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Story-Starters: Ten Ways to Jump-Start Your Plot

by Anne Marble

Coming up with new story ideas is important to any fiction writer. Many writers no shortage of ideas for stories -- their problem is coping with having too many ideas. If you're like most writers, you probably have notebooks or computer files swarming with ideas. Yet sometimes, you reach that point where none of the stories in those swarms are right for you. Here are ten steps to help you generate new story ideas. Even if you don't wind up writing stories this way, you will still have fun!

1) Observe Everything Around You

You can get ideas from everywhere. Some writers love listening in on conversations in restaurants to harvest story ideas. Others prefer to get ideas from "people watching" at the mall. If you see someone interesting, ask yourself how that person would react in a different environment or with a different person.

Try flipping through magazines and looking at pictures. Other good visual sources include photography and art books. Don't just use pictures, either. Keep your eyes open when you watch TV -- figuratively as well as literally. Keep an ear open when listening to the radio, too, because story ideas can come up in song lyrics, news briefs, talk shows, and even ads. If I can write a depressing science fiction story inspired by Barry Manilow's cheerful song "Sunshine," then anything is possible!

2) Subvert clichés You Don't Like

Is there a romance novel cliché or plot twist you have gotten really sick of? Then maybe you can use to generate a story idea. Story ideas created this way have the advantage of being both fresh and yet familiar at the same time. They also give you the satisfaction of turning an annoying cliché on its head.

For example, maybe you are tired of all those evil mother-in-law plots in romance novels. How many ways could you twist that plot around. Maybe the heroine is the mother-in-law, and she finds herself in conflict with her son's new wife, who thinks she is out to get her. Or you could subvert this plot by delving more deeply into it -- instead of using the mother-in-law as a stereotyped impediment, make her a real person who has real concerns about the marriage.

Here's another one. Sick of romances where the big city heroine moves to a small town, meets a hero who scoffs at her city ways, and eventually decides she loves small town life? Maybe the romance world is ready for a romance novel about a hero who is forced to move to the city after living in a small town for years.

3) Play Around with Careers

Many romance plot conflicts stem from the careers of the hero and heroine. For example, look at the number of romances where an undercover cop hero is forced to snoop heroine. Or romances where the hero and heroine end up fighting because he has a dangerous job.

Think of possible careers for your characters -- and then think of plots that can stem from those careers. You can find a lot of ideas this way, just by asking yourself who might have a dispute with someone in that profession. Is your heroine a lawyer? Maybe the hero is a cop who distrusts all lawyers. Is your hero a reporter? Maybe your heroine is a reclusive celebrity who hates reporters because she was betrayed by a tabloid reporter years ago. Working from the seed of a career, you can also start to come up with ideas for your secondary characters.

This works even if the hero and heroine are in the same profession. As many of us know from experience, just because you share a profession with someone, that doesn't meant you will get along with them. Let's make the hero and heroine both executives, even in the same company. They could end up opposing each other on a business deal. Or maybe they are both reporters for the same daily newspaper. Imagine the possibilities if they disagree on how an important story should be covered.

4) Find the Conflict

Conflict is essential to good stories. So if you already have a general idea about who your hero and heroine are going to be, then you can build your plot by finding the potential conflicts they will face. Look for conflicts involving their families, their careers, their friends, even where they prefer to live. Do you want to write about a heroine who is a struggling single mother? Then the hero could be a grumpy neighbor who gets upset because her kids break his window playing baseball; a school official who has been fed lies by her angry ex-husband; a concerned social worker... Do you have a hankering to write a ranching story? Then the plot can revolve around the hero and heroine fighting over water rights.

5) Play with Titles

In his book "Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz described how, in is early career, he generated an SF story by creating lists of titles. He eventually hit on his combination by combining contrasting terms -- such as "soft" and "dragon. "

You can do this, too. Write down evocative words and put them in different orders. Eons ago, while under the heavy influence of Rebecca, I decided to write a Gothic short story. So I created a list of "Gothic novel" titles. From one of them, "The Banshee Cries at Mournbridge," I knew what my story was going to be. It was about a newly married heroine, still unsure of herself in the mansion she now calls home, who hears a horrible noise.

Another trick is looking at random titles on the bookstore shelf, preferably in another genre, and then trying to imagine a plot that could apply to in romance. When you do this, avoid thinking of what the books with those titles are really about. Try to look at those titles in a new light. For example, children's and young adult fiction is full of evocative titles, such as "A Light in the Forest." What would a romance with that title be about? A historical novel about Robin Hood? Or maybe a contemporary novel about park rangers trying to a missing child.

By the way, you don't have to use the title you create for your story. By the time you write the story, it might no longer fit. It might be too long or too awkward. Or even silly -- like "The Banshee Cries at Mournbridge"! The important thing is generating the idea, so don't worry about whether your titles are good.

6) Look in the Newspaper

This technique is an old classic, and it works for writers in many genres. Look at the stories in your local paper with new eyes. Don't just look at the major stories -- for one thing, chances are that someone else might be writing a story based on the same article. Look all throughout the newspaper. The local stories are a great source of fresh ideas. Advice columns are also a good source of ideas. (I came up with possible story ideas after reading a collection of the best of Ann Landers.) Even jokes and crossword puzzles will lead you to story ideas.

