If you’ve ever sat in front of your computer screen staring at the empty white canvas of a blank document, then you know all about the pain and frustration of writer’s block. Sometimes, it can strike even when you have a killer idea just chomping to be set free from the confines of your brain, but sometimes you don’t get even that far.
Frequent bouts of writer’s block — or worse, a complete lack of story ideas — can be catastrophic to a writer’s success and self-esteem, and you must discover ways to overcome the stalemate.
The next time self-doubt and a lack of imagination threaten to derail your writing plans, try one of these unusual methods for finding your muse. They’ll turn you into an infinite source of your own writing prompts.
- 1 Watch Television
- 2 Buy Groceries
- 3 Pull Out Those Old Family Photo Albums
- 4 Revisit Your Past
- 5 Visit a Nursing Home
- 6 Play With Toys
- 7 Visit a Graveyard
- 8 Read a Book that You Don’t Want to Read
- 9 Sleep Well
- 10 Read the Bible
- 11 Read a Cookbook
- 12 Get a Metal Detector
- 13 Look for a New Job
- 14 Look for a New House
- 15 Use Google Search
- 16 Window Shop the Kindle Store
- 17 Go to an Antiques Shop
I know, I know: television is the great time waster and motivation killer.
I generally agree with that assessment and think Americans spend too much time in front of the tube. It glazes our gazes and stilts our conversations.
But here’s the thing …
Sometimes, you need some down time, and TV can help with that for many of us. What’s more relaxing than plopping in your recliner after a long day at work to catch a few laughs with Seinfeld or Johnny Carson (yes, I’m old)?
And here’s the other thing …
Television brings all kinds of ideas right into our living room with just the flick of a switch.
Sitcoms and dramas are full of fascinating characters and intricate plots.
Reality shows give us a glimpse into the lives of other people and reveal issues we may never face in our own lives.
Historical expositions, conspiracy theories, and even the nightly news provide enough story fodder every day to fill a lifetime of books.
Don’t spend your life in front of the TV screen, but you also shouldn’t ignore it as a source of writing ideas.
I could have called this one “take a walk” or “pick some flowers” because the point is more that you need to get out and about than that you need to focus on any one activity. The key to making this work is to observe what’s happening around you and stop trying so hard to develop your next story idea from scratch.
The old man in the dairy aisle, the young mom in produce, and the businessman in cleaning products all have a story to tell if you’ll allow it to grow in your mind. Your job is to open your eyes and recognize a viable seed when you see it.
Pull Out Those Old Family Photo Albums
We all have an unbearable aunt or relentless grandmother who insists on dragging out her camera every time anything happens. She has collected stacks and stacks of photo albums, and those are just collecting dust in her bedroom closet or in some relative’s garage. What a hassle!
You know what, though? Those pictures are artifacts of all the lives that have come before you and, in a way, who have made you who you are.
You think there are no interesting stories in those tomes? Then you may need to rethink your commitment to writing because it doesn’t even take much imagination to discover a good tale when it’s laid out in picture form for all to see.
Revisit Your Past
Think about it — when were you at your most creative?
If you’re like most people, it was when you were a little kid, before responsibility and society boxed you into the pen that limits your thinking today.
On any given boring Saturday afternoon, you might have traveled to the moon on your bicycle rocket ship, weathered World War II in your blanket-built fortress, or solved the world’s greatest mysteries as a playground detective.
If your creative juices have stopped flowing, a trip down memory lane — and back to the scene of the “crime” — just may be enough to re-hydrate your imagination. Chances are, your old room or schoolyard have been saving up stories all these years, just waiting for you to come pick them up one of these weekends.
Visit a Nursing Home
If your own family’s history is not inspirational enough to get your muse humming again, there is plenty of intrigue and glory just waiting for you to discover, and you won’t have to go far to find it. As the Greatest Generation dwindles quickly and Baby Boomers begin to deteriorate, our nursing homes are bursting with accomplished people who have wonderful stories to tell and serve as a bridge to our collective past.
Why not volunteer to read to our seniors, or to help out with food services, or simply to sit and listen to these living storybooks talk about their lives? Not only will you help someone feel important again for awhile, but you’ll learn plenty in the bargain, too.
