6 Sources for Story Ideas When the Well Runs Dry

You know how it is. There are days when your head is buzzing with great stories… And then there are days when your mind goes blank. You’ve run out of ideas. Now what?

Woodcut from an 1840 edition of Jack the Giant Killer, reprinted in Iona and Peter Opie’s The Classic Fairy Tales

Woodcut from an 1840 edition of Jack the Giant Killer, reprinted in Iona and Peter Opie’s The Classic Fairy Tales

My first suggestion is to stop surfing the internet. It’s a fantastic resource if you want to find out what everyone else is reading, what’s going viral, what’s the pulse of the people. But when you’re looking for a story that’s unique, strange, or that just hasn’t been told, a search engine won’t help you much, if only because, what drives the web is traffic. And you’re looking for something off the beaten path. Yup.

It’s time to opt out of the virtual and go back to actual reality by getting a hold of the following three-dimensional sources:

  1. History books. Don’t just resort to the history books for period pieces — expand your mind, baby doll! Are you writing a futuristic script about an underground organization looking to undermine a tyrannical oppressor, but can’t make their methods sound realistic? Research the French resistance during WWII whose members never wrote anything down for fear of getting caught by the Nazis. Is your hero one of the last survivors in an apocalyptic terrain? Read some of the true eyewitness accounts from Hiroshima or Nagasaki. If you’re into horror and gore, there is nothing bloodier than the annals of mankind. Beware, though. You might have to conduct your research under the influence of Maker’s Mark, and your faith in your fellow man might be forever marred. Book suggestions: Herodotus’ The Histories, Eyewitness to History, The Book of Lists, The People’s Almanac.
  2. Police blotters. Some of these are pure comedy gold. For example, number 11 in the preceding link could easily be a comedy/horror flick. Anyway, even if you don’t get an idea for an entire script, you’re sure to get a scene out of it. Not to mention the gritty veracity you’ll experience and be able to capture if you have to visit an actual police precinct, since not all of them have online blotters. Here are some pointers on how to go about finding one.   
  3. Local newspapers. Again, my advice is to go offline for this, if only because digital versions of newspapers tend to have a “most emailed” list linking to the most popular stories. You’re looking for the story no one else is reading which is why there’s nothing like actually leafing through newsprint. At least, that’s how I find the weirder stuff, although I must admit that the New York Times online obituaries are a treasure trove of great tales, especially if you read those of lesser known people. Several newspapers also offer their archives to the general public. If you go back far enough, you’re bound to hit something out of the ordinary.
  4. The Old Testament. All the brothers in a family gang up on the favorite son and sell him to slave traders, then set it up so his disappearance looks like an accidental death. A powerful man falls for a beautiful married woman and has her husband killed and then marries her himself. A mother helps her favorite son cheat her older son out of his inheritance. Love, illicit sex, violence, dysfunctional family dynamics — if you’re looking for great melodrama then look no further than the Old Testament. A lot of the stories can be updated to fit modern times and no one would even flinch. But don’t just read it with an eye for story; some of the prophet’s visions can also give you great ideas for special effects if you’re writing in an experimental, horror or supernatural vein. Some of the descriptions of apparitions, angels and monsters are visually compelling and would look amazing onscreen.
  5. Fairy tales and folk tales. I can hear you protesting now, “Listen, babe, I don’t write for kids. I write for grown-ups.” And my answer to that is: Have you read some of the original versions of children’s fairy tales? All right, I admit you have to be extremely original to come up with a fresh, grown-up twist on many of the most popular kids’ bedtime stories, but folk tales are, for the most part, pretty much yours for the taking. (Although you could easily come up with a modern-day thriller based on the Pied Piper of Hamelin.)
  6. Old family letters. Once upon a time people used to write each other with this weird stick called “a pen” on a flat blank surface made of, well, paper. And it used to take days, even weeks, for people to get these chronicles. As a result, people would take their time telling their best stories about what actually happened to them instead of just stating the kind of burrito they had for lunch. Seriously, though, ask your parents or grandparents if they kept any of their old letters. I’ll buy you a beer if you don’t chance upon at least one anecdote that would make a great script.

Lastly, don’t despair if you can’t come up with anything so scintillatingly original that people are struck dumb as soon as they hear it. I’m a great believer that execution matters more than the idea itself. Just look at how many versions there are of Romeo and Juliet — many of them great. Hell, according to Wikipedia, Shakespeare himself took the story from an old Italian tale. So take heart and write your ass off.

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11 Responses to 6 Sources for Story Ideas When the Well Runs Dry

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  9. Jahn Ghalt says:

    MarlyK:

    Your Police Blotter idea reminded me of something I enjoy weekly – News of the Weird. I think they are archived somewhere online (They are reprinted in a local weekly).

    Conincidentally, my sister is digging through piles of old family letters just now. I remember some of those. I have to say, they were certainly dutiful – perhaps obligatory. I was never much of letter writer – but when I did write I managed to be more entertaining – or so my hazy memory tells me.

    My daughter recently completed a creative writing class in high school. One of the exercises was to write a fairy tale – she was unabashed about stealing liberally for ideas.

    • MarlyK says:

      Hey Jahn:

      Thanks for your comment!! I have to check out News of the Weird. It sounds like something I’d enjoy. When I was a kid in Venezuela, I used to listen to a 5 minute radio show called Nuestro Insólito Universo (Our Uncanny Universe), which were true stories about some very eerie stuff (ie, the Hope Diamond). It is still being produced and hosted by the same guy who still sounds the same. Anyway, a great source of inspiration.

      Just recently I decided to write a series of short films based on modern takes of urban folk legends. I’d rather use them as point of departures rather than sticking slavishly to the details, know what I mean? Anyway, thanks for the feedback.

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