Where Do Stories Come From?

At some point, every writer feels the lull… A time where they feel bereft of ideas for stories. Some want to write, but not having a perfusion of ideas, never start. I’ve been in both positions and here’s what I’ve found. If you don’t have stories spring upon you fully formed never fear, I don’t either. Mine typically come in bits and halting pieces: a setting, and ideological quandary, a character, a feeling, and image, and experience, and insight. Sometimes the idea springs from something real, or something imagined. Today, for instance, I met a Bob. As I shook his hand and looked him in the eyes, it stuck me that a man who goes by Bob has unseen depths to him. He must. Bob is possibly the most generic name in the history of the world, so someone named Robert might obscure his depth by going by Bob. This prompted me to think what kind of man goes by Bob, what tale would Bob inhabit? All good, inspiring stuff. Ideas spring from small kernels.

In my WIP, The Unchosen, I started with a similar small seed. In this case I had been musing about how many fantasy books feature heroes and heroines that are, essentially “chosen” for something grand from the get go whether they know it or not. This has always bothered me as a reader. In contrast, one of my favorite series, The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, has a hero (Tavi) which is not apparently suited to anything great other than being very quick witted. He’s smart, but small, and in a society where anyone who’s anyone has magic, he does not (this changes as the series progresses). Similarly, I wanted to tell a tale about someone who wasn’t Chosen in a society where being Chosen is an explicit time-honored event. This was my small kernel from which I began. But there’s no clear story in that kernel, is there. It’s not even a lot to go on. So what next?

Questions. Lots of them. I asked myself who might be Unchosen? Why it would matter to them? What would the costs of being Unchosen be? What kind of society Chooses so explicitly? Where did this Choosing traditional come from?

My many questions bore fruit: more seeds for my story planted in the ground, growing and yielding more fruit as I threw more questions at every answer.

Other story ideas I’ve had sprung from this questioning method. Imagine a person, give them a name, where do they live, why, what happens there, what do they care about? Or imagine a place, who lives there, what’s going on, what do they hate, why? Almost anything can be a seed: something your boss or peers say, a person you meet, something you see, a word, a picture… Let your mind roam and a story will slowly reveal itself.

Note that this take on things seems (in my opinion) to be contrary to how the process is often described in writing books. When reading many of those books you’ll frequently get the impression that every other writer births a whole idea and all they have to do is start writing, or break out an outline then write it all down. My guess is that the truth is that those steps (either “pantsing” by starting to write right away or outlining first) are, in fact, later steps which occur after an idea has gestated. This then suggests that there’s room for the above discussion: where do ideas come from and how do you develop them?

Your take? Comment below!

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