7) Play "What If" Games

Science fiction writers are famous for asking "What if?..." But "what if" is a powerful tool for novelists in any genre. This is also a great tool to use once you start building an idea for your novel.

Once you have a general idea of your plot, give it the "what if" treatment. OK, your heroine is a waitress. What if she overhears someone plotting a crime? What if she spills a soda on a famous actor? What if she is really a missing heiress who decided to find out if she can make it on her own?

It's important that you don't stop after you've come up with the obvious ideas. Some writers even recommend tossing out those ideas because they're too obvious and then asking "what if" again and again to get the less obvious ideas.

8) Combine Ideas

Generating ideas can be frustrating. Even if you generate many ideas, most will lead nowhere. Some will simply be "broken." Don't despair, though. A lot of ideas that don't work right aren't broken -- they simply haven't met their "mate" yet. One idea is a good thing -- even if that idea goes nowhere, at least you were able to think of it. But combining two or more ideas can be a wonderful thing. Sometimes, you'll end up with an idea that wasn't meant to be more than just a stalled plot until it meets the idea that was meant to be its catalyst.

Here's a lengthy example from my own experience. After reading a lot of fantasy novels, I started to get sick of the number of stories in which muscular heroic barbarians mocked frail mages. For a while, I struggled to write a fantasy story about a kind and gentle mage (a type of wizard) and his barbaric friend, who turned out to be not-so-heroic. (This was definitely a case of Subverting a cliché I Didn't Like). I tried several beginnings, but they went nowhere, so I put it aside. Some time later, I tried to write a story about a prison where mages were forced to search for dangerous magical artifacts in an ancient city, and a barbarian who was imprisoned there for killing a mage. That idea ended up in "story limbo" as well. Then, somehow, the two separate ideas merged. By the time I was done, both the barbarian and the mage were heroic, the barbarian was no longer mocking, the mage wasn't always kind and gentle, and I had a novel of than 100,000 words. So combining ideas can be a powerful tool.

9) Use Reference Sources

Try opening a dictionary at random, picking a random word -- or any term that catches your eye-- and then doing so again. Put the words you find together. See if they give you any inspiration. You can do this with any reference book, from dictionaries and thesauruses to encyclopedias and even atlases. Writing workshops such as Clarion have used similar exercises -- Vonda McIntyre's Of Sand and Mist and Grass is a well-known example of a story that originated from a workshop exercise involving random words.

Even your word processor's spell check can find story ideas for you. When I was at my first job, I often spell checked resumes filled with scientific terms and acronyms. We used WordPefect 5.1, and the spell check often came up with bizarre, archaic suggestions for these terms. Sometimes, I wrote these words down so that I could get story ideas from them. Seeing odd terms in juxtaposition often gave me ideas for stories

10) Look on the Web for Inspiration

If you're trying to think of story ideas, then considering going on-line to find story sparks. Just like regular newspapers, on-line newspapers can be a source of story ideas. Also, the on-line papers have other advantages. By using the Net, you can read papers from all over the world for free, and you can find stories on random topics just by clicking around.

Also, some writers create ideas from on-line newspaper by looking at all the latest headlines and trying to figure out ways to combine them into a story. Try using random link generators to find stuff you never knew existed on the web. Find several links and see if you can find some way to combine one or more of them into a story. A good place to start is Mangle. Mangle's site includes a useful page of other random link generators. For example, if you respond better to visual images, try Webcollage, which creates a collage of random images from websites all over the world. (Webcollage won't work on all browsers.)

There even are web sites that exist solely to help writers come up with ideas. One is the AOW Story Starter. This generates a character, a basic idea, and even a symbol and a theme. You don't have to use all the ideas generated, but you can use them as springboards to your story. For quick plot lines, try the Random Logline Generator. You can even adjust the possible plots by inserting the characters you want. Just for fun, there is also a Romance Novel Generator at familygames.com (see below).

Another is the They Fight Crime web site. This site generates rather strange ideas, such as "He's a fiendish guitar-strumming dog-catcher with nothing left to lose. She's a time-traveling Bolivian angel trying to make a difference in a man's world. They fight crime!" You can also play with all sorts of random generators at leon's Random Generators page. Sure, you will probably never use that random band name or random song lyrics in your romance novel. But you never know what will help find inspiration. Besides, these sites are fun to use!

For More Information

Mangle
http://www.mangle.ca

Mangle's page of random link generators
http://www.mangle.ca/ranlinks.php

Random Logline Generator
http://www.lifeformz.com/idea/idea.cgi

Romance Novel Title Generator
http://facstaff.unca.edu/pbahls/TitleGenerator.html

They Fight Crime
http://www.theyfightcrime.org/

Webcollage
http://www.jwz.org/webcollage

Copyright © 2003 Anne Marble
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Anne M. Marble (amarble "at" sff.net) has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

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