What should I write about, the question every aspiring writer must confront. When confronted with a blank page many writers find they don’t have an answer. Fortunately the solution is simple, write anything. If you don’t know what to write then start with something basic. Imagine a person, just a generic person. Where are they? In a house, an apartment, a school, a forest, a cave, a car? Why are they there? What are they trying to accomplish?
Let’s say you decide that this person is in a car. They’re driving along a flat road in the middle of a desert region, maybe Texas or Arizona. They’ve been driving all night (because that seems interesting to me). This means they’re very eager to get to their destination, or get away from something. Which is it? And why are they so desperate to get there?
If you realize you don’t like this idea, change something. Maybe they’re driving along a winding road, with hills and curves, just a leisurely drive, wasting time while they wait for…what?
First and foremost, stories are about a character in flux. Something is always changing.
Another technique is to collect ideas. The world is full of random events, and your mind is constantly thinking random thoughts. Most of them are discarded within moments. Carry a notebook or a cell phone, something to write with or record your thoughts. Jot down these random ideas.
People are a great source for ideas. Watch people and take note of your first impressions. How would you describe the woman who walks like she’s late? What do her clothes and facial expression suggest to you? As you wander through a mall or outdoor park you will hear fragments of conversation. Imagine the rest of the conversation.
Art is another source of inspiration. Listen to a song or look at an image. I look at a painting of a wide path, green with grass cut short, while on either side the grass grows up to a person’s shoulder. Who uses this path? Where does it lead? What does it say that the path is covered in thick, short grass, clearly cut or mowed regularly?
Ad Lib or Outline
Once you have some idea for your story there are two strategies: improviser and planner. An improviser starts with a specific detail and keeps writing, discovering the story as they put the words down. “Samantha sat at her desk, typing away, when the phone rang.” A planner creates outlines and then fills in the details. “Samantha works at a nonprofit, managing emails and newsletters. What problem is she going to encounter?”
Most writers use both strategies to varying degrees. I find an outline comforting. I often wander off, but it gives me a starting point. If a soft spoken character doesn’t work for me then that also suggests that a bold and assertive character might work better.
The key is to keep at it; try an idea for a little while, and if you truly feel it’s not working, swap it out for something completely different. As long as you keep trying you’ll get there.
Routines & Prompts