Have you ever been overwhelmed with writing ideas, and you didn’t know what to do with all of them? Have you ever had a brilliant idea at a bad time, like when you’re driving? How do you capture and keep track of your ideas?
There are many ways to capture and organize your ideas in writing. While it may seem obvious that if you have a good idea, you should write it down so you don’t forget about it, all those ideas can pile up. You may find yourself searching through notes, trying to find an idea you had that you want to use. You might kick yourself for failing to write down the details of an idea that you’ve now forgotten.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tools for capturing ideas in writing. All you have to do is find the tools that work for you and develop a system that you can comfortably use for organizing and tracking your writing ideas. Read More
Journal writing is most definitely an art, but how often do we actively use art in our journals?
We writers are passionate about our journals and notebooks, those sacred spaces where some of our best ideas manifest.
So it makes sense to rig our journals so they inspire us as much as possible. And what’s more inspiring than art?
Let’s look at some ways we can fuse art with journal writing in order to cultivate inspiration and creativity.
The Art Journal
Artists keep journals just like writers do. But instead of filling their journals with words, artists fill them with images — doodles, sketches, and paintings.
What happens when we fuse art and words together, when an image is accompanied by a few lines of text or when a paragraph is accented with an illustration?
Words and images complement each other. And since writing is an art, writing and art can live side by side in your journal, coming together to keep you inspired and motivated.
Fusing Art and Words for More Creative Journal Writing
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So why write a thousand words when you can say it with an image? Save the words for whatever can’t be said with a picture or use words to expand on what an image represents. Next time you sit with your journal, experiment with art and illustration.
Here are some ideas for merging art with your journal writing:
- When words won’t come, doodle in your journal instead. You don’t have to be a trained or skilled artist to draw symbols and stick figures.
- Use your journal to sketch pictures of your fictional characters. Again, they can be stick figures. Use colored pencils to shade in their hair, eyes, etc.
- Start collecting images that inspire you. Pick up postcards that capture your imagination and clip images from magazines, and then paste them into your journal. Use them as prompts and write about what you see.
- Practice writing descriptions. Tape an image in your journal, then write a full-page description of the image. Does the description you wrote render the image in the reader’s mind? Imagery is an important element in writing, and crafting descriptions will help you hone your writing skills.
- Mix journal writing and art within the pages of your notebook. Draw a little, write a little. Let the words run over the pictures and vice versa. Use light-colored markers to create big, bold shapes and then fill the shapes with words.
You can add more art to your journal, too. Jot down your favorite song lyrics. Describe a favorite piece of music. Include your favorite photography. Allow all the arts to come together by merging journal writing with other creative forms of expression.
And don’t worry about artistry, except when it comes to words. Lots of writers enjoy other arts, but it’s impossible to master them all. Stay focused on writing if that’s your greatest strength, but allow yourself to explore the full potential of your creativity and artistry.
Do you have any journal writing tips? Got any writing ideas to add or experiences to share? Leave a comment, and keep writing!
I recently flipped through my copy of Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge’s Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words, and after just a couple of chapters, my imagination was on fire.
I’m always looking for new ways to inspire writing ideas, and lately I’ve been thinking that we should talk more about a writer’s most basic building blocks: words. So using words as a way to come up with writing ideas sounded ideal to me.
In Poemcrazy, Wooldridge talks about collecting words. She captures words, stores them, and then stashes them in all kinds of interesting places where they might come in handy.
As I read about how this brilliant poet gathers words so she can use them to jump-start her creative writing, I saw how the idea could apply to any kind of writer, not just a poet. I also saw how physically collecting words could be exhilarating.
After all, words are the key ingredients to every concoction that we writers cook up. Some writers view words as means to an end — they’re the raw materials and nothing more. Then there are those writers who appreciate a wonderful word, writers who pause when they come across a word that’s compelling in its own right, a word that moves or grooves even if it’s just sitting there all by itself.
Chasing and Capturing Words
As Woodridge says, we can borrow, trade, steal, even invent words for our own pleasure. To find words, you have to pay attention. You’ll discover them in your environment (around the house or when you’re out and about), in conversations, in your reading material, on TV, and in the songs you listen to. They are the labels we use for ordinary objects, extraordinary moments, and anything unusual.
