Thursday, March 14, 2013

On Inspiration: How To Find Your Story

This post is adapted from the presentation I give when I speak at schools. I added this topic to my presentation after I started receiving a good many emails from students telling me they wanted to write a story, but had trouble coming up with an idea that was fresh and interesting.

If you're a writer just starting out, that can be really tough. I know it was for me. It took me years to separate my ideas from the books I read, to move into a place where my inspiration became original and personal, instead of just me recycling the stories and characters I read about. This isn't a bad thing--this imitation of other writers. It's how we learn, and I believe most writers start off that way.

For example, my first novel (which I wrote at age 13, when I was in the height of this story-stealing phase) actually started out as fan fiction of the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. When I realized I couldn't really a call a story my own when I was basically copying another writer's world, I changed the species of my characters from squirrels to humans, and thought that in doing so I had broken free into new original territory. I hadn't. In fact, when I thrust that poorly written and decidedly horrid manuscript onto some of my friends after I'd finished it, begging them for feedback, more than one handed it back saying, "You know, you write a lot like Brian Jacques. Ever hear of him?" Palm to the face. Palm. To. The. Face. Apparently, changing the species of my cast wasn't enough to qualify me for  true originality. But I would learn.

So anyway, all this to say, I've come a long way from that sad, beloved first novel in terms of ideas and inspiration and finding my own unique voice. If you're a young or newly developing writer, here are some ways you can begin to do that too, and places where you might draw your inspiration. Then, armed like Benjamin Franklin out to catch a lightning bolt, you can set out to catch your story.

Four Places Where Inspiration Might Strike

What interests you?

It's pretty basic, but it's so important. You have to love your story material. You have to be passionate not only about the characters and the plot, but about the world, the settings, the props, the activities. 

I sometimes miss this as I'm writing. For example, I need my character (oh, let's call her Kate) to have a little more backstory to her. I want her to play some sport at school, perhaps. My natural inclination is to  make my characters different from me (I don't know why) so I'd likely assign her to something like basketball or lacrosse, two sports about which I know nothing. Now, I could take the time to learn, to research these things--and that's good. That's fine. You can totally do that. Writing should stretch you and bring you to new places, learning new information. But if I stop and just think for a minute, I'll realize that making Kate a soccer player will be a much stronger move. I'm a soccer player. I adore soccer. I'm one of those scream-at-the-television kind of soccer fans. So when I plop Kate down on the soccer pitch, I suddenly feel more passionate about her character, because I can relate to her passion for The Beautiful Game. I learn things about her I didn't know before--that she's highly competitive, that maybe she loses her head a bit in the heat of the game, that she's fiercely loyal to her teammates. And I know these things because when I think about soccer, I feel them myself or have known teammates who were like this. When I think about lacrosse or basketball, I feel nothing. Blah. Whatever. 

By simply going in the direction of what interests me, I find so much more emotion, experience, and passion to draw from as I write, whether it's something as small as adding another hobby to my character's repertoire or coming up with a completely new, big story idea.

I mean, look how passionate soccer players are. Awesome.

The Magic Question

I borrow this phrase from the theatre, though I think it might originally come from psychology or something. Whatever. Anyway, it's simply this: 

"What if _________?" 

I love this. It's so open, so filled with possibility. What if the world weren't actually made of rock and dirt, but it's actually some giant sleeping creature that starts to wake up? What if when you take a photograph you're actually creating a new alternate reality that begins inside that picture? What if my long-lost grandmother suddenly appeared and told me I was the princess of a tiny, wealthy kingdom in Europe? Oh, wait... You get the idea. 

The key is to hold nothing back. Let it all spill out--the silly ideas, the impossible ideas, the ideas that will never go anywhere. This can be done as a kind of exercise in creativity. You have to be willing to sound a bit ridiculous, a little crazy. But there are no truly bad ideas or stupid ideas--they're just ideas. They're not even stories yet. But they could be--somewhere in the dozens and dozens of What if? questions you pour out, there just might be a golden ticket to story inspiration.

What terrifies you?

What's your greatest fear? What's that one subject you always avoid because it makes your blood turn cold and your chest constrict and your skin crawl? Is it the dark? It is spiders? Is it the thought of being alone in a strange place? 

Use your fears to bring real tension to your story. If you write about something you are afraid of, it will be much easier and more organic to translate that fear into your writing. 

