If you’re like most writers, coming up with story ideas is rarely a problem. More than likely, your brain bubbles over with more ideas than you’d be able to use in two and half lifetimes. I’ve yet to meet a writer who decided Hmm, I’d like to be an author—and then sat down to brainstorm ideas. Instead, I suspect most of us first turned to writing as a way to release the pressure of all the ideas already ricocheting around in our brains.
For many of us, the problem isn’t that we have too few ideas, but rather that we’ll never live long enough to write the ideas we already have. Of course, that really isn’t a problem; it’s a tremendous blessing. And if a little blessing is good, a lot of blessing must be even better, right? If a little bit of inspiration has us soaring up near the ceiling, why not go whole hog and open yourself to inspiration in every possible way?
Ultimately, inspiration is an intensely personal experience, unrepeatable and often unresponsive to conscious prodding. You can’t force inspiration. It either happens or it doesn’t. You can’t sit yourself down at your desk, squeeze your eyes shut, and demand that inspiration appear in front of you complete with drumroll and a puff of smoke. Inspiration is a gift, and like all gifts it must be treated with gratitude and responsibility.
But none of this is to say that we can’t position ourselves in the path of inspiration. Instead of just waiting around for the muse to hit us in the head with a lightning bolt, we can ingrain in ourselves the habit of “opening” ourselves to inspiration.
So (as if you didn’t already have too many stories to write), here’s a handful of tips for composing an invitation that Madame Inspiration won’t be able to resist.
Pay Attention to the Details
Writing is the details. Without these little garnishes, most stories could easily be summed up in a sentence or two. (Don’t believe me? Check out Book-A-Minute Classics.) People read fiction because they want to experience life. They want to see the way the dust motes turn to gold in a shaft of sunlight, and they want to smell the delicate spray of an orange rind as it is peeled back.
In order to share all these minutiae with readers, we first have to notice them ourselves. But don’t just notice it; experience it. In the end, a story is about the little things as much, if not more so, than the grand scope of life and death. So pay attention to the color of the sky right before the sun dips below the horizon, notice the way the bass in a sound system thrums in the soles of your feet, absorb the smell of rain so deeply that you can describe it without even trying. Not only will paying attention to the details plump up your prose, who knows when you’ll stumble upon some inconsequential and heretofore unnoticed facet that will spur your next story.
Look Beyond the Cliché
Keep your eyes wide open for the unexpected. Look beyond the obvious in search of surprising juxtapositions. Broaden your horizons; start searching for esoteric and little-known nuggets. When you find yourself with an idea for a story that could easily turn into a familiar plotline, hang onto it for a bit and go in search of some unexpected ingredient you can throw into the mix. Say you want to tell a mystery story. Don’t just settle for a tale about a hard-boiled cop in an inner-city district. Dig deeper. What would be unexpected? What would be out of the ordinary? For me, a story isn’t ready to be written until I’ve been able to add at least two or three layers of juxtaposition.
Never underestimate your subconscious. When you’ve come to a snarl in your plot, don’t think too hard. You can only push your conscious brain so far. On more than one occasion, after I’ve backed myself and my characters into a seemingly insurmountable corner, I’ve sat at the keyboard for hours, racking my brain for an answer that just wouldn't come. But when I return to the problem the next day, after my subconscious has had a chance to mull over the matter for the night, the solution is practically staring me in the face.
When you come across an interesting snippet of an idea that you aren’t quite certain how to develop—toss it into your subconscious for a while. Sometimes ideas stew in the back of my mind for years before suddenly reappearing on center stage as something worth pursuing.
Nobody says you always have to wait for inspiration to come to you. Put your conscious mind to work and brainstorm. Give yourself “idea deadlines” (e.g. I’m going to come up with a new story idea every day). Buy a book of journaling prompts (such as Jack Heffron’s The Writer’s Idea Book) or google the Web for one of the hundreds of websites that offers prompts. Schedule idea-hunting day trips and sally forth with notebook and pen in hand.
I will admit that most of my best ideas have not been the product of a conscious effort. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from brainstorming sessions. Even if I don’t walk away from every session with a viable idea, at least I’ve given the ol’ brain a good workout.
Don’t Wait for Inspiration
Finally, and most importantly, don’t wait for inspiration. We’d all like to take up permanent residence in that rarefied atmosphere where the “inspiration high” is a constant state of being. But, as all writers discover sooner or later, that high will inevitably run dry. If we allow our writing to dry up with it, we’ll never so much as finish a story, much less be read by anyone.
Inspiration is much more likely to strike when your mind is active. So even on the days when the mental well seems to have evaporated and blown away in clouds of steam, sit yourself down at your desk and keep writing. Inspiration, after all, is really a very small of the big picture.