Need Story Ideas? This 5-Step Process Works Every Time

Need Story Ideas? This 5-Step Process Works Every Time

It happens. You’re sitting in front of a blank page, you dip into your well of inspiration, and you come up with nothing.

Nada. Zilch.

At most the moldy remains of an idea you had in seventh grade.

I’ve been there time and again, until by chance I attended a panel led by Orson Scott Card.

In that panel, he opened my eyes to what a good story idea looks like, and how to generate story ideas without any effort.

With time, I’ve included my own little twist on his method. The result? A five-element idea generator that will rarely fail you.

Here’s how it works.

The First Element: Character

A story cannot take place without characters. The character might be a chair (I wrote one like that!), but it has to be there.

If you don’t have a specific idea for a character, make one up randomly. Choose the following:

  • Race (e.g. human, alien, salt shaker)
  • Gender (if applicable–and isn’t that a story idea in itself!)
  • Age (from toddler to elder and even eternal)
  • Marital status (single, married, divorced, three-year marriage contract…)
  • Family status (parents, brothers, pets, etc. but also nationality and ethnicity)
  • Circumstances (profession, work)
  • And, of course, a name.

Interesting combinations make for richer stories, so keep that in mind as you fill out your character’s background.

The Second Element: Desire

Your character must have some desires in life. What drives her? What makes her get out of bed in the morning?

It can be an active desire, like running a marathon or getting a promotion. It can be a less active desire, like wanting to be left alone.

But it has to be a specific, attainable desire that will move your character throughout your story.

Can’t think of a good desire? Re-read your character’s background, try to get into that person’s shoes and think of what you would have wanted in her stead.

how to develop a story

The Third Element: Resistance

If your character wanted something and got it right off the bat, you wouldn’t have a story, would you?

So the next critical element is the roadblock that stands in your character’s way.

It can be physical, emotional, spiritual or cultural. It can be another person or a group of people.

It can be a question of legality or consensus. It can be the very elements of nature.

Whatever it is, make sure the resistance matches the character. If you have a strong character, you will need a powerful obstacle to stand in her way–otherwise, the reader won’t be convinced that the struggle is real and desperate.

With these three elements, Orson Scott Card claimed at that panel, you have a solid story idea that can be developed into any media and length.

I like to add two more elements to the mix.

The Fourth Element: Change

A story is all about the character’s journey, and that journey is all about change. If the protagonist is the same at the end as she’d been in the beginning, something is missing.

For short stories, the change can be as simple as a single trait:

  • A shy man overcomes his shyness in order to pursue true love.
  • A skeptic woman must learn to believe before she can attain the career of her dreams.
  • A haughty salt shaker must learn humility in order to find peace in its life.

And so on. The longer the story, the more scope you have to mould your character in new ways.

The Fifth Element: Settings

The settings of a story are more than a backdrop. It is often a character in and of itself. It impacts the way your protagonist thinks, feels, and behaves.

Choose an interesting backdrop that will really challenge your protagonist or highlight her journey.

For example, if your protagonist is on a journey of inner and outer peace, why not paint her story against a background of war, strife, or unrest?

Character, desire, resistance, change and settings. Pick them deliberately or randomize them completely–either way, you’re sure to get some interesting story ideas.

In fact, if you need help randomizing them, try this Story Idea Generator. It works according to these five elements, it has over a million combinations, and it’s completely free.

Now, go make up some ideas and write!

Filed Under: Craft

29 comments

  • Cherry Iley says:

    Great article, thanks.

  • Jason Bougger says:

    Thanks. This is great advice. Far too often, I start with the setting. And when all you have is a setting, it’s difficult to start writing. Coming up with a character and a basic characters arc first is the way to go.

    • Tal Valante says:

      Hi Jason, starting with setting is possible and interesting, but as you said, you just can’t leave it there. You need all five story ingredients to really make it work.

      Wishing you many great story ideas!

  • Darren Goerz says:

    Your system seems to sync with many of the outlining systems I have looked at and am looking into. Thanks for the confirmation.

    • Tal Valante says:

      Hi Darren, yes, these are the basic building blocks of a good story. Are you looking for outlining software, or just a framework of documents you can work with? Please share!

  • Mavis says:

    Working through Storystorm 2017 – this is a great framework to hang new story ideas on! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Tal Valante says:

      Hi Mavis, thanks for reading! I’ll take a peek at Storystorm in a moment. Is that your top choice for a writing framework?

  • Dmitry says:

    Thank you for sharing this post Tal !!!

    Your reply is more practical and helpful. I hope it will be helpful for too many people that are searching for this topic. Great post!

  • K.marie says:

    Great article! I have a story already written, but I’m always looking for ways to make her a dynamic character that people will love. This guideline will be very helpful.

  • Stanley chen says:

    What a great essay,and how talented you are!

  • Wendy says:

    I can turn these five steps out all day. My problem comes when I try to flesh out these “ideas” into and actual sequence of scenes.

    • Tal Valante says:

      Hi Wendy! Yes, fleshing out ideas into scenes is an art in and of itself. My suggestion is to work backwards: figure out the climax first, where the character proves they have made the change from A to B. Then figure out what scenes are required to make that climax work.

      I’ve just scratched the surface, but I hope it gets you on the right direction.

      Best,
      Tal V.

  • Nitin says:

    This is an awesome way to have something on table everytime.

    -Nitin

  • Marcia says:

    Your article was exactly what I needed to get started. I began to visualize my script as I read the article. Thanks for your assistance!

  • Rae Elliott says:

    Just brilliant. The process of a great story with real meat was so clearly explained in this article that I feel anyone could walk away from reading this and write their first story with confidence.
    Orson Scott Card just blows me away too with his intuitive story-telling techniques. I read his book Elements of Fiction Writing: Characters and Viewpoint and his knowledge and understanding of character development opened my mind to a whole new dimension of story-telling. Thanks for sharing!

  • تور دبی says:

    wow! the steps really works! i did not believe it at first!

  • تور چین says:

    I think these steps are really great and helpful, but the hardest part for me is developing my idea.

  • Tina Grant says:

    Great tips Thank you, I will be sharing

  • Avinash Bhondwe says:

    I had thought about many characters, but unable to convert to a story. Your article gave me a proper clue to proceed. Thanks.

  • dodatkowe info says:

    There’s definately a great deal to find out about this issue.
    I like all the points you have made.

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