It only takes two words to inspire an infinite number of story ideas.
“Where do stories come from?” It’s the question writers get asked most. “Where did you get the idea for your book? What inspired you?”
I think the idea for all fictional stories starts with two short but incredibly powerful words: “What if?”
There are what-ifs everywhere you look. Every person you meet, every story you read or see or hear, and just about everything you experience or have experienced is full of what-ifs. This is why I completely agree with something that Neil Simon wrote in his autobiographical book Rewrites (I’m paraphrasing), “Writer’s block isn’t when a writer has no ideas. It’s when a writer has so many ideas and doesn’t trust himself to choose the right one.”
There are so many ideas—so many what-ifs—everywhere you look that it seems impossible to me that a writer could ever have no idea what to write about. Why, I write at least a dozen story ideas in my head every day. At least. And I throw them out, because I don’t even have enough time to write the stories I’m already working on, never mind a dozen new ones every day.
|A little imagination and two words are all you need to create infinite story ideas.|
Here’s an example. Recently I was sitting with my husband in a courtroom, because he had a couple of unfair traffic tickets we wanted to contest. (We reached a compromise with the court, because the police officer who issued the tickets wasn’t available and taking it all the way would have meant my husband taking another day off work, which wasn’t worth the $58 cost of the remaining ticket.) We had to spend about three hours in the courtroom waiting for our turn. My husband thought I might get in trouble for using my cellphone, but even the bailiff was using hers. The first cases brought before the judge were those where defendants had lawyers, as well as drug-related cases that involved already incarcerated defendants. Instead of being brought in, those defendants appeared in the courtroom via some sort of teleconferencing arrangement on a large flat-screen TV.
I leaned in toward my husband and whispered, “I can imagine a story about a woman who comes into court because of a traffic violation and is shocked to see her missing husband on that screen.” My husband loved the idea and continued it. What if the husband was in jail pretending to be someone else? What if he married her while pretending to be someone else? What if he had other wives who had no idea where he was or who he really was? What if after she screamed in court, “that’s my missing husband,” he pretended not to know her? What if he really didn’t know her? What if the husband but had lost his memory in the same accident that led to his incarceration, and while the system believed and had been telling him for a year that he was someone else, she was the only person who could reveal the truth and that he was innocent? What if after his experiences even he isn’t sure she’s telling the truth?
By asking one what-if, I came up with a story idea. And by continuing to ask one what-if after another, my husband was able to hone it into a very interesting story idea. I’m probably never going to use it, because, like I said, I think of and then abandon at least a dozen of these a day. But this little event gave my husband a glimpse into how my mind works when I write a story—and how much fun it is.
And asking what-ifs really is!
Yes, hearing or reading or seeing stories is fun, but it’s even more fun when you’re the one who’s telling yourself the story and you can make it go anywhere you want.
Infinite story ideas are everywhere. All you have to do is ask yourself, “What if?” and then let your imagination do the rest.