I plucked eviscerate from a favorite R.E.M. song. Arbitrary came from a television show. Humma humma — something my mom used to say when I was a kid (it means “ho hum” or “that’s hot,” depending on the inflection). Wooldridge’s favorite method is to take walks and grab words from nature or from field guides. She notes, “My friend Tom’s Ford pickup repair manual is chock full of great words: luminosity probe, diesel throttle, control tool, acceleration pump link, swivel, internal vent valve, choke hinge pin…”
Once you attune yourself to all the words you come into contact with every day, you need a place to stash the ones that speak to you. Jot them down in your journal, on index cards, or sticky notes. Use postcards, gift tags, or scrap paper. Lots of these are easy to tote around (a friend of Wooldridge’s always tucks a few index cards in her back pocket). Be sure to carry a pen.
Tip: You don’t always have to write your words down. If you find words in a magazine or newspaper, just cut them out and then you can tape them to your journal, note cards, or sticky notes.
Storing and Stashing Words
If you’re a word-crazy writer, your word collection will grow rapidly. What are you going to do with all those words? Woodridge keeps a few in her purse, a couple on her desk, some special favorites in a cloth bag. I keep envisioning a big, round glass fishbowl filled with colorful cards, each with a choice word scrawled on it in various colors of ink.
You could keep them in a tin, a basket, a bucket. Toss them into a drawer or slip them into an envelope. Tuck them into your journal.
The idea is to make the process fun. I’ve actually never seen the fun in collecting anything other than books and music, but words are a collectible that I can really get behind.
Using Words for Writing Ideas
The human mind is a funny thing. Ever notice how annoying, unsavory, or unwelcome memories pop into your brain at the most inopportune moments? Or how sometimes, when you sit down to write, you suddenly have absolutely nothing to say. We’ve all experienced the frustrating phenomenon of having a word on the “tip of your tongue.” You know the word, you know what it means. You even have a general sense of how it sounds. But you just can’t remember it!
With your word collection, you’ll have plenty of words at your disposal — words that will inspire a writing session or provide the perfect adjective when that other one that you wanted to use can’t get past the tip of your tongue.
When you’re ready to create, just pull out your collection and start building. Grab a handful of words, put them in an order that interests you, maybe add a few new words to the mix (off the top of your head or from beyond the tip of your tongue), and then make something out of them. It doesn’t have to a be a poem or an essay or a story. It’s a collection of words. Your collection.
For more details about Poemcrazy, check out my full review. In the meantime, get out there, start collecting words, and let them provide you with fresh writing ideas. You’re going to need them!
There’s something mysterious and magical about dreams. In the dreamworld, anything is possible. Our deepest desires and greatest fears come to life. Whether they haunt or beguile, our dreams represent the far reaches of our imaginations.
Journals can have similar qualities of mystery and intrigue. If your journal is full of freewrites, doodles, cryptic notes, and random ideas, then it might read like a road map through your imagination, or it may feel like a crash course through your subconscious.
Journal writing is a great tool for dream exploration, and dreams are an excellent source of inspiration for writing ideas.
You can tap into your daydreams or your sleeping dreams as a way to inform and inspire your journal writing:
- Record your dreams so you can better understand them.
- Capture the images in your dreams and turn them into poems and song lyrics.
- Transform monsters from your nightmares into creepy villains for your short stories or novels.
Sleep, Dreams, and Journal Writing Ideas
Dreams have been a subject of great interest in the fields of neurology, psychology, and spirituality, to name a few. Yet we still know relatively little about the nature of dreams. Where do they come from? What do they mean? In one dream, you’re working out problems from your subconscious, and in the next, you’re a character from your favorite TV show. The white rabbit in your dream symbolizes a call to adventure but the white rabbit in your best friend’s dream represents fertility.
According to Wikipedia:
Dreams are a succession of images, sounds or emotions that pass through the mind during sleep. The content and purpose of dreams are not fully understood, though they have been a topic of speculation and interest throughout recorded history. The scientific study of dreams is known as oneirology.
Like I said, we know relatively little about dreams. But that doesn’t mean we can’t put them to good use. Throughout history, dreams have often acted as catalysts for artists, writers, musicians, and inventors. Here are a few famous literary works that were affected or derived from authors’ dreams:
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
- Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- Stephen King’s Misery
Keeping a Dream Journal
There are many ways you can use dreams in your journal writing. The most obvious is to keep a dream journal. Just keep your journal by your bed and jot down your dreams as soon as you wake, before you even get out of bed (otherwise you risk losing or forgetting the dream). It only takes a few minutes.
