, as well as plenty of the adventurous, insistent creative energy that haunts us all, drives us, won’t leave us complacent for very long. I love the line ” — just when a slight thumping began in Will’s head, causing him to consider yanking the brat off the seat –“! as well as the hip-bump and the issue with the wheels at the end. Good writing, man!

  • Joy Collado

    I love that you placed Just Start Writing on number 9, and gave 8 actual ideas on how to start writing from a clean slate. 🙂 I love receiving tips that are give practical steps on how to get out of writer’s block. Thanks for posting this!

    • I rearranged numbers a few times but decided that one was best last. 🙂

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  • This may get me busted in the mouth, metaphorically, but one that has spurred me before is, “Get in touch with yourself.” Then again, I’d had ideas hit me while in the tub, lifting weights, coit-… Yeah, that last one was kinda awkward…

    Daydreaming works best for me though. Here’s a sample of my practice:

    ***

    Sweat flew through the air in time to the rhythmic slap of the rope against the floor. Though she stared at the gym mirror, Sera Blake did not register the frizz of her soaked curly brown hair, the flush of her skin, nor the ripple of well-defined muscles exposed by the navy sport bra and training shorts. Her focus was on her upcoming match against Broderick Stevenson, star lacrosse player at Johns-Hopkins University. He was a formidable opponent: Currently at ninety-five wins, two losses, and three decisions. Of his victories, ninety were by knockout. She didn’t care about his record too much. The more important thing was his reach. At eighty-four inches, she would have to get in close. He hadn’t won a match by submission since the early days of his career, so she figured that was the strategy to employ. Still, it wouldn’t do to underestimate him.

    Her mentor, Georges Juarez, had made that mistake. He’d gone six rounds with Stevenson without really being touched. Georges had Stevenson bleeding from his nose, lower lip, and a mouse under his right eye. Before the final round, her mentor had told her to watch closely.

    “I’m gonna jab with my left, hit him with a right hook, and then I’m gonna put him down with Blitzkrieg.”

    Sera gave a mental chuckle at the silly name Georges had given his devastating left haymaker. Ordinarily, it was a match-ender, but it was not to be that night. Stevenson had tanked her mentor’s hardest punch and unleashed three rapid-fire uppercuts to his jaw, putting Georges to the mat, and later to the hospital. Georges’ jaw had been broken in four places.

    Most folks who followed the underground Mixed Martial Arts scene figured that the upcoming fight was a misguided attempt at revenge. Sera liked Georges,
    but didn’t care about his loss. The way she saw it, Georges was irrelevant.
    Broderick Stevenson was the important one. He was recognized as the best. She needed to beat him so that she would get that recognition. It was her passion, her fire, her life to be the best fighter ever. That goal was paramount; the first thing on her mind when she woke, and the last thing on her mind when she slept.

    The snap of a cassette tape startled her out of her reverie. The whirl of the jump rope came to a halt, and she noticed she was dripping wet and breathing hard. She walked over to the wall and hung up the rope. She whipped sweat from her face with the towel on the bench below, and drained a liter of water in several long swallows. She dropped the bottle next to a couple other empties and swapped out Fall Out Boy’s Save Rock and Roll tape for Metallica’s S&M. The sounds of cheering fans echoed from the house’s sound system as she walked into the shower. She undressed to the sounds of The Ecstasy of Gold and started washing to the notes of The Call of Ktulu.

  • Allie

    Very strange looks came her
    way as she walked through the small hometown store in search of their
    home made Indian food they have every weekend. She had pulled up in
    a very loud but rather small black Nissan truck that she had borrowed
    from her father. Her long blonde hair was pulled back with frizz
    sticking up in the front and next to her ears but she wasn’t bothered
    enough to sweep it away. The sweat lines were visible through the
    faint layer of dirt that had accumulated on her neck and the back of
    her arms. Her forearms held small scratches on them that were just
    starting to turn red. Her Binford tools t-shirt had bits of saw dust
    and moss that were stubbornly hanging on even after a good brush off.
    If she took a big enough stride you could see the holes that were on
    the inside of her jeans at mid thigh level. These were no doubt work
    pants that had seen a rough time. Well worn work gloves stuck out of
    her back pocket, and as she walked the fingers of the gloves danced
    around each other in a well practiced dance. Her beautiful red nails
    and well makeup-ed face did not seem to match the rest of her nor
    her truck outside but it was all brought together by her broad smile
    as she ordered her food. She sat and ignored the many strange glances
    a she waited for her food to arrive. Once it did she tipped them
    generously and took her food to go. Climbing back into the old beat
    up truck she shut the door and inhaled deeply the wonderful smell of
    her food in the enclosed space. These last few days had been busier
    than she had imagined days could get and she was rewarding herself
    with the taste of her past. It had started to get colder and colder
    and that meant she would get busier and busier until everyone had
    what they needed. Months ago she had started to realize that many
    people could not afford to heat their homes this winter. They only
    had wood burning stoves but the wood was so expensive and so that
    meant they would just have to be cold, young and old, no one escaped
    it. She had thought, why not her, why couldn’t she do something? So
    she did. Now she ran a non profit to help people get fire wood so
    they wouldn’t have to be cold all winter. Her why not me attitude had
    tapped into a deep need in the small community. As she sat there
    eating her food she couldn’t help but have a smile on her face, she
    was ready for the next day, the next load of wood, and another layer
    of dirt.