Chances are, you’ll also come out of the experience with at least one new story idea.
Play With Toys
You can take the idea of returning to your childhood mindset even further if you really want to tap into your youthful creativity. How would you go about doing that?
By playing with toys, at least on occasion.
If you’re a parent, this should be obvious to you, as you likely already engage in make-believe sessions with your children. If you don’t have kids, then you’re in for a surprise in terms of the innovative boost that play things can bring you.
Don’t be intimidated — you don’t have to start shopping at toy stores, though that’s not a terrible idea. Thanks to the internet, you can find every kind of bauble, from Star Wars to Silly Putty to video games, with just the click of a mouse.
Heck, even perusing the ads for these items is likely to shake loose an idea or two.
Visit a Graveyard
At the risk of tripping into the macabre, graveyards can be very inspirational. If you pay close attention to the stories the gravestones tell, they can also be a great source of material.
Why is Cedric Jones buried with his parents, for instance, when his wife Sally is on the other side of the cemetery with their children? What is the meaning of that strange scythe symbol at the top of Molly McGuire’s headstone? And just why is it that Abe Wilson, aged 56, has a monument that towers over everyone else’s?
The answers are yours to craft.
Read a Book that You Don’t Want to Read
Well, maybe that’s a little strong.
Maybe what I should say is, “read a book that you wouldn’t normally read.”
Look, all of us writers started out as readers. Over time, you gravitated toward the genres that appealed to you most and then, at some point, you decided you wanted to write in those genres, too.
That’s great and how writers are born, generally speaking.
But what are you reading these days? Do you still stick mainly to your preferred niches? I know I do.
The problem with that approach is that you’re missing out on a big, old honking source of inspiration — other types of books and stories.
Most of the time, for example, I like to read dark stuff, and horror short stories are my favorite. But every now and then, I like to throw in something different. A classic western, a sci-fi novel, maybe even something more highbrow like “literary fiction.”
These aren’t the first books I’d reach for on my deathbed, but they give my mind something new to chew on. And they generally help me spit out a few new story ideas for my own fiction: a vampire cowboy, a distant planet where all human spirits end up, a sewer monster terrorizing 19th century London high society.
You don’t have to give up your favorites, but it won’t hurt you to take a read on the other side of the tracks now and then.
Are you sleeping well each night, getting eight hours or so of sound, uninterrupted shuteye? Are you having vivid dreams that seem like they’re the product of psychedelic mushrooms someone snuck into your food?
If not, then you need to look at your nighttime habits, because dreams can give you a wealth of story ideas that you might never come up with during your waking hours.
When you drift into a deep slumber, your inhibitions slip away, and your wildest thoughts can come to the surface. Do everything you can to foster your own strange theater by eating well, avoiding stimulants and exercise near bedtime, and making sure you have enough time to get a full night’s sleep.
Read the Bible
No matter what your religious affiliation or spiritual beliefs, you have to admit that few books can touch the Holy Bible when it comes to inspiration. From stories of hope and forgiveness to fantastical scenes of debauchery and destruction, the Bible can stoke even the most dormant of imaginations.
When you add in the various conspiracy theories and hidden messages surrounding the Good Book, you can’t go wrong reaching for the Bible when you need a little kick in the pants.
Read a Cookbook
If there’s one common thread that runs through nearly every type of human interaction and event, it’s food.
Wherever we gather and whatever we do — either alone or in packs — grub is not far behind. We often make strong associations with our vittles, too.
I mean, what comes to mind when you read, “pumpkin pie”? Young gourds hell-bent on revenge for the murder — and baking — of their parents, right? No? Well, maybe that’s just me.
The point is, food is a powerful force in our lives, so why not use it for inspiration? Go to the library, grab a book of recipes, then see what types of ideas rumble loose.
Get a Metal Detector
Ever think about what happened in your neighborhood before your family moved in or before your house was even built? Or how about the city park with the old, rusty merry-go-round — there must be some interesting history there, right?
It is often said that the past is prologue, but it can also be a rich source of writing ideas. It doesn’t have to be big time history, either, and you don’t have to go far to find it.
