How To Find Original Ideas When You Have None

Recently I got an email from blog reader, Emma, and she said:

“I haven't written in a long time because I can't think of a single thing to write about. I've been trying for weeks now, but I just keep on hitting blank walls. Nothing grabs my attention anymore. When I used to write, if I got a good idea I would get really excited and the story would almost write itself. Now, if I do come up with an idea, my mind automatically thinks of other books or tv shows I've seen that have a similar plot line . . . I was just wondering if there was any advice you could give me?”

I could feel the frustration in Emma’s email. First of all, Emma, I want you to know you’re not alone. Most of us have struggled to find ideas at one point or another—especially creative, fresh, original ideas.

And second, since I don’t have all the answers, I’d love for ALL of YOU to chime in the comments with your advice to all those who are struggling to find original ideas. I want this to post to be a way we can help each other.

The fact is, it does seem like almost every good idea has already been done. And it’s all too easy to second-guess ourselves and to let our worries leech the joy and passion from writing.

So here are a few pieces of advice I have for Emma and anyone struggling to find original ideas when they feel like they don’t have any:

1. Uncage the beast:

I’m in the beginning phase of writing my next book. This is the stage where I spend hours upon hours brainstorming and coming up with ideas. I have a spiral notebook handy wherever I go, and I keep a running list of any and every idea that I could possibly include in my new book.

I don’t throw out anything at this point. I allow myself to list everything—even if it’s already been used, even if it sounds dumb. I scour books and biographies and I jot down all the things that sound even the least bit interesting. I don’t hold anything back.

I uncage the wild and untamed imagination deep inside.

I don’t leash it or try to fence it in with proper boundaries. Instead, I let it run around like a screaming naked banshee. The less we interfere with the wild beast of our imagination, the more creative it will be.

2. Make the beast even bigger.

Once I have pages of ideas, I start going through my list and pick out the things I like best. Then I start to say things like, “This is wild. But what could make it wilder?” “I like this situation, but what could make it more tense?”

In other words, at this stage, I want to begin to narrow down some of my ideas, pick the freshest and most original, and find ways to dress them up into something different and bigger than what’s been done before.

We may not always be able to find ideas that are utterly and completely unique. In fact, most writing gurus will tell us that every plot has already been written. But . . . we can take our ideas and ad a twist that is uniquely ours.

3. Finally, take the good, bad, and hairy and just write.

At some point, we have to take what we’ve got and just start writing. Even if we think our ideas are boring, cliché, and predictable, we have to write.

I’ve found that the process of writing is one of the biggest keys for stirring my creativity even more. No matter what beastly ideas I come up with before the first draft, invariably once I start writing, my ideas metamorphose into something so much more than I could have planned.

When we fill the page with words, when we work our writing muscles hard, when we push ourselves to get something on the paper, then we’re able to open our imagination in ways that aren’t possible during the planning phase.

Writing friend Heather Sunseri said this in a recent tweet, “Sometimes when you're unsure of what is supposed to happen next in your story, you just have to start writing. 'Next' will reveal itself.”

Summary: “You need to come up with hundreds of ideas, toss out the ones that don’t grab you, and then nurture and develop what’s left.” ~Bell (Plot & Structure)

So, what advice would you give Emma or anyone else struggling to find ideas? What’s the best way YOU find original ideas when you have none?


  1. My creative juices flow the most when I read other authors and when I watch movies or my favorite TV shows. I start playing the "what if" game. Or some tiny piece of the book or movie will spark a completely different idea. Our creativity can feed off of others' creativity.

    When I tweeted that, I had been in a rut. I couldn't decide what to write next in a story to get my characters where they needed to go. So, I just started writing. And something I had never thought of revealed itself.

    Thanks for the shout-out, Jody.

  2. That's kind of a scary picture. This advice is similar to Donald Maass' - Go Big!

  3. Reading and being out in nature always give me new ideas. Where I struggle is fleshing a story out. Poems are way easier :)

  4. My best ideas come from doing the mundane. Such as housework, shopping in grocery stores, when I am not writing. Hope that helps, Emma!

  5. My best ideas come when I'm focused on those things for which I have the most passion - be it a positive, "I love that!" type of passion, or a negative, "I hate that!" type of passion - and also when I think to make note of anything (or anyone) that gets some kind of an emotional rise out of me.

