Coming up with story ideas

I got a question on my Twitter asking how I come up with fantasy story ideas, and felt it merited more than 140 characters to reply. This will primarily focus on fantasy, but is useful for any storytelling. There are two methods that I’ve used to come up with the majority of my story ideas.

Many of my story ideas come from dreams. Dreams sometimes feel like “cheating,” because you didn’t have to wrack your brain coming up with an idea–it’s more like binge watching your favorite science fiction shows, go to sleep, wake up with a new story idea. But you arrived at that idea by the investment in exposing yourself to creative media, and eating well/being healthy to get a nice sleep cycle. When you wake up reflecting on a cool dream you had, write it down immediately. Not only do you have it written down to take a look at later, but it will help improve your dream recall for the future.

But dreams aren’t consistent. That’s where my next favorite method comes in.

I like to try and see fantasy in the mundane. For most things in everyday life, there is a simple, immediate explanation. But letting yourself play pretend with more fun explanations is a great way to prompt a story idea.

Maybe you woke up to see that a tree has fallen in your backyard. Sure, it was probably the storm last night but what if it was a dragon that knocked it over? What was a dragon doing in your back yard?! That’s something that a story could help answer!

But a big creature knocking over a tree is too obvious. Besides, what do dragons have against trees? What if something small was responsible? Who else likes trees? Woodpeckers like trees. Well, they like the bugs in trees. But they have to spend a lot of time and effort to drill the bugs out. What if woodpeckers have started an illegal logging operation in your backyard and are trying to take trees for later bug-extraction? This is a much more original (and thoroughly absurd) story prompt.

Little kids do this all the time. “Magical thinking” is a term to describe the common behavior of children connecting two completely unrelated events as cause-and-effect. For example, when I was very young, I ended up in the hospital with a nearly fatal case of pneumonia the night after visiting the Camp Snoopy theme park at the Mall of America. Here in Minnesota, we have Minnesota-themed things, because we are proud of being Minnesotan. The log flume ride is themed after Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox.

I was terrified of Babe the Big Blue Ox.

The true face of terror

The true face of terror

So, logically, to my very young self, Babe the Big Blue Ox, the most terrifying thing I had ever seen, had made me sick and was responsible for my trip to the hospital. Were this actually the case, it’d be one heck of an interesting story.

Little kids are natural fantasy story tellers. As we get older, we get used to the rules of reality and stop coming up with absurd explanations for things we experience or see. When coming up with story prompts, sometimes it can be helpful to let yourself make up more interesting explanations for the world around you. Depending on how realistic a story you are going for, come up with a more realistic way to connect the cause and effect, but you can more-or-less pick any two things and try and invent a reason that they are cause-and-effect to tell a cool story, from mysteries to fantasy to sci-fi.

I like Urban Fantasy because it invites exactly this. On your morning commute, try looking at the places you pass through and thinking about what kinds of stories could be told there. Interesting architecture and fire escapes are easy, but what about the lonesome street corner? The office building that you’ve gone by a hundred times and never seen anyone actually go in or out of? What stories can be told, and what explanations can you make up?

Coming up with story prompts is practicing the skill of imagination.