You can also jot down a few notes and later use your dream as the foundation for a piece of writing. Your dreams can provide you with characters, scenes, imagery, and even plot ideas.
Journal Writing with Daydreams
Let’s dive right in to what Wikipedia has to say about daydreams:
While daydreaming has long been derided as a lazy, non-productive pastime, it is now commonly acknowledged that daydreaming can be constructive in some contexts. There are numerous examples of people in creative or artistic careers, such as composers, novelists and filmmakers, developing new ideas through daydreaming.
The imagination is a bizarre and wondrous thing. Humans have the capacity to conjure up incredible things, but contrary to popular opinion, using one’s imagination requires time and energy. It might look like you’re sitting around doing a whole lot of nothing. But who knows? You could be plotting the next Pulitzer Prize winning novel.
In some ways, daydreams are a better source of inspiration for journal writing than nighttime dreams. Since you’re awake, you can take breaks from your daydreams to jot down notes. You’re also more likely to retain a daydream because you’re awake for it. Many people have a hard time remembering the dreams that they slept through.
Dream Your Next Piece of Writing
Dreams are borne of human consciousness and imagination, which provide an endless stream of writing ideas and inspiration that can inform your journaling sessions. Your journal can function as a repository for all of these visions, and you can revisit your journal as an incredible idea warehouse at any time for any type of writing project.
Below are some links you can follow to learn more about dreams:
- Twelve Famous Dreams
- UC Berkeley has made an entire course on the Psychology of Dreams available online (audio format).
- Do you have a hard time remembering your dreams? Try a few techniques for better dream recall.
Do you ever write down your dreams? Have you ever kept a dream journal? Has a dream (daydream or night-dream) ever provided inspiration for your writing? Is journal writing a habit for you? How often do you write in your journal, and how do you use it with your other writing projects?
A lot of artists struggle with originality. Of course we all want to be original, but is it possible? Is there anything new under the sun?
Some say there are no new stories, just remixed and rehashed versions of stories we’re all familiar with. Often, when someone calls a piece of work original, a close examination reveals its roots in creative works that preceded it.
Most of us writers have had ideas that we shunned because we thought they were too similar to other stories. But just because your story idea is similar to another story, perhaps a famous one, should you give up on it?
Writing ideas come and go. If it’s true that originality is nothing more than putting together old writing ideas in new ways, then instead of giving up on a project that you think has been done before, you can simply make it your own.
A Little Guessing Game
Look at it this way: everything already exists. The ideas, plots, characters — they’re already out there in someone else’s story. Originality isn’t a matter of coming up with something new, it’s a matter of using your imagination to take old concepts and put them together in new ways.
To test this theory, see if you can guess the following famous story:
A young orphan who is being raised by his aunt and uncle receives a mysterious message from a stranger (a non-human character), which leads him on a series of great adventures. Early on, he must receive training to learn skills that are seemingly superhuman. Along the way he befriends loyal helpers, specifically a guy and a gal who end up falling for each other. His adventures lead him to a dark and evil villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that our hero knows and loves — the same villain who killed his parents.
If you guessed that this synopsis outlines Harry Potter, then you guessed right. But if you guessed that it was Star Wars, you’re also right.
This shows how two stories that are extremely different from one another can share many similarities, including the basic plot structure and character relationships, and it proves that writing ideas will manifest in different ways when executed by two different writers.
As a creative writing exercise, use the synopsis above to write your own story (or outline). It will probably turn out to be unique, even though two of the most famous tales from the last few decades are based on the same ideas.
Recycled Writing Ideas
I’m not advocating for writers to go out and dissect popular stories and then rewrite them with a new twist (although that’s not a bad idea). What I am advocating is seeing writing ideas through instead of casting them aside because they have something in common with a story you’ve read or seen on film or television.
Creative writing is about discovery, imagination, and sharing your thoughts, ideas, and experiences with readers. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had several writing ideas that seemed brilliant at first but later just seemed like a retelling of some old story that everyone already knew.
But lately I’ve been seeing stories in a new light. When I read a great novel or watch a mesmerizing movie, I often realize upon reflection that these works have common elements with lots of other stories. I don’t know if J.K. Rowling ever realized that Harry Potter had so much in common with Luke Skywalker. Whether she did or not, the lesson we can all take away is that she forged ahead and believed in the story that she wanted to tell.