  6. Like Heather, my creativity awakens when reading other novels. It's the best thing for me to do when in a rut. Or, I listen to music. Sometimes, if you take a lyric from one of your favorite songs and play with it (basically, the "what if" game as Heather also said), you might be able to come up with an idea for a story. I've also gotten ideas from reading online news stories. Most articles are short, but I start thinking about the person being reported on and what their background story is.

    Great and thorough advice from you Jody, as always. I hope Emma finds her way back to storytelling.

  7. A change of scenery can help sometimes, be it a different city or just going to the park at lunch. Asking characters in the WIP what they think is going to happen next usually unlocks a few secrets, as does engaging in some mundane chore like vacuuming. I find hopping between different creative projects (art, poetry, photography) also throws a little gas on the creative firepit.

  8. Doing something else-watching TV, a movie, listening to music, reading-usually helps "snap" things back in place for me. It usually happens because I'm stumped on a scene or character. But then I work past the dam and it breaks...

  9. I agree that reveals come via the writing.

  10. It helps me to run some of my ideas past a fellow writer or writing group. In the past, this has helped me to shape what was plain in my story idea or tame a wild thought. :)

  11. Great tips, Jody. When I'm drawing a blank, I'll take a walk. Just getting away from the story can clear my head and cause ideas to flow.

    In the early stages of a story, I brainstorm with my hubby, who is my plotting partner. When the two of us uncage our "beasts," fun things happen. We toss out ideas willy nilly. Some land with a thud, some spur others, and some are total keepers. I love to see how excited he gets when one of us hits on a winner--almost as excited as I get. =)

  12. Great post today, Jody. I agree with all you've said, and with the commenters as well. Generating creative ideas does not come naturally to me. At all. I depend heavily on being inspired by other novels, by movies, etc. The key to making these ideas original is what you said in your second point. Twist them and tweak them until they are your own.

    I'll take inspiration from two or three different sources, twist them around, mix them up, and tweak them until they form something completely new. Then I add in my own unique voice and style, and the result is something original.

    It's like a chef taking common ingredients, but combining them in such a way that he creates something fresh and new and scrumptiously delicious. Something that will then inspire other chefs in their own creative journey.

  13. Love your advice, Jody!

    I always think of the most outrageous thing/circumstance that could possibly happen and then take it up a notch. Anyone who's a mom knows that the strange and unusual can and DOES happen. We just have to be willing to think outside the box even further.

    I frequently bounce ideas off my family, and together, we come up with some doozies.

  14. As a fantasy and science fiction writer, my need for originality and difference goes beyond a matter of plot. I've been trying a technique for a while now, and it has been working.

    I keep a notebook and pencil handy - what writer doesn't? - to jot down all the little "What ifs" and "That's cool" things I think of or see during the day. Sometimes I jot down seven things in a day, sometimes I go for a week without adding to the notebook. The nuggets that I really liked of abandoned stories go in the notebook as well.

    This notebook is my story stew steeping. (Alliteration! I'm so suave.) Writing things down helps me remember them, so when I start a story, I may have a few ingredients from that stew in mind. When I get stuck or feel like I've reached an area in my story where I don't have something different or fun going on, I go back to my notebook. Taking so many little things and weaving them together will create something creative.

    I'd say to at least try the story stew notebook. I was surprised at how well it worked.

  15. Great post and ideas! It's scary to think that one day...what if I run out of ideas and can't think of a thing to write? That's TERRIFYING! But I know it won't happen. Sure, it may happen for a while. But keep on writing...something will happen. We're writers. It's what we do. We can't just turn it off, even when our minds don't cooperate. Let your spirit and soul free. Let them take over your fingers rather than your mind, and just. write.

  16. Some writer friends swear by WATER. Not to drink! But washing dishes (ugh!), taking a bath or shower, swimming...any activity that involves putting your body into water is apparently a great trick for freeing up the imagination. I like to go for a walk when I'm stuck. For Emma and others who are looking for entirely new story ideas, I would suggest reading/watching/listening to unfamiliar books/movies/music even those that don't naturally hold appeal. That might shake up her imagination and let the wild beast out.

  17. Hey everyone!! LOVING all of your suggestions today! Patrice, I think you've just given us all permission to invest in hot tubs! ;-) Or at the very least nightly bubble baths!

  18. Dear Jody: Oh, how glad I am that I popped over here today--you are so brilliant! I love the picture of a naked, hairy monster running amok in my brain...

    Off to retweet this!

  19. This post was exactly what I needed to read. I am at the very beginninng of starting out writing my first novel and I've been floundering to try and find a rythm. This post gave me a slew of ideas from you and other people on how to get started. THANK YOU!!

