Thursday, April 14, 2016

How To Come Up With Story Ideas

by Paffi S. Flood

I attended a writer’s retreat last month, and on the first night, we played Jenga with a twist. Instead of wooden blocks, the pieces were cardboard boxes, and the tower itself stood almost eight feet high. It survived much longer than any of us expected, and after about twenty minutes or so, it came crashing down.

With the heap still there the next morning, we were asked to choose a box and our assignment for the week was to write our story ideas on it. Regardless of how illegible or how fancy our writing, we were told to just jot it down.

How do we come up with story ideas? We brainstorm. At this point in the project, everything works. Go crazy. I usually start by asking myself, “What if?” For example:
  • What if a blind guy pet his cat and noticed it was really furry?
  • What if the cat turned out to be an escaped tiger?
  • What if the tiger escaped because its handler had been killed?

Another way to tackle this is to fill in the blanks for “_______ meets ________.” For example:
  • “Wuthering Heights” meets “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
  • “Star Trek” meets “The Bachelor.”
  • “Sweet Valley High” meets “Escape From Alcatraz.”

Yes, the examples are nonsensical, but that’s the “idea.” Start with something way over the top and use that as inspiration to get to the ones that work.

On the last night of the retreat, we carried our boxes to a gathering around a bonfire. There, to the horror of everyone, we were told to pitch them into the blaze. As we watched each one go up in flames, we realized the thing with ideas is they’re disposable. Just as quickly as we come up with them, they can be gone. And just as quickly as they're gone, we can come up with more.

Don’t be afraid to throw away your ideas and start over, because once they turn into a novel and that novel needs revision, this is where you'll be. Again.


Paffi S. Flood is the author of A Killing Strikes Home. You can also find her on twitter and facebook.


  1. How fun that must've been. Today I'm giving a library talk on where I get my ideas--most anywhere.

  2. It was a blast, Marilyn. Like you said, ideas can come from most anywhere, and the best part is that they can be truly absurd and silly.

  3. Awesome tale on the true meaning of the 'phoenix rising' - transformation is everywhere in our life processes! Thank you for sharing and reminding us that it works to let go.

  4. I love that after all that work, you tossed them into the fire. It's heartbreaking and freeing at the same time, I imagine. It's a great reminder to kill your darlings and not be afraid to come up with something better.