Fiction Ideas: How to Conquer the Blank Slate

You know those writers who have so many fiction ideas that they’ll never have time to write them all? The ones who sit down to write and, well, have something to say? Every single time?

Yeah, that can get annoying.

No offense if you’re that kind of writer. In fact, bottle some of that inspiration and start selling it. I’d love to have some on demand.

For some of us, it’s not that easy. Fiction ideas trickle in when they want to, it seems. hooverdam_DSC1797And sometimes the stream seems to have been diverted somewhere upriver, leaving us high and dry.

I think my longest dry spell was about two years, although in my defense I was a sleep-deprived new mama at the time. It was almost enough to make me give up on writing fiction. I was doing a fair amount of ghostwriting non-fiction articles during that time. Just no fiction.

But the desire to write stories, to create characters and have things happen, didn’t go away. If only I knew who the characters were and what they were going to do.

I tried many different techniques to get my creative stream unstopped. Several things I tried didn’t result in fiction ideas at all – just frustration. I finally identified a part of the problem that was holding me back.

Before I talk about that problem, I want to take a minute and look at where most writers have problems with fiction ideas.

  1. The blank slate problem: some writers want to write, but have zero clues what to write about. No character ideas, no conflict ideas, nothing.
  2. The all dressed up but no place to go problem: some writers think of really awesome characters, but have nothing for the characters to do. They have no ideas for the plot.
  3. The then what? problem: some writers can come up with a character and a starting scenario or issue the character is dealing with. They get stuck as soon as they try to figure out how to get the character out of the problem. A subset of this is when you know the main problem and have a decent idea of the end, but have no idea how to get the characters from point A to point Z.
  4. And, of course, there’s all of the above: writers who struggle at each step in the idea development process.

Trying to do more than a loose overview of solutions to these problems would be a book rather than a blog post. I’m going to focus mainly on the blank slate problem in this post.

How Fill Your Blank Slate With Fiction Ideas

Have you ever played the “What If” game? You probably have, even if you didn’t call it that, and even if it was only in your own head. Here’s how the “What If” game goes.

You’re watching a movie, reading a book, pretending not to watch people in a public place, whatever. Something catches your interest. Let’s say it’s a man and woman walking down the street, holding hands. Your first thought is probably that they’re a couple. But what if…couples082612127

…they’re government agents undercover as a couple?

…and they’re following a suspect who might be trying to assassinate a presidential candidate who will be making a campaign speech later that day?

…and the agents are feeling really awkward because they actually did have a short relationship back when they were in training, and it didn’t end well?

…or what if they aren’t agents at all, but parents taking a short break after sitting in the hospital with their critically ill child?

…and the child will only live if she gets an organ transplant, but she has a rare blood type that makes a match unlikely?

…and the dad is wondering how to tell his wife that he had an affair and has another child with his mistress who might be a match for their daughter’s blood type?

There’s at least two ideas for a story (secret agents with a romantic past trying to stop an assassination; parents in danger of losing their child who have to face the consequences of the husband’s infidelity). All from one couple walking down the street.

The key to the “What If” game is to play it frequently, preferably every day. As you train your brain to think creatively, it will become easier to get creative ideas for fiction. You’ve probably experienced that phenomenon when you were in writing mode – as you’re focused on one story, ideas for other stories pop into your head. That’s because you have that creative flow going.

Your brain is a natural story-teller. It looks for explanations for things it observes, and it tries to predict what will happen next based on that explanation. Once you trigger it to start looking for those explanations, it will be more than happy to oblige. You’ve just got to get it in the habit.

As often as possible, write down your “what if”s. When you’re searching for a story idea, look back at your “what if”s and see which ones excited you, which ones you really took off with and wrote the most “what if”s. If the idea triggers an emotional response in you, there’s a good chance it will do the same for readers.

One more important point: as I talked about in Non-Fiction Ideas: Finding and Corralling the Elusive Beast, you’re not going to get anywhere if you have the absolute best idea ever and then forget it before you get it recorded. Have a system in place – a notebook, an app on your phone, a file on your computer, a box of restaurant napkins and receipts and other scraps, whatever works – for recording and keeping track of all your ideas. If you even like it a little bit, write it down somewhere. You never know when you may need it.



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