You’ve probably heard the expression ‘write about what you know’. You’ve probably been told that by a teacher, a writer, a university lecturer, or a friend. While this is good advice, a lot of amateur or first-time writers struggle with it.

“But how can I write about my own life? Nothing interesting ever happens to me.” There lies the problem: many amateur writers believe that in order to write something good, they must write about something interesting. But what makes something interesting? Many people who want to write usually think that interesting things include car chases, forbidden love, or government conspiracy. In short, they search for drama.

But life is rarely about drama, outside of movies and television. There are subjects for stories, and indeed, there are stories themselves, ready for the telling, everywhere you look. Yes, even within your own life. That old lady on the bus who always wears her cardigan over her head, or that boy stapling ‘lost dog’ posters onto telephone poles, or that conversation you overheard on the train: everywhere you look there is a story to be told.

“But how do I find the story amongst all of that?” There is never a golden rule for finding a story– every author is different, every writer has their own methods. But no single writer gets a story without listening, observing, and asking questions.

Who is that lady? Why is she wearing that particular hat? Is she going to a wedding or a party? Whose party is it? She might be going to see her family, or to take part in a game show, or to attend a wedding (or a funeral, or a baby shower, or a christening, or…)

The point of asking yourself questions is to generate answers. They don’t have to be right. They don’t even have to make sense. Just look at someone on the bus, ask yourself who they are, where they come from, and where they’re going.

Why does he look so angry? He might have had an argument with his wife, or his brother, or his boss. What’s the argument about? Perhaps he wants to move house, or change jobs, or buy a new car or a new pet iguana. Has he perhaps bumped into an ex-lover or high-school sweetheart? Or a high-school bully? What’s the significance of the chunk missing from his nose? Was he a soldier, or just a pub brawler? I wonder if he’s got children…

Ask yourself these sorts of questions, and build up a family and a history for this stranger on the bus, until you have a story. Let your train of thought follow naturally from one question to the next, don’t try to go backwards to ask a completely different question. A natural progression of ideas will help you to build a more natural character.

“Until I have a story? That’s too vague! I just want to write!” In recent years, the trend has been toward writing about everyday life. Most people go through their entire lives without once robbing a bank or flipping a car, or being involved in a forbidden romance. That doesn’t mean their lives were boring, or that they weren’t worth writing about.

Ernest Hemmingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” (1939) is about nothing more exciting than ‘trying new drinks and looking at things’, but it is compelling. It’s compelling not because of what happens, but because of the characters, and how they are portrayed. The characters have a presence in the story, they have a history outside of the story, and very strong personalities (and I don’t mean ‘strong’ in the sense of dominating or flamboyant—I mean you can get a feel of the character’s personality through their dialogue and their actions.)

By now, I’ve waffled on for quite a bit about the importance of observing everyday people, asking yourself questions about them and finding the story in the everyday, and not just in exciting car chases. Now let me move on to another aspect of idea-generation—writing from the imagination.

“I don’t have time to ride the train for hours to observe people!” One thing you can do to generate ideas in the privacy of your own home is to free write, or free associate. There are two ways you can do this: with stimulus, or without.

With a stimulus, simply look at a photo, or hold and object, or read a quote or a message (even a text-message or an email will work) for a few minutes, and then put your pen to paper and write. Don’t think about what you’re writing, and don’t go back over and change what you have written. Don’t stop writing, either. Keep the pen moving, even if you just write ‘I am out of ideas’ three times. I once ended up with sixteen repetitions of ‘and’, during one session. Writing without a stimulus is harder, but your ideas are less restricted. Without looking at anything in particular, just start writing. Dive straight into your subconscious with a pen in your hand, and write whatever comes out.

“Write down the thoughts of the moment: those that come unbidden are often the most valuable” –Ernest Hemmingway

It’s better to free-write by hand, no matter how messy your handwriting, because the physical act of moving the pen can act as a sort of stimulus for ideas itself. If you find yourself falling short of words, you could describe the feel of your pen as you write; its colour, its movement, its texture and the glint of light off the fresh, wet ink. It will take practice and dedication, but soon you’ll be up to your ears in potential short stories.

My very general guidelines for developing story ideas:

1. Observe, ask questions, listen to conversations, involve yourself in your community.
2. Free associate without thinking about it, either with or without a focus object or picture.
3. Don’t think about what you write, or try to choose the right word in the first draft- get it down first, revise later.
3a. If you have to think of what word to use, you probably shouldn’t use it. Use the words that come most naturally to you, and you’ll connect with the widest audience. Also, your prose won’t sound contrived or strained, and will therefore be easier to read and enjoy.

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  1. Spanman on 8 July 2009, 11:13 said:

    Good article. I’ve never tried free-writing before, but it sounds like a really good exercise. I especially like your article because I love people-watching. I’m an eyes-open-mouth-shut sort of person. It’s terrific for getting ideas.

  2. Snow White Queen on 8 July 2009, 14:52 said:

    This is a good article, but it seems to apply more to realistic fiction than other genres like fantasy or sci-fi, which a lot of people on this site are interested in (myself included). These genres almost by definition include at least some drama- magic, aliens, etc. etc..

    But I guess you could use your method for creating characters, and then transplant them into a fantasy, because even then, the character needs to be realistic. Even fantasy has to have some kind of base in reality, right?

