Columns > Published on December 16th, 2022

Storyville: 10 Tips and Exercises for Generating New Story Ideas

What’s that you say, you’re having a hard time coming up with new story ideas? Well here are 10 tips and exercises that can help you do exactly that.

1: The News

Pay attention to the news, to things you hear about on social media, to newspaper articles, or even weird things that Stephen Colbert is talking about in his monologues. There are so many things going on in the world today—whether it’s the USA creeping closer and closer to A Handmaid’s Tale or some strange occurrence in nature involving dead fish and glowing fungi or the latest copy of a tabloid you may see at the grocery store. If something piques your interest put that in your idea journal (or Word document) and save them for a later time when you can formulate them into a full story. The 100th monkey phenomenon off the coast of Japan informed my story, “Ring of Fire.” The idea of a person’s body creating some sort of medicine, in my case, in the bone marrow (the person being literally rotten to the bone) came out of a Wired article I saw—and this became my story, “Rotten to the Core.” And my story “Hiraeth” came from a website filled with obscure sorrows, that definition: “a place we long to visit, that may or may not have ever existed.” Somebody posted about that on social media. So keep your eyes and ears open to the radio, television, and social media. You never know what you might hear.

2: Homage and Inspiration

Another place I get my ideas is from other writers. Yes, I prefer the word homage or inspiration, not theft. But there have been many stories that I’ve seen that I either thought (A) wow this is a cool concept, I’d like to take a run at it, and do my version or (B) this is cool, but not done as well as I’d like, or it didn’t quite work for me based on what I needed. So I take a stab at it. I mean, Stephen Graham Jones alone is responsible for quite a few of my stories. His story “Faberge,” which I reprinted at Gamut, was 800 words, and one sentence. That inspired me to write my story “Undone,” which was 1,501 words, and  one sentence. Totally different plots. His fiction “Doc’s Story,” has a plural "we" voice and that got me thinking about how I might do that. It got me both “Asking For Forgiveness,” (the "we" being a pack of animals) as well as “Saudade,” which is more of a split-personality story, or alien/host tale. The protagonist is filled with two entities—a black bird (raven) and a white bird (dove). Brian Evenson’s novella, The Warren, definitely inspired parts of my novelette, “Ring of Fire,” as well as scenes from Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. So keep an eye on authors you love, not just for the voice and concepts, but the structure, genre, and weirdness.

3: Updated Narratives

Sometimes it’s not that we have a bad idea, or that we can’t come up with an idea, we just have to find some new knowledge to shape and reform it.

Have you ever been stuck on a story and something isn’t right but you can’t figure out what to do with your plot or setting? It’s happened to me a few times. Sometimes we aren’t ready to write a story—emotionally or professionally—and other times we need to see something in order to inform that change. My story “Open Waters” was set in the same universe as two other stories of mine—“Fireflies” and “Playing With Fire.” But something wasn’t right, I couldn’t get it to come to life. Enter Black Mirror. That show really got me excited about stories and had that Twilight Zone / Night Gallery vibe I love. Turns out this was not a real world at all, but more of a virtual reality. If you’ve seen the “San Junipero” episode then you know what I mean. So, sometimes it’s not that we have a bad idea, or that we can’t come up with an idea, we just have to find some new knowledge to shape and reform it. I’m definitely a different author after having read Haruki Murakami and Toni Morrison and China Mieville and Mary Gaitskill. The list of A24 Films that have blown my mind is quite extensive—Hereditary and The Witch and Enemy and Under the Skin. So take a look at those fragments, those stories that aren’t gelling, and see if they need an update.

4: Your Culture and Mythologies

I’m a bit of a European mutt, so while I’m a mix of German, French, British, Irish, and Swedish, there isn’t one country or influence that dominates my history and upbringing. But maybe it’s different for you. Take a good long look at your people, where you come from, your religion, and your culture—there may be ideas in there. One of the best things about editing Gamut, was getting stories from all over the world. It was so exciting to get new creatures, or cultural legends, new lore, and urban legends—Baba Yaga and golem and selkies and wendigos—skinwalkers and shapeshifters, chupacabras and Gandaberundas. As my MFA professor used to say, “Richard, put a sasquatch in that story.” He means figuratively, of course, something weird, but he also meant literally—put a bigfoot in there. So whether you are Polish or Chinese, Australian or Swedish, African or Canadian—see if there are any tales, monsters, myths, legends, or tall tales from your own past, from your people, the places you’ve been, the places you come from.

5: An Emotion

I wrote a column about how I often craft a story from one idea or emotion. Let’s focus on emotion here for a moment. What is an emotion you’d like to explore? What genres are you writing in? Over the last four years I’ve been writing a lot more hopepunk, because I just couldn’t write bleak stories when there was so much death and bigotry and hatred in the world. I needed a ray of light, a bit of hope, something to make it worth going on that dark journey, that violent struggle, that horrifying saga. That emotion—hope—came through in many of my stories—“Repent,” “Ring of Fire,” and “Saudade.” Sometimes that hope looked like vengeance, or justice, or a rebalancing. Sometimes it looked like sacrifice. Sometimes the horror was thwarted, and sometimes it won. But that was an important aspect to the work I’ve done over the last four years. What are some emotions that intrigue you? Loss, grief, and suffering? Love, desire, and peace? Have fun with it, explore these emotions, and see where they take you.

