Whence Cometh Ideas? 10 Fun Idea-Generating Activities and Story Starters

Has your creativity fizzled lately? Kick-start your creativity with these 10 fun story starters and clever idea-generating tips from Erika Hoffman.
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Has your inspiration fizzled lately? Kick-start your creativity with these 10 fun story starters and clever idea-generating tips from Erika Hoffman.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

You wrack your brain, pulling, stretching, trying to extract an idea—one simple germ of a thought to get your writing adrenaline pumping—but nothing comes. Don’t despair or cop out with a “Writer's Block” alibi, which is akin to “the dog ate my homework.” Instead, find some stimuli. Personally, I like to create my own muse-beckoning themes. Here are some of the story starters and idea-generating activities I've worked up recently:

1. Top 10 list

Make a list of 10. It doesn’t matter which 10 of what. Lists of 10 literally greet a person each time she turns on her computer, opens a magazine or zaps on the TV. Pick a subject and brainstorm your unique roster of 10 à la David Letterman.

2. Lost in translation

Dredge up foreign words that are commonly used in English. Ponder their misuse. Have you ever keyed one into a computer and found the machine corrected it to something other than your intention? I used to love the expression “tête-à-tête” for a private conversation between two folks, until the cyber spelling gizmo changed a pair of E's to A's, which made me envision a couple of lactating cows touching together their bovine parts, not a face-to-face exchange. It's said that when President Nixon went to China to open trade and toasted the Chinese with a raised glass and the “bottoms up” expression, a Chinese man misspoke as he toasted back. “Up your bottom,” he jovially pledged.

You have lost-in-translation stories to write. Allez-y!

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3. Autocorrect fumble

Along the same lines, who doesn’t have a tale about clumsy fingers? Or, being too pressed to double check one’s text that autocorrect elves gleefully edited. (“Covfefe” comes to mind.) An entire mystery could be woven around an autocorrect text or a text mistakenly sent to the incorrect email.

A lawyer friend on an exotic cruise before the days of cheap rates outside USA borders received an urgent text from a client who had been arrested. “What did he do?” we asked.

“He sent a photo of his genitalia to an old farmer’s old wife.”


“He was drunk and hit the wrong key.”

4. Ophidiophobia!

Yup, fear of snakes is the most common phobia among mankind, womankind and probably animal-kind. I think about what scares me. That can develop into a mystery, a tale of horror or a non-fiction humorous vignette. There’s a reason the story of Adam and Eve resonates. People are leery of snakes in the grass. What scares you?

5. Considering idioms

I like to ponder idioms, proverbs and and clichés. Sometimes, I’m intrigued by their etymology. I’m also fascinated by how many of us misunderstand the idiom and carry on in our lives for decades repeating the same maxim with aplomb, never realizing we’ve misinterpreted the thing. This can lead to a story.

My late mother-in-law used to admonish us: "Blood is thicker than water." I’d counter that I felt close friendships were tighter than the happenstance relationship of being kin. Yet the proverb led me to believe I was wrong. After all, this was Scripture. Then one day, I learned the entire quote: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” In other words, blood shed in battle bonds soldiers more tightly than shared DNA. So the quote isn’t extolling family ties at all—and was more in keeping with my sentiments.

6. Words of wisdom

Mark Twain said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Now that’s a visual image which illustrates that once you’ve experienced the worst, things are bound to improve. A quotation like this humorous one gets my cerebral juices pumping, and I tick back to all the worst days of my life and how things did get better. A story crafted from this kernel of inspiration might turn poignant, funny or simply interesting. Therefore, for inspiration, leaf through a tome of quotations.

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7. Photo albums

Crack open a photo album—the older the better. Peruse them and reflect on the circumstances of the pictures within. You have the setting staring you in the face. Tell the backstory. Facebook is now offering a service called Past Book where, for a fee, they’ll create a physical album of photos you’ve uploaded to Facebook along with what you wrote in that box labelled “What’s on your mind?” They create it by the year. I’ve ordered a few. They’ll be a boon to writerly me. Staring at photos on the computer doesn’t stir me as much as peering at them in an open album on my lap.

8. Listen closely

Listen to your friends’ stories. Instead of chiming in with your own in a tit-for-tat battle to be heard, hear theirs. Absorb them. Over the phone, a pal of mine related her first date after widowhood. Everything she reported of their conversation over lunch sounded mundane, humdrum, almost boring, until she said he asked, “Do you like sex?” Which of course made her story far more interesting. So, be a good listener as well as an expert observer.

There are only two types of people in this world—people who talk and people who are waiting to talk. As a writer, defy the odds and become a third type of person—the listener waiting to record.

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9. Horizons expanded

Try something new! I read somewhere that a foreigner who comes to the USA will notice things we consider par for the course. Because of the contrasts with what he’s used to, he’ll spot different customs, architecture and inventions that are novel to him whereas they’ve become routine to us. We are more than nose-blind; we are all senses-blind to the habitual.

In the 1700s, Montesquieu wrote his famous Persian Letters, citing how men from Iran viewed Paris as one huge entangled mess of carts and hurrying people and houses built on top of each other in a jumbled muddle. Of course, Montesquieu was French, and his goal was to criticize the monarchy, so he did it from the perspective of these young Persians. He published his Persian letters anonymously from Amsterdam. Ergo, do something you’ve never done: Go somewhere you’ve never been; experience some event you’ve not experienced. Sky dive, attend a séance, visit a museum, or choke down haggis.

10. Journalistic exploration

Interview a friend, acquaintance or business owner whose store you frequent. Often local magazines and hometown newspapers publish human interest stories about folks in their area, especially if the person has unique expertise. Find an angle: Evaluate why the story would interest someone.

I’ve interviewed a pediatric dentist, an oral surgeon, my friend who’s moving to another state after 40 years in the same little area of Florida, a quilter, nurses, a potter. Presently, I hope to interview a woodturner, a farm-to-table café owner and a factory owner who produces North Carolina barbecue. Maybe the stories will be featured in print or, if not, maybe the info I glean will shape some character in some fictional plot.

You got it, babe? These 10 suggestions can aid you to solve that haunting dilemma of what to write. Write on, amigos.

(BTW, in reading over my above essay one last time, I saw that the spelling check’s cyber gnomes impishly helped me out when my fast fingers must not have pressed the “m” firmly enough on “farm-to-table.” Jokesters as they are, they corrected my absent “m” by substituting a “t” at the end of “far” changing the intriguing “farm-to-table” café into the much less appetizing "fart-to-table" café. Ah, a mystery—see what I’m talking about?)

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