When it comes to finding the next great story idea, many writers seem to agree on how they find theirs—it often happens when you’re doing something else. Whether it strikes during a stroll around the block or in the shower, not thinking about anything is when an idea comes easily and naturally. For me, story ideas have popped up in places I didn’t think it would.
Having my hands full writing a YA fantasy novel, I haven’t been actively seeking out new ideas for future stories. Writing a novel, especially world building in a fantasy setting, is a massive undertaking and can sometimes be a slow and difficult process. I have always flirted with the idea of writing short stories that aren’t related to the YA genre, but haven’t been able to think of the right situation to write one around.
When I started taking a few writing classes before the pandemic hit, and even after it arrived, I came in looking to gain more knowledge about technique and using it toward the book I’m writing now. Instead, I’ve come away from these classes with potential new ideas to develop into a full fledged story.
The classes will always assign exercises to apply what has been taught so far into our writing. Most of them are writing prompts the instructor will give us to come up with a scene or situation to write about, like an object or a conflict one or two characters are trying to resolve. What I found was how helpful those prompts were at pushing me to create interesting scenarios I actually wanted to turn into a story after the classes were over. It was also encouraging to share what I wrote with the class and get positive feedback from the instructor on the potential my idea had at becoming something more.
There have been three classes I attended that birthed three new short story ideas with one idea I finished writing a few months ago, and recently got the story in the best shape I could to start sending it around for possible publication at some literary magazines. I never expected to have new ideas I wanted to mold into a story that had a beginning, middle, and end because writing prompts didn’t always spark the best ideas for me.
Years ago I bought one book called The Pocket Muse: Ideas and Inspirations for Writing by Monica Wood that was all about writing prompts, images or phrases, to spark creativity and urge you to write something down. I was excited to use that book to fuel my desire to write or even come up with story ideas. Unfortunately, none of what I wrote was good to use as a potential story and I largely left that well-worn book unused since then.
There shouldn’t be a difference between where the source of your writing prompts, a writing class or a book, come from to ignite your next story idea, but I think the approach may matter. Classes have a structure to them where an instructor will break down everything we’re learning, and then pause to give us a chance to write something of our own to demonstrate what we have understood. The instructor will explain what they expect of you, giving some examples, and then let you write for 10-15 minutes. Having a book of prompts doesn’t give you the guidance and initiative to think about how you want to tackle the exercise before you. The main thing a class has that a book doesn’t offer is the feedback you can get from an experienced individual. An instructor’s input, along with hearing your fellow classmates’ thoughts, about your writing has been invaluable and given me plenty of confidence that a story is waiting to be developed.
This doesn’t mean I’m always going to lean on writing classes for all my story ideas, but it has taught me to not be as dismissive of the short scrawl I write on a piece of paper when I use any writing prompt. As long as your mind is relaxed and receptive the ideas will come to you unhindered.