6: Pictures

When I was writing my novel Disintegration, as well as my current book, Incarnate, I did many different searches for a handful of key words. For Disintegration it was anything related to the title—disintegrating, falling apart, breaking, shattering, fractured, etc. For Incarnate, this arctic horror, sin-eater book it was all about sin-eaters, and the arctic—the cold, snow, ice, rural setting, forests and cabins and darkness. I saved maybe a dozen or more pictures for each book, and whenever I got stuck, I’d go back and look at them to remind myself of the place I started, the vibe I was looking for, the emotions, and settings, the tension inherent in those photographs and illustrations. So the next time you see something really cool, a picture or illustration that really makes you stop and think—save a copy and use that as the jumping off point, the inspiration. Some of you may remember the War writing competition that happened over at Lit Reactor a long time ago. There was a picture prompt that inspired my story, “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave.” It was of a woman with a parasol, topless, holding two porcelain dolls to her breasts. It was a tintype, a brown sepia tone, with a hoop skirt and boots, a strange look on her face. That was my jumping off point.

7: Mental State

I’ve been fascinated with how the human mind works for as long as I can remember. It’s why I minored in Psychology. My novel, Breaker, came out of the idea of whether a person becomes a serial killer because of nature or nurture. Is it in your DNA, or are you a product of your upbringing and the things you are taught when you are young? Is it the abuse that was foisted upon you, or something that was always there? My story “Saudade” explores the idea of our good twin and evil twin, the angel and devil that sit on our shoulders—our duality as human beings. “Battle Not With Monsters” explores the idea of our inner demons, and what that might look like if we embrace them. Can we bury that knowledge, hide it from ourselves, or is it going to rupture and leak out at some point? Can we keep that veil up or will it eventually drop? See if there is some mental disability, or strength, some sickness, or talent, that could lead to an interesting story.

8: Genre

Another way to find new ideas is to branch out and try different genres. I’m thinking about the second-person, epistolary, Lovecraftian story I wrote, entitled, “In His House.” If you mostly write Southern gothic, why not try horror? If you mostly write horror, why not try magical realism? If you mostly write magical realism, why not try new-weird? I write in a wide range of genres, and that keeps me from getting bored. I write fantasy, science fiction, horror, thrillers, neo-noir, new-weird, transgressive, Southern gothic, and literary fiction. I mean, if you just look at horror alone there are so many sub-genres: quiet, supernatural, gothic, splatterpunk, slashers, extreme, classic, psychological, body, apocalyptic, cosmic, folk, etc. Try new sub-genres, or mix things up. Step outside your genre and try an entirely new one. Or create a mashup that does something different. We were just talking about the movie Spring in class last night, and I love the way that it’s not just body horror and monstrous, but also a romance. Play in some new spaces, and see where it gets you. Hybrid fiction is some of my favorite stuff to write and read, so try some new arrangement of genres and emotions and settings, and see where it takes you.

9: Mine Your Own Life

You need to tap into your own life experiences. There are so many stories in my classes that come out of the real world—the Native moments that Stephen Graham Jones has explored in stories like “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit;” the authority that informs the heartbreaking loneliness in Monica Drake’s “See You Later, Fry-o-Lator;” the research and physical pain that Craig Davidson encountered when writing “Rust and Bone.” Yes, tap into every job you’ve ever had and use that as a backdrop. Yes, think of every relationship you’ve had—the sexy ones, the abusive ones, the ones that gave you love, the ones that broke your heart. Think of every city, state, and country you’ve lived in and write to the oddities and weirdness of every little burrow. Speaking of which—tap into the uncanny, those weird moments in the desert, that spaceship you saw in the mountains, the creature on the side of the road, the shadow standing over your bed. Use every bit of supernatural, strange, and unexplainable. Use it all. I’ve set stories in my old apartment in Wicker Park, recounted the sexual escapades of my swinging youth, my travels to Transylvania, the hallucinations that rewound time and caused me to leave my body. The more personal your stories, the more vulnerable you are, the more you open up on the page, the better your chance for success.

10: Open Calls

So, still not coming up with any new ideas, nothing sticking, things not working for you? Well, leave it up to somebody else then. There are a lot of open calls out there, so let them figure it out for you. I don’t mean the broad, open guidelines for places like Nightmare, The Dark, Cemetery Dance, or The Deadlands. I mean specific open calls with a theme and guidelines. Here are some more narrow calls I’ve seen lately. I’ve even submitted to a few:

  • Fiends in the Furrow. At least this narrows it down to folk horror, so if that’s a niche you haven’t tried before, there you go. What does folk horror mean? Go do that research, and start digging into the rules and expectations.
  • Pizza horror. I think quite a few of you remember this open call?
  • My anthology Exigencies was all about a crossroads—a crisis or tipping point, that inciting incident, or singular moment in time.
  • The current call about monster lairs.
  • I have a story in an anthology from Journalstone about cosmic horror. It hinges around a very specific element—the god Azathoth. There were rules and guidelines, but I also had to do a lot of research.
  • My story “Rotten to the Core” was in an anthology called Liminal Spaces. So that was a very specific prompt.
  • The recent Crystal Lake Publishing call, entitled Never Wake: An Anthology of Dream Horror.

There are a ton of cool presses asking for stories, and while some merely have broad guidelines and a few genres they are looking for, many have very specific calls. So, write to those calls. What’s cool is that they also have a built in deadline, so that should get the work churning.

IN Conclusion

I hope that with these ten different tips and tricks you can find a path that leads you deep into the haunted forest, past the shack with chicken legs, and into that cave with blossoming heat and a foul stench. I hope that you are able to harness and exorcise your demons, to forgive those that have trespassed upon you, or maybe instead, make them suffer on the page. I hope you come out the other side exhausted, spent, crying, laughing, sick to your stomach, scared of what you’ve written, but hopeful that your pain and openness might heal somebody else. Misery loves company, right? So draw your audience in, put them through hell, and then help them to rub a salve on the wounds, as you guide them to safety. We want to ride the rollercoaster, not because we want to die, not really, but to cheat death, and then look back on that experience with gratitude and wonder. Now go get it. I believe in you.

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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