  20. Some of my favorite stories are ones that are revised versions of stories that have already been told before. For example, how many times has the Romeo and Juliet story been "rewritten"? One of my new favorite TV shows, Once Upon a Time, takes all the most popular fairy tales and rewrites them by adding new elements, plot twists, and characters. So I think as long as the story isn't copied/plagiarized, it's okay to take an idea and make it into your own by adding your own insight to it.

  21. At least for me, I know that I tend to stall when I'm doing too much self-editing/criticizing in the early stages of writing. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy...if I'm telling myself that everything that I write is stupid then inevitably I will only be able to write stupid things.

    I also think that things are usually overused because there is something good in it. So for me, if I'm stuck on an idea, but can't get past the surface of it I usually open up another document and work my way THROUGH the cliches, the expected parts, the typical, and see if I can turn something else up under it.

  22. This is such great advice, and I feel like everyone can use it no matter what stage they're in. We all hit these points, even in the middle of projects, where nothing seems exciting. But we just have to trust that what we think of as unoriginal is often very original in other peoples minds.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  23. Well if someone mentioned hot tubs, I'll chime in that I spent a LOT of time in the sauna during college (once I knew of its existence in the ladies' locker room) when I was brainstorming for an essay.

    I think mindless physical tasks can also help; when I wash dishes or fold laundry or some such task, my mind wanders...and sometimes it wanders somewhere useful!

  24. I find that doing something out of routine helps my creativity. My senses go into shock just a bit when I present them with unexpected experiences. It kind of sends my mind in a tizzy and, in turn, I get great inspiration. As an example, I might take a completely different route to work-just for the experience, eat food that never seemed interesting before, take a day trip to someplace I'd never been, or talk to a stranger. Then, like it was mentioned, I sit down and write...and let the words tell the story.

  25. If I'm really stuck for an idea I'll turn to the local newspapers. They tend to have a lot of human interest stories. I will use one or more and start to weave a plot around them. Ask yourself what would make them more interesting, what would add tension. For example a story about a teenager winning an academic prize - perhaps they cheated. A story about a nursing home resident turning 100 - perhaps a long lost relative will see the report and be reunited. A story about a mother campaigning for a road crossing - perhaps her child was injured crossing the road.

  26. Even if it HAS been done, I remind myself that I'll do it in my own unique way. My voice, my logic makes it different. I'm with you, Jody, brainstorming ways to make it more wild always helps!

  27. I have to agree with Jody's method of pushing yourself to write, rather than think about it. Simply jotting down a stream of unassociated thoughts can stimulate the imagination and open the creative gate. It seems to me that the more you try to avoid actually 'doing' it, the less likely you are to reveal that elusive bright idea.

    I try to keep the imaginitive muscles working when I take my dog for a walk - for instance, I might see a piece of litter on the footpath and I'll try to conjure a little drama as to how it got there and why. Sounds silly, but it works for me!

  28. I usually don't have a hard time coming up with ideas. But, to make an idea original, I keep it with me for a few months. As I drive, brush my teeth, etc. I think about it. Then it usually takes on a life of its own and becomes different than the story that may already be out there. That's when I'm ready to write it down. But that's just my process.

  29. During the holidaze, I struggled to find a book idea.
    I had nothing.
    So, as I told several friends, I "walked around in my mind for a few days and asked the question, 'What if?'"
    Some of them -- the non-writers -- looked at me like I was bonkers.
    The writers, however, nodded their heads in agreement.
    I kept asking "what if?" until something sparked an idea --specifically that question, something in my past and the cover of a magazine. All three things germinated into the seed of a new book idea.
    As always, appreciate your encouragement, Jody!

  30. Don't give up on ideas too fast. I experienced that researching is a great way to grow an idea. Most times I stumble upon interesting aspects I didn't know before and I couldn't have come up with. May it be on the setting or something loosely attached on the theme of the story - it always adds more layers and fleshes out my original idea.

    Good luck to all and happy writing!

  31. Don't give up on ideas too fast. I experienced that researching is a great way to grow an idea. Most times I stumble upon interesting aspects I didn't know before and I couldn't have come up with. May it be on the setting or something loosely attached on the theme of the story - it always adds more layers and fleshes out my original idea.

    Good luck to all and happy writing!

  32. Thanks for chiming into the discussion, Kerstin! I agree--researching really can spark ideas!


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