Do not let your Muse take you hostage. This straight-forward method for finding and developing stories removes the alchemy and frustration from your writing experience
“I love writing but I’m just not that creative. I can’t come up with new stories all the time”
“How did you come up with that story you wrote?”
“I get ideas but they don’t come together as stories – what’s going on?”
Readers and writers alike often ask questions like these and the answers we get in return sometimes sound like a response from a Greek Oracle. Take J. K. Rowling’s answer to Harry Potter – she says he simply sprang into her mind, fully formed. She only had to follow him and his adventures. Maybe the mystery adds a patina of allure to the writer and to the work, but it doesn’t do much to help readers or fellow writers gain a deeper understanding (and appreciation) for how the story came to be.
In reality, coming up with an idea that makes for a compelling story is straight-forward and does not require divine inspiration from an Olympian Muse. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, I would recommend the following methods to fuel your creativity.
Write what bothers or scares you
Whatever issue is weighing on your mind right now is a rich source of inspiration for a piece of writing. If you care about it, chances are someone else will, too. Whether it is something as powerful as oppression and marginalization, as personal as the loss of a treasured friendship, or as frustrating and absurd as dealing with an entrenched and faceless bureaucracy that makes things more complicated than it ought to be, there is a story there.
If that thing bothers you, if it scares you, if it frustrates you, you can be sure you already have a strong emotional base for your story. Having identified the issue or situation, take it and fictionalize it to whatever degree and into whatever genre makes the most sense for you. Hand it off to a character or characters and see where you end up.
Write about what’s going on around you
Writing about what bothers you urges you to scour the world within. But just as easily, you can pull inspiration from the world outside yourself. Read through headlines in newspapers – national and local – and see what catches your attention. What about it interests you?
As a science fiction writer, I especially enjoy looking out for articles announcing new discoveries and theories. Every so often, I come across a science article and think “But how would someone experience that?”
The greatest caveat to this advice is, of course, is to be focused in your reading. Scan the headlines with purpose – what catches your attention? Why? How could it be a story? Passively reading, letting yourself go down rabbit-holes will only eat up all your time.
Develop your story
The above advice will help find the seed of a story but it is not a story yet. A situation needs characters, it needs conflict. Are characters and conflict hard-and-fast rules? I’m sure there are those who would be tempted to pull up a trove of examples to the contrary. True – they exist. But they are almost always marginal, exceptional. And exceptionally difficult to pull off.
All of which is to say – having characters and conflict are probably your best bet for a strong story.
For characters, an easy starting point is to ask “Who would have the most to lose in this situation? Who is hurt the most? Who has the most motivation to change things? To sacrifice?” Writing about a character who is ready to sacrifice for something is inherently more exciting than a story about a character who is perfectly happy with the way things are.
Having chosen a situation and a character or characters, the conflict will frequently suggest itself naturally. Most times, conflict will come from a character trying to make something happen, prevent something from happening, or a combination of the two. The best conflict forces the character to confront whatever it is they fear to lose. Facing that challenge, whether the main character overcomes/defeats it or not, is usually the catalyst for growth and ultimately leads to the resolution of your story.
So there you have it: find a situation or problem that interests or bothers you, consider who may have the most to gain or lose from it and then have the character tackle the problem as directly as possible.