Fresh out of story ideas? Generate your next big concept with these 20 out-of-the-box writing exercises and story starters, created by the editors of Writer's Digest.
Every story starts as a concept: a microscopic kernel of a premise that can, if properly nurtured, unfurl into a fully matured narrative in your head. But sometimes fresh ideas are hard to come by, and it’s awfully hard to write a novel if you don’t have anywhere to begin. The Writer’s Digest editors (Tyler Moss, Jess Zafarris, Robert Lee Brewer, Amy Jones, Baihley Gentry and Jeanne V. Bowerman) took it upon ourselves to fertilize your mind with the following writing exercises—guaranteed to germinate a story in even the most arid cerebral soil.
20 Out-of-the-Box Writing Exercises & Story Starters
1. Try "X Meets Y"
A popular formula for enticing agents in a query, this classic equation has traditionally been used as a marketing tool after your manuscript is finished to compare your book to other titles. But when reverse-engineered, it can actually be used as a device for idea generation as well. Start by listing out some of your favorite movies, TV shows and books, then look for ones that are the least like each other. Plug them into the formula, and you’ll soon be getting odd combos like “Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Back to the Future,” “Anna Karenina meets The Hate U Give” or “Pirates of the Caribbean meets AGame of Thrones.” Some mixes may seem dissonant on the surface, but in fact, the more the variables contrast, the more room for a distinctly novel story idea.
2. Roll the Dice
In an interview in the September 1997 Writer’s Digest, Diane Ackerman said, “Creativity by its nature has to do with gambling, taking chances, insinuating yourself into darker corners that haven’t been explored.” In the spirit of taking chances, roll two six-sided die. Whatever number comes up, write down the first word you can think of with that many letters. Repeat 12 times. Incorporate these 12 words into a story or scene and see where it takes you. Take it up a notch by using one or more 20-sided die and rolling 20 times.
3. Observe the World Around You
In the October 2018 Writer’s Digest, bestselling Annihilation author Jeff VanderMeer discussed ways in which writers can position themselves to draw inspiration from the world around them. In that interview, he said, “I could, right now, learn a lot more about what’s going on in my front yard in a way that might lead to character, or plot, or narrative. I try to be open to the idea that story is all around us.” So, here’s your task: Take him at his word. Go for a walk around your neighborhood and be wholly present. How would you describe the way that leaf feels against your fingertips? What could that vanity license plate say about a character? Why is the neighborhood association so damn insistent that every house on the block have Christmas lights? Get out in the world and let the story come to you.
4. Flip the Script
As a young fiction writer studying Shakespeare, I was inspired to write a short story based off of Hamlet. Specifically, we discussed how Hamlet takes forever to act on his idea of getting revenge for the death of his father. In the very first act of the play, he is called upon to get revenge, but it takes until the final scene of Act V to carry it out. So I flipped the script and wrote a short story involving an instantaneous act of revenge via road rage. Remember: You don’t have to flip the entire story, but consider the actions of one character and think, What if he or she acted in a completely contrary fashion?
5. Expand the Quote
Make a popular adage or proverb the driving force of your story. A few examples include, “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” “better safe than sorry,” “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and “all good things must come to an end.” Choose one and either write a story that confirms the adage or proverb, or write a story that seems to contradict that sentiment. If you’d rather use a line from another story or play (or even a popular quote), do that as well. Who knows? The proverb, adage or quotation may eventually turn into the title.
6. Fictionalize a Real Life
Here’s an approach stolen from last October’s “WD Interview” subject, bestseller Curtis Sittenfeld: Use the well-documented life of someone in the public eye—a politician, a musician, a movie star—and loosely base a novel on their biography. Sittenfeld’s book American Wife, a fictional account of a First Lady, was inspired by Laura Bush. Now she’s working on a novel about Hillary Rodham (who historically rebuffed Bill Clinton’s offer of marriage a number of times before finally accepting), asking the question, “What if she declined his marriage proposals and then went on her own way?” There are endless opportunities for you to do something similar. What if Hitler had been accepted into art school? What if Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated? And because these prompts are only supposed to serve as inspiration for a story (unless you want to write a fictional biography), you don’t have to worry about doing extensive research. Just use your subject’s life as a rough outline, then change their name and alter their path wherever you see potential for lucrative storytelling.