    Another thing- I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to find exactly the right word for the idea that you’re trying to express, even if it doesn’t immediately come to mind. Like you said, it’s not necessary to worry about it in the first draft, but using that better word (in later drafts) makes the whole idea you’re trying to portray in any given sentence clearer.

    All around, great job!

  3. lawzard on 8 July 2009, 19:25 said:

    This article reminds me of something I used to do when I had writer’s block: I would make a list of things I wanted to put in a story, and no matter how unrelated they were, I would try to find a way to connect them all. It didn’t always turn out to be something worth reading, but it at least got me thinking about how I should piece together a story in a way that made sense.

    While I agree with Snow that this article does seem a bit more oriented toward literary fiction, the basic idea can still be applied to genre fiction. You can take one simple idea and turn it into a story by questioning it and connecting it to other ideas.

    But anyway, great article. I think plotting like this is a lot of fun.

  4. marchie on 8 July 2009, 19:45 said:

    I have to disagree with point 3a- I actually had to leave a sentence and come back to it later because I couldn’t think of the word ‘employment’. Sure I could have put some other cumbersome, technically ‘correct’ expression in there, but I don’t think remedying a brain fart = trying too hard.

    Really nice article indeed, especially with practical advice on how to actually apply it.

  5. Fenix on 9 July 2009, 02:57 said:

    I disagree with your point that life isn’t interesting, life is a fricking soap if you stop and think about it, simply skip over all the boring parts and focus on the drama.

  6. Asahel on 9 July 2009, 16:13 said:

    To TakuGifian and marchie:

    Point 3a is probably one of those points that’s more useful as a general rule of thumb. If you’ve ever read an author whose sentences sound like he/she didn’t write them until consulting a thesaurus, you can see the purpose behind point 3a.

    On the other hand, the marchie’s point is also valid. If you can’t think of the word you want at that moment, that’s no particular reason not to use it.

    In my own experience, when I’m putting together a sentence, sometimes I’ll put in a word that means what I want to convey, but then looking at the sentence as a whole, it doesn’t sound right. That’s when I consult the thesaurus to see what does sound like it belongs in the sentence.

  7. TakuGifian on 9 July 2009, 18:41 said:

    Thanks for the comments! Yes, it is geared more toward literary fiction, mostly because I believe that short stories — those fewer than 3000 words — don’t lend themselves to fantasy all that well. I can’t really flesh out an entirely new fantasy world AND plot AND characters in under 3000 words, and I have a hard time understanding how someone else could, unless they leaned heavily on cliches and archetypes. Nearly every story I’ve read under 3000 words was literary, slice-of-life fiction.

    Also, this is the product of a university creative writing course, so it’s bound to favour literary fiction over genre. But the points can still be applied to any genre, especially in character creation, because in my opinion blood has no genre, and the key to any successful story is sympathetic, realistic characters that the reader can identify with and want to know more about.

    @ Fenix: If you read the article properly, you’d notice that I didn’t say that “life isn’t about drama”. In fact, I said pretty much the opposite. Despite the general lack of Michael Bay special effects or The Bold And The Beautiful-style love triangles in most people’s life, the world is an incredible, ever-changing and exciting force, wherein countless stories are waiting to be written. I like to quote the SBS motto, “6 billion stories and counting…”

    About Point 3a: Yes, it’s a very ‘general’ rule-of-thumb, mostly geared towad beginner writers who would want to use big words to make themselves sound intelligent. There’s absolutely nothing wrong wih finding the right word in a thesaurus, but it’s generally better for me personally and in my experience as a writer, to go with the word that comes most naturally. After all, why use a voluminous (albeit potentially erroneous)word when a diminutive one will suffice? :P

    They best you can do with any article about writing is take it as someone’s personal opinion, and decide for yourself whether or not to follow it.

  8. Durandalski on 10 July 2009, 16:13 said:

    I would note that “write what you know” only has to be the opening spark. You can take what you know and run with it, putting it into worlds and situations you’ve never seen, and even that don’t exist. For instance, I’m writing a short story now which was inspired by the disapproval of my parents towards my military aspirations. It quickly fleshed out into much more.

  9. Danielle on 11 July 2009, 16:44 said:

    Pretty good article. The basic advice—observe people, think about why they are they way they are, wonder about their lives—was good, but I disagreed with you when you said that everyday things are the most interesting—both to write about and read about.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I love stories about everyday people with everyday problems. One of my favorite books is about a woman whose marriage crumbles after her husband moves the family to a new city—hardly the subject of an action movie. I also love the X-Men movies, which concern extraordinary people facing extraordinary problems. I usually lean more toward fantasy or historical fiction, both to read and write.

    Back to the story about the woman with the crumbling marriage: it’s sprinkled with journal entries from her ancestor, Mary Catherine McMurray, as her husband takes her on the Oregon Trail. The parallels drawn between the two women are fascinating and deep. One can also draw similar parallels between the struggles of mutants in the X-Men movies to fit in and a typical person’s struggle to balance uniqueness with living a so-called “normal” life.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think slice-of-life stories are always the best. Sure, they may be different from the norm in that they don’t require huge budgets for special effects, and some of them do have literary merit. But I think it’s unfair to assume that just because a story focuses on ordinary people in ordinary situations that it is somehow better than stories that don’t.

    I did like the advice on creating characters; I thought it was spot-on. I just didn’t agree with the literary fiction bias.