For example, one of my fears is death, and especially of losing someone I love. This is a fear I drew on in writing ORIGIN; it's a topic Pia contemplates to some depth. I relate to her through her fear of losing her loved ones more than anything else, because I understand it. 

Building real, personal fears into your story not only makes it relatable to you, but probably to a lot of your readers as well. I'd say most of our fears are pretty commonly held by the majority of people--death, darkness, loneliness, etc. Fear makes your characters human. It makes them vulnerable, gives them that all-important Achilles heel. Once you know their deepest fear, you can exploit it--twist the knife in the heart, so to speak. Pry into their fear and force them to face it in a dramatic way.

*Zephyrance - don't wake me up. / / CC BY-ND

History, Science, Art

The world is burning with untold stories. As writers, our primary concern is seeking out those stories and telling them. Sometimes inspiration doesn't necessarily begin with us, as in the previous points. Sometimes, it comes from outside--from a painting, a poem, a news story, a stranger sitting on a park bench. 

Mary Oliver said, "I think our duty as writers begins not with our own feelings, but with the power of observing." Exposing yourself to art, to history, science, nature, whatever, can be a great way to find a story. The key here is to always be alert.

Keep the Magic Question always in your pocket. No, scratch that. Don't keep it in your pocket--wear it like a pair of glasses, through which you're always seeing the story stuff of the world. Look at history this way--What if Abraham Lincoln were really a vampire slayer? Look at science. What if, ten years from now, invisibility technology becomes viable? And art. One of my favorites! (Hence my massive Pinterest collection). Photography, painting, sculptures, gosh--did you know they've got whole museums packed with the stuff? Good art not only comes from good inspiration--it's also becomes inspiring to others. And there's bookoos of it out there, so you've got no excuse, really, to not be inspired--especially if, like the good little writer you are, you're wearing your MQ glasses.


  1. I never thought about using fear as a place to start a story- duh!! That's such a simple but great idea, I think I'm going to use that for my next story- thank you Jessica!

    1. Thank you for reading, Paula! Good luck with your writing. =)

  2. Yeah Jessica this is a great list! I've never thought about using my fears before and I'm not sure why! I love these quotes too. I used to think I was soooo observant before I started actually trying to write everything down, turning it and twisting it into a story. Good reminder that stories are all around us! :)

  3. What a great post! I love the magic question and I think I drive my husband crazy because I ask it ALL the time! Maybe the reason I don't have many story ideas from that is because he usually turns them down, lol. I'm going to start writing them down and keeping them! :)

  4. Great post Jess! Super helpful and lots of great points - love it :D x

  5. Really great tips, Jessica! I can especially relate to number 1. :)

  6. I seriously love this article! I'm working on a book right now that has characters very similar to me and I'm finding a lot more passion in writing the story than I would if they had been polar opposite. Thank you for writing this, I will be taking all you've said to heart!

  7. Thank you for this article. Gave me some good information to incorporate in my novice writings.

  8. Dear Jessica, I just found this article through pinterest and it really helped me alot! Thank you!

  9. Just like Hati, I've found your article through Pinterest pin, and I'm glad I did! Thank you for it! :)

  10. I loved this post! I grew up reading Brian Jacques, so my first stories also had a heavy flavor of his writing and dialogue style. *sheepish grin*

    I appreciate your first point about giving your character an interest that's also your own. I tend to write about characters who are in very different stages of life/situations/careers than mine, so it's hard to share anything with them. I'll try to remember to look for any possible way to give them one of my interests, in some form. I also appreciate the similar point about giving your character one of your fears. In my WIP, I unintentionally gave my MC the fear of being incapable/weak, which is probably my biggest underlying fear. The more I learn about her, the more I realize how much she's like me -- and almost entirely by accident. :) I hear so much about "write what you know," so this is a good reminder that even if the "big things" (career, location, etc.) can't be what I know, I can still insert parts of me into any character. Thanks for a great article! Definitely re-pinning. :)

  11. Hey Jessica, I have a problem with introducing new heroine and my villain have all the space in my head,it is so hard creating others

  12. Hey Jessica, I have a problem with introducing new heroine and my villain have all the space in my head,it is so hard creating others

  13. Hey Jessica, I have a problem with introducing new heroine and my villain have all the space in my head,it is so hard creating others

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  15. It will be useful or convenient to reveal the unique and diverse places in which we can find our lost inspiration. Let's finally understand how to find your lost inspiration, when you're unnerved and distempered!

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