This post originally appeared at Carrie Lynn Lewis’s Writing Well blog on November 2, 2013.
Sometimes your ideas run fast and furious. Sometimes they slow to a crawl. But if you’re going to get a novel done at all—and particularly if you’re ever going to be a prolific author—learning to manage the flow of ideas is essential. Today we’ll talk about what to do when you’re out of story ideas.
What to Do When You’re Out of Story Ideas
Ever wish you had a bottomless treasure trove of story ideas and plot twists? For free? You do. It’s called Life.
You may think your life is BORING. But look closer. Think a little more critically. Everything that happens to you is a story—and with minor adjustments, or even as-is, carries the potential for epic novel material. The beauty is that your personal experience can inject your story with noticeable authenticity.
Look for the Conflict
True story: I’ve just bought a new (okay, used) motor home, and I’m proudly driving it back to my house. I’m cruising down the Interstate, just getting the swing of handling this 23-foot road monster, when I start losing power on the up-hills. Pretty soon, the engine coughs and dies.
I did say it was used, right? As in, gas-gauge-doesn’t-work-anymore used. But no problem! I have an auxiliary tank—and I even know how to access it. I switch the little lever under the dash. The engine revs back to life … then coughs and dies again.
Conflict: not one but TWO empty gas tanks on my brand new (used) motor home.
Look for Escalating Problems
It’s rush hour. I’m in the farthest lane from the shoulder. My mirrors aren’t adjusted right. I’m half-way between an on-ramp and a bridge with no shoulder. (Yes, this is still a true story.)
In real life, it never rains but it pours. That’s the pits when you’re stuck in the middle of a problem—but it’s a bonus when turning your experiences into story material. Your reader will get bored with a challenge that stagnates. Instead, the conflict should stubbornly get more and more problematic.
So look at your real-life conflict and ask yourself how it became more problematic over time.
Look for the Climax
I crane my neck and glimpse just enough space to cross over to the shoulder. I literally coast to a stop on the itty-bitty strip of safe zone between the on-ramp and the bridge. After a brief moment of pounding head on steering wheel, I call my step-dad and ask if he can swing by with a gas can.
Every conflict eventually reaches a point of resolution. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes a little of both. How did your problem resolve?
Look for the Story Potential
Okay, so running out of gas on the Interstate isn’t exactly epic novel material—or is it? Look for a moment at all the things that could have gone wrong:
- I could have been stranded twenty miles from the nearest town
- I could have been stranded after dark in a questionable neighborhood
- I could have been on my way to a vital appointment
- I could have been “helped” by someone I’d rather not get help from
- I could have been rear-ended
See? What may have been a minor annoyance in your life has big story potential if you know how to leverage it. What if this happened to your heroine while she was rushing to save the day? What if it resulted in a major collision? What if the guy who pulls over to help is the antagonist? Suddenly your every-day experience takes on new life.
Everything that happens to you is a story—your story. With just a dash of creativity, you can easily use your life as a never-ending reservoir of story ideas.