Using genre to help you brainstorm unique story ideas

Using Genre to Help You Brainstorm Unique Story Ideas

Ideas are essential for fiction. What seems like a new idea to you might be an ancient idea to everyone else. You have to examine the background or meta-story of your chosen genre. However, all is not lost, as you can mashup genres to revitalize classic or cheesy story ideas.

Why Have New Ideas?

The point of having new ideas is differentiation. Your original idea can be called the unique selling proposition (USP).

This differentiation might even be in your own mind—“I have this idea for a new story.” In other words, you have written out all your old story ideas, and now you are thinking up new ideas for your next story. This will motivate you, even if later you discover they were not particularly original. Your idea might be just a novel twist on old ideas that makes something fresh.

1. Examine the Genre Meta-Stories

Meta-story for a fiction genre is the accumulated plots and scenarios going back over the history of the genre.

Perhaps your initial idea is for a setting—“the Universe is big and mysterious, a return to wonder.” You want to create a sense of awe, so you choose space opera. But you have to be aware of that subgenre’s meta-story, or you will appear ignorant or naïve, by writing a story similar to those already published. You will also be wasting your time by reinventing the wheel.

This is a common affliction of self-published stories. Now that the gatekeepers (agents, publishers) are often absent, there is no checking on what has already been done to death in a genre. With scientific publication, this historical checking is called peer review, but crowdsourced reviewing is useful only if your chosen crowd is sufficiently knowledgeable.

2. Consider Your Genre for Story Ideas

Your story ideas can be played out in different ways, depending on your own style and chosen genre. In genres, it is harder to have new ideas because the meta-story has already exhausted the majority of strong ideas.

Often, what appears to be original is a combination of existing ideas (“vampires” and “romance”). This is common in all arts. Post-modernism is the self-conscious referencing of old ideas. In popular arts, this is now called a mashup.

Science fiction, crime, romance, etc., all have subgenres, such as steampunk, hard-boiled, contemporary. These have strict rules of their own.

Literary fiction is no different, but it focuses on characters rather than plot or settings, so it offers more flexibility (although if you stick in an alien, it becomes science fiction).

Some popular genres can recycle old ideas because their readers haven’t read all the old books. To some extent, authors can just rehash old plotlines, such as archaeological alien technology, religious telepaths, space wars, etc., and get away with it. This is also called homage to the classics.

You can gain some distinctiveness by mixing your new ideas with genre mashups (crime in space, etc.). If you are expert in your chosen genre, you can use all sorts of radical ideas within that genre’s setting. This will help make you distinctive. Adam Roberts is the master of this in science fiction.

Examples of genres

Genre writers might start with an idea along the lines of: “One place, different zones, hard to move between.” This scenario is Terminal World,  the steampunk novel by Alistair Reynolds. But the basic idea could have been a space drama set onboard a spaceship or a time travel novel .

Or how about “Man vs. Nature, Robots vs Lizards”? That is the film Pacific Rim, but it could have been a scary science story with dinosaurs, or even a medical drama concerning a swarm of tiny lizards with nasty bites.

One idea might become the whole novel, by embellishment, e.g., “the servant didn’t do it, but got the blame.” That is Atonement, a wartime family saga by Ian McEwan.

Who can resist a medieval murder mystery? The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is a philosophical literary novel, a mashup of historical and crime fiction.

Get your new story ideas from any source, but preferably not from stories in the same genre (unless you are consciously recycling). Transposing ideas from other genres is fine and should be done with verve (“Sex and the City / Star Trek”).

Read widely but also take in ideas from nature, politics, science, even from life. If you put too much of your family in, you might get into trouble, so you need a thick skin. Saul Bellow has a character who tours mental hospitals looking for new script ideas, although this might be satirical.

3. Collect Your Story Ideas

Searching for story ideas is the most creative part of being a writer. This is proper work, your actual job. Record all your ideas as fast as possible. They can be expanded or refined later. Avoid over-thinking. Use real notebooks, text yourself ideas, use email or notes software, anything will do. Use voice recording to keep it fresh when walking or jogging.

Then brainstorm and mind map to get more versions of your ideas. Create lists of similar ideas, opposite ideas, parallel concepts, shrink and expand the ideas, make them macro or micro (a “servant” could be a smart robot the size of an mouse, or house, or an official of an everlasting Empire).

Don’t throw anything away. Then later go through your ideas and figure out what works best for your new story.

The idea here is to “make your reader’s head explode” with your original, distinctive ideas.

4. Arrange Your Story Ideas

Once the story ideas are collected, they can be placed on a real whiteboard, or better, a software whiteboard, where they can be arranged, added to, separated, tagged, and expanded. At this stage, keep all ideas and add anything you think of, even if it seems irrelevant or completely stupid. Nothing should be deleted, only moved out of the way. You don’t know if it will fit in later or spark a new story strand, or even a completely new story.

Once you have arranged your ideas in an way that appeals to your inner novelist, you can start crafting the setting, plot, characters, and all that furniture.

Originality is the ability to create something distinctive, against the background noise of similarity. The ability to create originality is also called talent. Talent in writing can be creation of original settings, strong and unusual characters, or unusual plots or structures. All of these depend on strong new ideas. So think of idea generation as the key to your talent.

Tell me your opinion: Do you feel the story you are working on now is based on an original idea?

Using Genre to Help You Brainstorm Unique Story Ideas

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About Geoff Davis

Geoff Davis has been published since 1985. His collected stories are due in Kindle and other formats in December 2013. He develops Story Turbo, a free storyboarding application. He has taught at London University of the Arts and Sheffield Hallam University.


  1. This is remarkably useful and inspiring advice! Thank you.

  2. K.M. Weiland says

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Geoff!

  3. Geoff Davis says

    Thanks for the compliments.

  4. Steve Mathisen says

    Very nice approach, Geoff! I am poaching your ideas now.

  5. Thank you for delving into the depths of the old admonishment of “that’s already been done,” or “putting a new twist on an old idea.” I like this methodical approach to making sure that one doesn’t write, accidentally or on purpose, the newest “just-like-such-and-such-only-better” story that no one wants to read.

    • Especially for genre fiction, you have to be a fan to write it. A fan would usually have read most of the best examples and a lot of the old or obscure stuff too.
      Fan fiction is now a big genre in itself, which is perhaps more honest than writing a clone. There have been some famous crossovers recently, where fan fiction morphs into a ‘proper’ novel (or three).
      Perhaps the writing process is more public due to the internet, as new writers get in front of the public before they would have done in days of yore, all of ten years ago. Or was it five?

  6. I respect everything that you have written in this blog. Please continue to provide wisdom to more people like me.


  1. […] Davis, a writer and writing software developer, states that every genre has a meta-story, i.e. “the accumulated plots and scenarios going back over the history of the genre”.  […]

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