7. Rip from the Headlines
Pick up a copy of a newspaper or news magazine you don’t normally read, or head to the website of a newspaper from a city you don’t live in. Read the headlines, but not the stories connected with those headlines. Jot down the ones that are strange or unexpected, or the ones that make you want to read the story below. Now, create the stories and characters that belong with these headlines. Develop a world where your versions of the stories are all interconnected in some way.
8. Investigate Stray Facts
Try this journalistic trick: Reporters are always on the lookout for an original story, whether from an anecdote heard at a dinner party or a strange detail from a documentary that they decide to investigate further. Use the same method to excavate fiction ideas. When I lived in Cincinnati, I took a tour through a series of empty subway tunnels under the city (they were from a mass-transit project that was abandoned during the Great Depression). Certainly an interesting premise for a magazine piece—but also a promising start to a novel about vampires who freely move about the city under cover of darkness. Another example: After reading an article on the devastating environmental impact of almond farming in The Atlantic, I created a character who got rich developing a sustainable system for watering nuts. Such quirky plot points will make your narrative more unique, and give it a foothold in reality.
9. Write a response
One of the age-old ways new stories are found is through the act of responding to another story. A few examples include John Gardner’s Grendel (about the antagonist in the heroic poem Beowulf) and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West in response to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Anne Rice even wrote The Vampire Lestat as a response to her own Interview With the Vampire. These are overt responses, but many writers also write more subtle replies to—and interpretations of—the stories they loved (or hated) reading.
10. Explore the Library
When was the last time you went to the library? Bring a notebook with you, and spend time strolling among the stacks. Choose a genre or topical category outside of the one(s) you typically write in, and select a book you haven’t heard of with an interesting title. Open each one to a random page and write down the most compelling sentence from that page. Repeat with three to five additional books, in the same section or a different one. Which elements can you combine from each one of those sentences to form a new story in your genre?
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11. Try New Things
Even though writing is the very best pastime there ever was (duh), it’s not the only hobby out there. The mind-stretching benefits of playing outside your comfort zone—take a cooking class! Learn beat-boxing! Water ski!—will diversify your knowledge base and enrich your creative potential. For me, this technique manifested in a hands-on tree-climbing lesson from the founders of the world’s largest professional tree climbing company (because yes, that is a thing) and a magazine byline about the experience—but your adventure could easily be spun to flesh out a new character’s background, craft a setting or build a story premise.
12. Unlock Your Senses on a Hike
In an 1890 journal entry, John Muir wrote, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Go on a hike, preferably somewhere without too many other hikers. Find a quiet place to sit—somewhere you find beautiful. Sit on the ground and meditate for a moment: Close your eyes, sit up straight and breathe deeply for 10 slow counts. Then, tap into your senses. With your eyes closed, listen closely to the sounds around you. Touch the ground with your hands, feeling the earth and the leaves below you. Open your eyes and focus on minute details in rocks and tree bark. Observe stillness and motion. Write down your observations and incorporate them into a setting for a scene in a novel or story. Even if the setting isn’t in that precise location, let your characters experience their own surroundings with the same depth and detail as you have in yours.
13. Search New Studies
Pull up your web browser and go to News.Google.com. In the search bar, type in “New Study.” Scroll through the legions of recent results, and chances are you’ll find a number of articles on new findings and reportedly groundbreaking research that can serve as excellent story starters. (This is another technique I use to cultivate freelance writing ideas that’s easily adapted to fiction.) Doing so right now, I see headlines like, “New Study Is the Most Successful Attempt to Gene Edit Human Embryos So Far.” Sounds to me like that premise has potential for a sci-fi short story about bioengineering. Here’s another: “New Report: You Can’t Work Your Way Through College Anymore.” The article describes how the rising cost of college tuition has made it harder for students to try to support their education while also working a job. That right there could be the concept of a YA novel: A college freshman has to take on a bizarre side job to help pay for school—working as a personal assistant to one of the university’s eccentric benefactors.