In fact, you don’t even have to know the history of your area to be inspired by it. Here’s how …
Get a cheap metal detector and troll around your immediate locale. If you live in the city, wave your detector through your yard and down the sidewalk. Maybe head over to the park.
If you live in the country, sweep through the strips of land at the sides of the road or walk around buildings on your property.
When you get a hit, don’t even bother to dig — it’s illegal in a lot of places, anyway. Instead, imagine what might be down there under your feet. How did it get there, who put it there, and why did they discard it?
Answer those questions, and you have the kernels of an intriguing story.
Look for a New Job
How does the other half live?
The answer to that question can pay big dividends when it comes to conjuring new character and story ideas. And, while you may be able to imagine how, say, a fireman or a civil engineer feels and approaches each day, there is a better, more direct method for getting there …
Read job listings.
What better way to get a handle on how other people work than to read detailed descriptions of, well, how they will work once so-and-so corporation hires them?
Did you know that most administrative assistants need solid accounting skills or that some programmers are required to stand for several hours each day?
You would if you read their job descriptions.
And, when you do, pick an imaginary person who perfectly fits the published profile and think about how it must be to live in his world. Like magic, you have a whole new life from which to draw your stories.
Look for a New House
And if you really want to know how people live, you can look into where they live. Or, rather, where they might live if they buy that big house over on Emerson and 40th.
Check out home listings in your area or anywhere else and try to imagine what sorts of person might be interested in the houses you see.
Who could afford that $5-million mansion by the sea?
What type of person would want a fixer-upper that the listing admits may be haunted?
Do that and, once again, you have a new repository of story ideas.
Use Google Search
Bloggers are really good at coming up with article topics, and they’re also really good at finding tools to come up with article topics.
One of those tools is the long-tail keyword. If you’re not familiar with long-tail keywords, they basically are natural phrases that people think about and type in when looking for a solution to their problems.
If I’m stuck in my poetry efforts, for example, I might go to my local friendly search engine and type, “how to overcome writer’s block for poets.” That’s a long-tail keyword, as opposed to the broader term, “writer’s block.”
The “long-tail” modifier has to do with search traffic distribution graphs: a few big terms will account for a large percentage of overall search traffic and appear in the “head” of the graph, where each word gets tons of hits.
Long-tails, on the other hand, get fewer hits per term, but there are thousands or millions of them — they fill out the “long tail” of the distribution graph. You can learn more about long-tail keywords at WordStream, where they have nifty graphics like the one below.
What you need to know about long-tail keywords is that you can use them to generate story ideas, and you can do that with your old friend Google. Here’s how …
- Go to Google
- Type in a general phrase related to the type of story you want to write, like, “ghost stories.”
- Scroll down to the bottom of the search results and take a gander at the section labeled, “Searches related to ghost stories.”
There are some pretty cool ideas there, but if they don’t light your fuse, repeat the process. This time, though, start with one of those related long-tail searches, like, “ghost stories for kids.”
Rinse and repeat until inspiration strikes.
Window Shop the Kindle Store
One of the main appeals of physical bookstores is that you can walk around and look at all the colorful or interesting covers. You can pick them up, bask in the tactile pleasures of their heft and page textures, peruse the content, and inhale that “new book” aroma.
You’re almost guaranteed to find a book you can’t live without, and it will often be an unexpected treasure. Most of the time, if you’re a writer, you’ll also find some inspiration in the commercial stacks.
You can relive most of that glory from years gone by — minus the scintillating smells — at the Kindle Store. Just head on over there and start clicking through the categories.
Several hours later, you’ll emerge with a loaded ebook reader, maybe a lighter bank account, and plenty of ideas for your own next story.
Go to an Antiques Shop
As you can probably tell from this list, connecting with the past is one of my favorite ways to generate story ideas. And what better way to connect with the past than to immerse yourself in it?
Walk into most any antique shop, and you’re immediately flooded with not only visual evidence of our history but often the smells and sounds of the past, too.
For some of us, antiques are full of memories, and those can be powerful story-starters. For many, though, everything old enough to be an antique is “new” and can really stoke the imagination.
When you encounter an intriguing object, you can either research its origin and purpose, or you can just make those up. Either way, you’ve found your next writing prompt.
Also published on Medium.