Exploring the Craft: 10 Ways to Generate Ideas

Part three of the Exploring the Craft: Writing SFF Fiction

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Published authors seem to hate being asked where they get their ideas. I also hear beginning writers, or those thinking about writing, ask where they can find original ideas because everything has been done.

Well, everything hasn’t been done. The idea there are only 6 stories or 12 stories or whatever the clickbait headline of the moment says is just misleading. What those statements are talking about are archetypes, not ideas. And even that isn’t entirely right, because they’re only talking about Western archetypes.

I digress. Story ideas, particularly SFF ideas, are endless. How to turn an idea into a story is a topic for later. Today I just want to share ways to find ideas we can work with to generate stories.

The secret is Consuming

I don’t know the science behind this, but know how my mind works, and I suspect yours works similarly. We form ideas from inputs. Our brains make connections between stimuli: memories, visual, auditory, and olfactory cues. I can hear someone say, ‘my brain isn’t imaginative like that.’ But it can be. We can train our minds to make more connections, and with practice, better ones in terms of story. But first, we need the stimuli.

Ten ways to prime our brains to spawn ideas

Photo by Dmitry Schemelev on Unsplash
  1. Read books. Fiction, non-fiction, memoir, poetry, comics, anything. 
  2. Watch a TV series, particularly one lauded for story-telling, but more importantly one you think you’ll enjoy. Just watch for entertainment.
  3. Watch a documentary. Whatever subjects interest you.
  4. Watch a movie you know well. This time, don’t watch for the entertainment (What happens next? Will they, won’t they?) but look for things like characterization, the what-ifs beyond the story, the settings, and the costumes. If you’ve watched the movie several times, watching it again allows you to focus on details that add to the story.
  5. Play a video game. It doesn’t have to be an RPG. First-person shooters can let your mind do things in the background.
  6. Take a walk. Fresh air boosts creativity, providing visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli. I listen to podcasts when I walk. They don’t have to be about writing. Facts about the world, history, or science all feed my mind. 
  7. Take a shower. Sometimes doing nothing is most productive. It’s often when we’re distracted when we make connections.
  8. Call an old friend and have a conversation about anything.
  9. Have memorable experiences. I don’t call it a bucket list, just an, I want to do this list. Kayak, climb mountains, and when we can again, stroll an unfamiliar downtown and try new foods.
  10. Play What-if. Brainstorm what-if ideas without thinking about if you can turn them into stories. Just play. Play is an important element in creativity. I’ll recommend another book here, What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

Make some of these a habit. When we keep our minds full of diverse topics, the synapses fire. Two or three unrelated things come together in our subconscious mind and produce an idea that might work in a story.


Here’s an example from a recent experience I had with a piece of collaborative software. Artificial Intelligence powered the software. It regularly provided prompts based on reading emails I wrote. These were so annoying I ignored them. When the same AI noticed I wasn’t opening the prompts, it asked if they were spam. I responded, yes. The AI was now marking its own communications as spam. Glorious.

I had an idea for a story, but I didn’t know it yet. It took one more nudge to get my mind to produce the idea. One of my walking podcasts mentioned AI in the context of helping writers. The full story idea immediately surfaced in my mind. The same day, I wrote a story about a collaborative AI and gamification gone to the extreme.

Another recent example. I went to South Korea for work six years ago. Nothing about this experience ever showed up as a story idea. Until this week, with the news of scientists creating hybrid monkey and human embryos. That triggered an idea I’m still mulling.

There’s no telling what our minds will connect or when to generate the spark of an idea. But for that process to work, we need to keep our minds full of a wide variety of things. We need to experience things. And often, when we try the hardest, we struggle to find ideas. It’s when we stop looking and focus on something else, our minds can get to work in the idea factory.


In the next few posts, I’ll look at ways to turn raw ideas into stories.

<a href="https://kevinjfellows.com">Kevin Fellows</a>
Kevin Fellows

I’m a poet and author of fantasy and speculative fiction. My debut novel At the End of the World is available now. You can find my poetry in the Star*Line Summer 2020 issue, and at Free Verse Revolution.

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