Getting story ideas – Thinking inside the box
When designing a story to really grab a reader's attention, the phrases, “writing what you know” and “using your imagination” can sometimes be misleading and unhelpful. I find that they're often far more useful with guidance.
If someone asked me to write a story right now, I would, naturally, be imaginative while also relying on what I know to inform the text. Unfortunately, with such free reign, my idea would be in danger of bending towards an idea that already exists.
Who else has been reluctant to test read the epic historical fantasy novel with multiple narratives, a rich back-story, bloody violence and steamy/twisted romance plots from a talented fellow writer who just happened to be a massive Game Of Thrones fan? Who else was reluctant to read the abstract prose from a friend who fancied themselves as the next William S Burroughs? These writer's imaginations were filled with the imaginations of other writers. What they knew was other people's work.
I probably sound quite cynical here but I'm mostly talking from bitter personal experience. You may be able to fill your story with rich characters and have a beautiful writing style but you may still stumble at the final hurdle: the psychic, cynical part of every reader's brain that pounds: “I can see right through this. If I know better than the author, why should I care?”
There is a trick to bypass this part of the reader's brain. Here's a method that I find helpful:
Make your idea more original by giving it some strict guidelines.
Let me illustrate an example. I've always wanted to write a cyberpunk story. I've got the genre (the floor). Now I just need a roof. I don't have much time right now so I'll think of something at random.
Okay... the main character has to be a pig.
I've got some guidelines. Ridiculous guidelines, sure, but they're there. Now, I have to think: what is the best possible idea I can think of that involves cyber-punk and pigs? Do I make it a comedy? Should it be a children's book style parody of Blade Runner where the characters are talking farm yard animals (with the potential title: “Do Electric Pigs dream of Android Sheep?”?) Should I make it a dark reflection of our own world; perhaps a look at the theoretical implications of future technology impacting the meat and farming industry? Should it be from the Pig's point of view? What kind of language would a Pig use? How will I balance the tone? Already my idea is starting to germinate. You're creativity can sometimes create better ideas inside a set of specific guidelines over being given total freedom.
(Another exercise that I like to do is to walk into the section of a DVD store, pick a random DVD off the shelf, look at the cover, the title of the film and the tag line. I imagine what the story of the film would be based only on those scraps of information and then I read the back. If you like the idea you come up with and it turns out to be completely different from the film's actual plot, you have one idea totally free of charge!)