So I’ve come to realize that creativity isn’t always coming up with something new; often, it’s simply finding new connections, perspectives, and combinations of elements. Letting go of your ideals regarding originality and reshaping them with this new understanding will send you soaring into less inhibited and better writing experiences.
Do you ever discard writing ideas that you feel have been done before? Do you find yourself on a constant quest for a story that is new and original? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment.
Writer’s block is probably the most frustrating experience any writer faces. You feel creative and you want to create, but you’re just not inspired.
It happens to most artists from time to time, this disconnect from the muse. Yet there are creative people who seem to have overcome artistic roadblocks — authors who publish multiple novels every year, filmmakers who produce annual blockbusters, and musicians who are on the top-ten list week after week. They know how to stay inspired, but how do they do it? Have they tapped into a secret, endless stream of ideas?
How can you tap into that stream?
I always say look to the source. When I see successful artists and innovators who are consistently producing creative work, I find myself wanting to learn more about where they get their inspiration.
It makes sense that as a writer, you would look first to other writers to find out how they keep their creativity flowing. So go ahead and do that. Read biographies of your favorite authors and listen to interviews with writers to see where some of the best ideas came from (there are excellent writer interviews on podcasts such as The Writing Show and Writers on Writing). If you look hard enough (or listen closely enough), these writers will explain how to stay inspired.
But don’t limit yourself to writers. Inspiration is similar across all of the arts. So check in with folks from other disciplines too. And don’t limit yourself to only those artists whose work you enjoy and appreciate. You might find that a movie director whose films you don’t care for has a creativity technique that works perfectly for you.
I recently heard a musician talking about inspiration, and he said it was like the music came through him rather than to him. He explained that his source is unknown and outside of himself. Other artists will talk about “the zone,” a state of mind in which concentration and focus are absolute and intense. In this zen-like state, inspiration can reach an all-time high. In fact, in this state, creativity is the high.
The Idea Zone
How do artists get into the zone? Some meditate, others use rituals, which might include working out or listening to music. Some read. Others do writing exercises to get warmed up. There are countless ways to get into the zone. At times, you might find yourself slipping into it by sheer coincidence or by accident.
There does seem to be this space that all creative people share. It’s not a physical place; it’s a place in our minds (though some believe it’s outside of ourselves, and that is certainly worth contemplating).
The point is that by stretching your boundaries and experimenting with various techniques, you can find what works best for you.
Do you have any tips for how to stay inspired? How often do you think about the source of your creativity? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment.
We look high. We look low. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been looking forever and will keep looking forever more.
Ideas. They’re out there and we know it. But where are they hiding? Why do they keep escaping us? How can we catch them?
Writing ideas are not always easy to come by. Most ideas get tossed aside because they’re not original or interesting enough. So we constantly search for ideas that will capture our imaginations and keep us happily tapping away on our keyboards.
Not every writer is on this quest. Some writers are overwhelmed with inspiration and can’t find enough time to realize every brilliant idea. The rest of us are always on the lookout for exciting writing ideas to add to our inspiration archives.
Writing Ideas are in Your Hands
By simply living on this earth, you’re surrounded by air and water and writing ideas. Isn’t it funny how sometimes we don’t see what’s right under our noses?
Creative writing is a funny thing. If you look too hard for writing ideas, they’ll elude you. But if you go about your business with an open mind, they’ll suddenly start turning up everywhere.
The list below is nothing new. Just some reminders that in your everyday life, there are endless streams of sources from which you can draw inspiration. After you read the list, go about your business and try to forget about coming up with new writing ideas. Let them come to you.
This is Where They’re Hiding
- In your journal or notebook: How often do you go through and look at all the notes and ideas you’ve jotted down?
- In your diary: You may not want to write your memoir or biography, but you might find some bits of dialogue or ideas for character traits buried in your diaries.
- Family: Who do you know better than your own family? They make great models and character launching pads.
- Friends: Everyone has a friend or two who have had some wild experiences. Borrow those experiences and give them to your characters.
- Coworkers: You have just enough exposure to them to write a character sketch, and there’s just enough mystery that your imagination can fill in the blanks.
- Neighbors: Why is their garage light always on? What’s in that enormous shed in their backyard? And who’s that weird looking visitor who’s always stopping by? You watch them and wonder about them. Now make up their story and write it down.