14. Focus on the Miniature
Sometimes the hard part of starting a story (any story) is the overwhelming sense of possibility—so put some blinders on and focus in on the microscopic level of your new story. Instead of worrying about plot, zoom in on the setting (a calm, foggy morning by the river that cuts through the city), then on a character (man emerges from the shadow casting a look over his shoulder) with a problem (followed by a very out-of-place black bear). Once you’ve got this small foothold, the fun part of investigating how we got to this point and sharing what happens next can happen.
15. Meet Your Neighbors
How well do you know your neighbors? I’ve lived in the same condo for four years and I know a few names, a few occupations and pets, but that’s about it. I often have groceries in my hand or am running out the door with no time to talk. But what if I did stop to chat? I might find out the older gentleman in the bottom condo unit is a former researcher used to working 80-hour weeks and is now struggling not only with retirement, but with the effects of his work. Or that the woman living alone on the second floor is surprisingly secretive about why she moved to town. Not only will you get to know your neighbors, but you might also come away with an interesting story idea. Let your imagination run wild as you fill in the blanks.
16. Rip from the Headlines
Pick up a copy of a newspaper or magazine you don’t normally read, or head to the website of a newspaper from a city you don’t live in. Read the headlines, but not the stories connected with those headlines. Jot down the ones that are strange or unexpected, or the ones that make you want to read the story below. Then, create the stories and characters that belong with these headlines. Develop a world where your versions of the stories are all interconnected in some way.
No sneaking required: Flip through radio stations on your morning commute or while running errands, never lingering for more than a few seconds per station (NPR or talk stations are best for this, though any type will do!). Take the snippets of conversation you hear as a starter, and let your imagination loose: Who is talking? What are they conversing about and why? What is the time period (in this fictional scenario) and current events influencing what’s happening?
18. Go on a Trope Treasure Hunt
As writers, we’re encouraged to eschew formula and overused tropes. But let’s be serious, it’s practically impossible to write a story that is wholly and completely original—and even if you manage it, you may find the effort fruitless since many readers enjoy encountering their favorite tropes in fiction. Go to TVtropes.org and scavenge the site. You can use the search bar to look for your favorite characters, books, movies or TV shows to find out what tropes are listed for each one, as well as other stories in which those tropes appear. You’ll discover that nearly every character, story concept and symbol is connected to dozens of other stories in a vast array of mediums. Select three to four tropes and combine them to see what new story ideas they can help you generate.
19. Artwork Inspiration
Take a trip to an art museum and wander around until you find a portrait or scene that is interesting to you. Try to pick a subject you’re not familiar with. If you chose a portrait, spend time creating the backstory of how the person came to be sitting for the portrait. Did she accomplish a great feat, or is he there by way of being a friend to the artist? Is the person an adventurer who is being forced to sit in order to satisfy a wealthy patron before embarking on a new journey? Or, if you chose a scene, imagine how it came to be and what happened after. After your trip, feel free to research your subject, the painting, and the artist and incorporate that into your imaginings.
20. Visit the Flea Market
Take a trip to a nearby flea market or antique mall to search for the ‘artifacts’ of your next story. Look for things like old books with names or notes written in them, a fancy porcelain dish with a chip on the edge, a pocketknife with a name engraved but wearing off from use, old daguerreotypes of a group of people, etc. Collect a random assortment of things you find interesting or unusual. Use your finds to create a character or even a cast of characters. How are your characters connected? What story does the ‘artifact’ convey about the character(s), and what could have happened to the characters that their prized possessions could end up in flea market years, or even decades, later? This could be the start of your next historical or generational novel.