A new story is hard to write. And generating ideas to fill it is even harder. When you’re staring at a blank page, Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes might haunt you: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
With so many great stories already published, how do you develop one that’s unique?
The answer is brainstorming. But the process needs to be systematic—not a “brain dump” where you throw all your random thoughts onto paper. Brainstorming is a problem-solving technique that taps into the creative potential of your subconscious mind through what YouTuber Rachael Stephen calls “magic questions.”
Magic questions focus your imagination by qualifying and specifying the solutions you’re seeking. You can ask yourself thousands of questions in pursuit of new story material, but I’m going to give you only one that you can apply to theme, setting, plot, and characters to awaken inspiration:
What would happen in a story combining ________ with ________?
Combine Themes to Add More Meaning
Theme is why you’re telling a story. It’s the foundation and the structure holding all the parts together. No pressure. It’s also an element I neglect until the last moment because it’s so important.
Imagine Charles Dickens asking himself our magic question. What would happen in a story combining sacrificial love with the upheaval of social class? The result is, of course, A Tale of Two Cities. Master Dickens delivers a story that brilliantly marries these two themes. From 1859 to this day, A Tale of Two Cities has probed readers with questions centered on its themes.
Charlotte Bronte took love—love of family, love of God, and romantic love—and contrasted it with duty. In Jane Eyre, Jane struggles through her life as these two themes pull her back and forth. Each of her decisions are influenced by love, or duty, and ultimately both.
If you’re unsure how to move forward with your story, plumb the vault of your subconscious. Find themes you care about, that fascinate you, and try intertwining them. Ask yourself the magic question and jot down any and every idea that comes to you. Some answers will be bad while others will be incredible. A few may spark new questions, but that’s the point. By blending two (or more) themes, you’ll produce fresh content and a story you’re excited about.
Combine Settings to Keep Readers Guessing
Location drives a story as much as plot, characters, and theme. Readers have expectations for each setting. As a writer, playing with and defying those expectations makes a story less predictable.
What would happen in a story combining cowboys with space travel? Joss Whedon answered this magic question in his popular but short-lived television series, Firefly. If you’ve never seen it, drop everything and watch it. The story jumps between a technologically advanced society and the difficulties involved in settling a sparse frontier. Whedon’s concept mesmerized audiences with its creativity.
You can do the same. What settings do you frequently recycle? Could you connect one of those with a setting you’ve never written before? Arctic exploration and Caribbean pirates? A merchant trading caravan and air travel? Challenge yourself even further by choosing two entirely unfamiliar settings. Write them on slips of paper and draw two at random. If you’re feeling especially crazy, increase the number of settings to three. Your subconscious will surprise you.
Combine Storylines to Build a Layered Plot
Stories often begin with an event you hope to bring to a compelling conclusion. But, if you’re like me, plotting is agonizing. My plots tend to lack complexity and depth, and I wish I could easily turn them into onions with multiple layers that affect readers emotionally.
When a tired Suzanne Collins was channel surfing between war footage and a reality TV show, the two scenarios melded into the plot for The Hunger Games. Her inspiration was accidental, but you can intentionally piece together your own fantastic plot through brainstorming.
A few years back, I wanted to write about a forced friendship between teenagers that didn’t end with them dating. I also had an old idea about four funerals occurring within a single year. I eventually landed on the question, What would happen in a story combining a forced friendship with lots of death? This opened up countless possibilities for these stray fragments to become a workable story.
You’re full of ideas. Experiment with two or three together and consider the questions they pose. The resulting plots will push you toward originality and richness.
Combine Individuals to Craft More Lifelike Characters
Stories don’t have characters. Characters have stories. The best stories start with a character. This is my favorite aspect of storytelling, and I use our magic question to achieve rounder, more believable characters.
My tried-and-true method synthesizes a real person and one or two fictional characters. This breathes life into my characters without strenuous effort. It isn’t cheating either. My favorite character was a conglomeration of Han Solo, John Thornton, and a friend. All three share a brusque personality, but merging them formed a unique character (also named John).
If you have a character you love but seems flat, look for inspiration in other characters or real people. Mix different traits and idiosyncrasies together until your new character feels real.
You Don’t Have to Reinvent the Wheel
Creating something new does not mean sitting around waiting for inspiration to smack you in the face. That can and does happen, but rarely. Instead, dig around in your own imagination. Combine familiar elements of stories. Roll our magic question around in your mind as you evaluate plot, theme, or characters. Ask yourself more and more targeted questions.
Your story is calling.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on December 30, 2019. Updated May 8, 2023.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.