- Nature: You’re on a walk and pick up a pretty leaf or unusual rock and stare at it. Instead of taking it home and putting it on a shelf, start asking yourself some “what if” questions. Like, what if this isn’t a rock, but a planet? Or what if this leaf is sentient?
- Space: Lie under a starry night sky, and how can you not get all filled up with writing ideas? What’s out there? Who’s out there? How far does it go?
- Books and movies: We’ve all read books and seen movies that were clearly spawned from other, more original books and movies. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great writing ideas in them. What if the character had made a different choice at the beginning of the film? What if the novel had a similar plot but a completely different cast of characters?
- Music and poetry: Don’t ask me how this works or why. Just know that it does. Reading poetry and listening to music relaxes your mind and opens it to countless creative possibilities.
- Writing exercises: That’s what they’re for — generating writing ideas. You can buy books of them, search them out online, or get them right here at Writing Forward.
- Dreams: Before you fall asleep, ask your dreaming self to come up with some new writing ideas. Get some books on dreams (lucid dreaming, for example) and before you know it, your dreams will become your reality and you’ll be writing like mad.
Where Do You Get Your Writing Ideas?
Do you have any favorite places to look for writing ideas? When you’re stuck with plot or character or can’t come up with the last line of your latest poem, how do you resolve your creative block?
Do writing ideas just fall out of the sky? Is it reasonable to sit around waiting for a great idea to land on your lap, so you can write the next big bestseller?
I don’t think so.
When it comes to developing worthwhile writing ideas, it’s either feast or famine for most of us. Some writers have so many ideas, we can’t decide which one to pursue. Other writers struggle to find something worth writing about; they don’t have enough ideas.
And even if you have a compelling idea, the idea itself might not sustain a story or a poem. It’s not enough to have a concept: you need characters, settings, plots, subplots, and themes.
When writers are at a loss for ideas, they often self-diagnose with writer’s block. I believe that’s a misdiagnosis. People struggling with writer’s block aren’t at a loss for ideas. Many are merely dismissing their own good ideas (often because they aren’t perceived as original enough) or they don’t want to put a lot of effort into looking for ideas. I also think that poor health or stress are sometimes misread as writer’s block, in which case the only cure is to take better care of oneself.
However, for the rest of us who are struggling to find the right ideas, there’s no shortage of sources we can turn to for inspiration. Why not start at the top? Why not find out where some of the most successful authors have gotten their brilliant ideas? If that doesn’t inspire us, I don’t know what will.
No Imagination Necessary
First, let us dispel the myth that if you want to be a writer, you must have a vivid imagination. Plenty of writers have found success by being simple observers.
Mark Twain is a shining example. His idea for Huckleberry Finn wasn’t an idea at all; he simply based the character on someone he knew from real life. It turns out that the beloved character was practically a replica of Twain’s childhood friend, Tom Blankenship:
“In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.” — Mark Twain
Have you ever known someone with a standout personality? Such a person can influence your work in the same way that Tom Blankenship influenced Mark Twain.
Political, Religious, and Social Commentary
Of course, Mark Twain is not the only author to successfully draw from real life. During the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of people migrated from the Dust Bowl to California and other western states. John Steinbeck (one of my literary heroes) told their story in The Grapes of Wrath, which was developed from a series of articles that ran in the San Francisco News in 1936.
But it was more than a story about people struggling with poverty in a downtrodden economic climate:
“I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].” — John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is a thoughtful commentary on social injustice and the forces behind poverty and oppression.
In today’s world, which is rampant with political, religious, and sociological commentary, one need not look far for writing ideas. If you can find an issue that matters to you, just look to the news and documentaries for true stories that you can use for inspiration.
Dreaming Things Up
Creative people from all walks of life from artists to inventors have found answers and ideas within the magical world of dreams. One of the most successful living authors of our time, Stephen King, attributes a dream as the inspiration for Misery, a novel that was also made into a film and off-Broadway play:
“Like the ideas for some of my other novels, that came to me in a dream… I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, ‘I have to write this story.’ Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel.”– Stephen King
Unfortunately, many of us don’t remember our dreams, and if we do, they’re hazy at best. Luckily, there are some proven techniques to help us learn how to remember our dreams. Try a few of them and see if you can’t get your next big writing idea while you’re sound asleep.