    • That’s great! Very descriptive, I can see this woman — and what she is doing with herself is very inspiring and uplifting, especially in this season!

  • Deborah

    SANTA CLAUS

    I watched them in the water, a jovial
    family meeting, grandparents looking on with unashamed delight as their
    grandchild splashed bravely in his mother’s protecting arms, while the older grandchildren
    swam and played close by.

    The upper halves of the elderly couple
    visible above the water were both stout and richly proportioned. Their faces were alike in their rosy-cheeked
    plumpness, he with a fuzzy white and generous beard, she with pearl-grey hair
    tied in a knot behind her head. They also
    were both alike in their grinning delight, their enjoyment in the children
    obvious.

    It suddenly struck me: I was watching Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus off
    duty. It was, after-all, still eight
    weeks until Christmas. I smiled as I
    watched them, imagining them at work, clad in their red fur-trimmed uniforms,
    surrounded by their little helpers and shaking with mirth at the antics of the
    elves at work.

    It was easy to imagine Santa and his Maria
    bustling busily about as they worked in Santa’s toy factory, filling Christmas
    orders for all the good little children like their own grandchildren.

    I could already see Santa standing with
    hands on his portly hips, his head thrown back with laughter, emitting his
    famous “Ho, ho, ho,” while motherly Maria Claus, her red gown covered by a
    frilly apron over her expansive breast, dispensed milk and cookies with beaming
    largesse.

    The family gathered the children about
    them. It was time to go, to get back to
    the North Pole and back to work. The
    illusion collapsed, however, like a shiny glass bauble shattering on the floor
    in tinkling fragments, as portly Santa clambered out of the pool, dried off
    like a lumbering walrus, and then grasped his walking frame.

    I’m pretty sure it’s in Santa’s clause that
    he be able to walk unaided. I mean, he’d
    have to be quite fit to climb down chimneys!

    • This is good! Santa/Maria Claus are like the classic demigods with the proverbial feet of clay!

  • I will share this with my friends and hope that he will find what you need for your feelings.

  • These are all great ideas, but I especially like the last one!

    • Me too, that’s the one that got me going today!

  • Hi Katie, inspiring post!

    For me, I like the “treasure hunt” aspect of finding a good story, and how story ideas come in parts, almost like bread crumbs littered across a forest floor. Find just one cool part, say an interesting theme or a cool idea for a character, or a peculiar narrative structure, and you can follow that part to find other parts, parts that relate and enhance the original part, until you get to the story at the end.

    I guess you could say it’s comforting that you don’t have to come with a full, completed idea all at once. Just finding one small piece is often enough to get you started…

    • …and then another another piece however much later.. and so on…that often-slow, laborious process is fascinating in itself, and makes up a large part of the thrill of creating — of being a writer!

      • Exactly! Like a scavenger hunt for the literarally inclined.

  • Love the kid on the piano. That was me, on my uncle’s patio tucked away in the hill country, not so long ago.

    Just start writing, she says. Well, alright. To be real, to be genuine, to be strong in the identity of who and what one is — “Against such there is no law”. And my personal favorite – “Mercy laughs in the presence of justice.”

    So those staunch of yore who knew where they stood — who gave them the say-so that their offspring shall stand there too? Staunch can be *wrong*. The demography, the *biography* of personal unbelief amazes even me, and at this point in the festivities I’m not easily amazed. I guess in a way it has taken lo these decades to get real. The affectional nature’s one thing, but cold facts, not just facts but *realities*, are quite another. The sun has appeared outside. As a saint deserving of a long stretch at the rack, what am I left with if I blow off all the sentimentality? Religious belief has been powerful — but apostasy has been powerful too. A benevolent dictator is still a freakin’ dictator, and needs overthrowin’, says I, at this late date no less than at the inception. The very idea that some of us, invested with putative authority, should have discretion to consign others of us, judged less competent, to lives of mediocrity, just burns my butt severely enough to make the biblically-cited murderer of me. But oh, says he, that’s the way things work and *keep* workin’, we can’t have the mentally-challenged planning our new roads, says he. That’s *maturity*, which imposes *authority* and sets *limits*, says he. Well alright, but the quality of this vaunted *authority*, to say nothin’ of its murky, superstitious, suspicious origins, cause me to suspect a bugger in th’ hen-house, beggin’ yer Holiness’s pardon. And *YOU*, he thunders, leveling the deific finger, *ARE THAT BUGGER!*

    [pregnant pause, nervous giggles from the gallery]

    Well, yeah, I mumble, there’s that.

    So ’round and ’round the mulberry bush we go, and ashes, ashes, all — fall — DOWN: I can see the outback it would be no pleasure to collectively inhabit; ya got me there, leaving aside that we may be in the edge of the thicket already.

  • It is a not bad at sharing. Really emotional stuff really is hard to make out easily. The chaos of life, the hustle makes us obsessed with negative thoughts. These posts will share thoughts and new actions, we are looking forward.

  • The idea of ​​writing is a very important factor and we can see that it is derived is the starting point for what you are then implemented. Things really valuable when it is true thoughts.

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