Suzanne Collins broke the mold with Hunger Games, arguably the most successful post-Harry Potter series to date. The books captured the hearts and minds of untold millions of young adult readers and the films turned the story into a cultural phenomenon. So how did she do it? Where did Collins get the idea for a dystopian, young adult novel set in a future where citizens are required to tune in to an annual reality show so they can watch teenagers fight to the death in an oversized arena?
“One night, I was lying in bed and I was very tired, and I was just sort of channel surfing on television. And, I was going through, flipping through images of reality television where there were these young people competing for a million dollars or a bachelor or whatever. And then I was flipping and I was seeing footage from the Iraq War. And these two things began to sort of fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that is when I, really, I think was the moment where I really got the idea for Katniss’s story.” — Suzanne Collins
Look at the world around you. There are unimaginable things happening everywhere. Some are horrific; others are touching or endearing. What connections can you make in the world today to prompt yourself to imagine what the world will be like tomorrow?
No Excuses! Writing Ideas Are Everywhere
So much for writer’s block — and so much for imagination. We writers need only be influenced and inspired by the world (and the people) around us.
“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” — Neil Gaiman
You know what that means: no more excuses! You’re a writer, so go out there, find your writing ideas, and then write. Write your hearts out.
My little niece used to love to sit with a grown-up book spread across her lap, reading a story out loud — except she couldn’t read yet. She was making it all up — pretending.
During play, she invented new words. One time we were playing with some toys, and I asked one of their names. Without missing a beat, she made up the name Hoken. Hoken sounds to me like a great name for a character in a science fiction or fantasy story.
Play and pretend can lead to some innovative writing ideas, whether you’re looking for a simple concept for starting a new writing project or trying to break through a block in a project that you’re already working on.
The Quest for Concepts
Through play and pretend, children learn about themselves and their environment. You’d think that with all that practice, adults would have even better imaginations than children, but that’s not the case. Kids will engage their imaginations with hardly any effort. They don’t stop to think or reason, they just react intuitively.
The first time I asked my niece who put the moon in the sky, she said, “You did.” And when I asked my nephew the same question, his response was “Peter Pan.” Sometimes, it’s mommy or daddy who put the moon the sky. Sometimes, it’s Batman. Kids aren’t confined by rules, science, or belief systems. They are delightfully visceral.
When I’m playing with my niece and nephew, I get tons of writing ideas: a story about someone who put the moon in the sky, maybe a superhero named Hoken who can fly.
If we grown-ups could shake off the realities we’ve all come to accept about the world, and if we could learn to play freely, without rules or limitations, then we could unearth an endless fountain of ideas and inspiration.
Breakthrough Writing Ideas
I recently got stuck in a story that I was working on. The characters were in the middle of a conflict, and I had to find a way for them to get out of it. There were plenty of options, but I wasn’t sure which one they would choose. I tried to think through it, but I just thought myself in circles. I tried writing a list of possibilities, but that didn’t help me make a choice.
Then I decided to do a little pretending. It wouldn’t be interesting to show the characters working out a plan for overcoming their conflict in the narrative, but I could certainly write a dialogue scene between them, then file it away and write the action scene. I sat there and played out a conversation between two characters. It was almost as if I was performing an impromptu scene. It was a little awkward at first, but the conversation moved along. The characters worked out a plan, and I saw the path they would take.
I was basically playing and pretending — play-acting in a little one-person scene and pretending that I was my characters. And after struggling for several days to work out a problem, I got to a solution in just a few minutes.
I think that’s pretty amazing.
Play and Pretend: Exercise Your Imagination and Act it Out
Those of us who are on a perpetual quest for writing ideas could benefit from a little playing and pretending. You might feel silly at first, but if you relax and trust your imagination, you might end up with some incredible ideas for a writing project.
- Become one of your characters: get dressed up like your character and then go to a place where nobody knows you, in the next town or different part of the city. Act like your character, do what what your character would do. You can even do this around the house.
- Get a recording device and act out the dialogue between your characters: You can do this with a piece of dialogue you’ve already written to see how it sounds. If you use a video recorder and make an effort to get into character, you can also find out how your characters move — which gestures and body language they use.
- Use action figures to work out a scene in your story: Don’t have any? Head to a junk store. Any toys will do. Set up the scene with items from around your house and play out their dialogue and actions. Capture it by taking photos or take notes as you work out your scene.
Playing and pretending is not for everyone. Kids do it naturally, but for grown-ups, it can be awkward and uncomfortable. On the other hand, maybe one of your writer friends or a child in your family would be willing to play along with you. You’ll never know unless you try.
Have you ever acted out a scene or used play and pretend to develop writing ideas? Do you think these techniques would work for you? What do you do when you’re stuck or need fresh ideas for new projects? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment.
Descriptive writing is the art of painting a picture with words.
In fiction, we describe settings and characters. In poetry, we describe scenes, experiences, and emotions. In creative nonfiction, we describe reality.
Classic literature was dense with description whereas modern literature usually keeps description to a minimum.
Compare the elaborate descriptions in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy with the descriptions in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Both series relied on description to help the readers visualize an imagined, fantastical world, but Rowling did not use her precious writing space to describe standard settings whereas Tolkien frequently paused all action and spent pages describing a single landscape.
This isn’t unique to Tolkien and Rowling; if you compare most literature from the beginning of of the 20th century and earlier to today’s work, you’ll see that we just don’t dedicate much time and space to description anymore.
I think this radical change in how we approach description is directly tied to the wide availability of film, television, and photography. Let’s say you were living in the 19th century, writing a story about a tropical island for an audience of northern, urban readers. You would be fairly certain that most of your readers had never seen such an island and had no idea what it looked like. To give your audience a full sense of your story’s setting, you’d need pages of detail describing the lush jungle, sandy beaches, and warm waters.
Nowadays, we all know what a tropical island looks like, thanks to the wide availability of media. Even if you’ve never been to such an island, surely you’ve seen one on TV.
Descriptive Writing in the 21st Century
This might explain why few books on the craft of writing address descriptive writing. The focus is usually on other elements, like character, plot, theme, and structure. While modern readers don’t require lengthy descriptions, descriptive writing is an essential skill, even in the 21st century.
For contemporary writers, the trick is to make the description as precise and detailed as possible while keeping it to a minimum. Most readers want characters and action with just enough description so that they can imagine the story as it’s unfolding.
Descriptive writing is especially important for speculative fiction writers and poets. If you’ve created a fantasy world, then you’ll need to deftly describe it to readers. Lewis Carroll not only described Wonderland; he also described the fantastical creatures that inhabited it. In poetry, the challenge is to describe things in a way that is visceral.
Simple descriptions are surprisingly easy to execute. All you have to do is look at something (or imagine it) and write what you see. But well crafted descriptions require writers to pay diligence to word choice, to describe only those elements that are most important, and to use engaging language to paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
10 Descriptive Writing Ideas
Here are some descriptive writing ideas that will inspire you while providing opportunities to practice writing description. If you don’t have much experience with descriptive writing, you may find that your first few attempts are flat and boring. If you can’t keep readers engaged, they will wander off. Work at crafting descriptions that are compelling and mesmerizing.
- Go to one of your favorite spots and write a description of the setting: it could be your bedroom, favorite coffee shop, or a local park. Leave people, dialogue, and action out of it. Just focus on explaining what the space looks like.
- Who is your favorite character from the movies? Describe the character from head to toe. Show the reader not only what the character looks like but also how the character acts. Do this without including action or dialogue. Remember: description only!
- Thirty years ago we didn’t have cell phones or the Internet. Now we have cell phones that can access the Internet. Think of a device or gadget that we’ll have thirty years from now and describe it.
- Since modern fiction is light on description, many young and new writers often fail to include descriptions, even when the reader needs them. Go through one of your writing projects and check to see that elements readers may not be familiar with are adequately described.
- Sometimes in a narrative, a little description provides respite from all the action and dialogue. Make a list of things from a story you’re working on (gadgets, characters, settings, etc.) and for each one, write a short description of no more than a hundred words.
- As mentioned, Tolkien often spent pages describing a single landscape. Choose one of your favorite pieces of classic literature, find a long passage of description, and rewrite it. Try to cut the descriptive word count in half.
- When you read a book, use a highlighter to mark sentences and paragraphs that contain description. Don’t highlight every adjective and adverb. Look for longer passages that are dedicated to description.
- Write a description for a child. Choose something reasonably difficult, like the solar system. How do you describe it in such a way that a child understands how he or she fits into it?
- Most writers dream of someday writing a book. Describe your book cover.
- Write a one-page description of yourself.
If you have any descriptive writing ideas to add to this list, feel free to share them in the comments.