What makes great story ideas? Where do we find them, and once we do, what on Earth do we do with them?
In his book The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, William Blundell (of the Wall Street Journal) says writers share a frequently neglected responsibility to be tellers of tales (my emphasis) as well as purveyors of facts.
He says we’re “modern, well-educated, computerised – and still no different from those men who wandered from one rude village to another in ancient Greece, enchanting people with tales of an Odysseus driven by storm and the gods’ caprice across the wine-dark sea”. (Introduction, p. x)
He names three of the biggest challenges facing a features writer:
1. Which elements make a story intrinsically interesting?
2. How can we seize the readers’ attention instantly?
3. How can we shape the tale to hold their interest, and nail it into their memory?
Blundell cautions us to heed “the unspoken commandment that undergirds all others, the only common demand of readers everywhere: For Pete’s sake, make it interesting. Tell me a story.” (Introduction, p. xii)
Bill Blundell’s Brainstorms
Bill Blundell, former Wall Street Journal writing coach, has a systematic approach to developing ideas. He lists four routes he considers when he’s thinking about a writing project:
Extrapolation: Bill asks himself if the cause of some phenomenon is likely to produce other effects. If a spike in petrol prices increases the sale of small cars, maybe it will also boost the sale of bicycles. If you investigate and find out that’s true, you may have something worth writing about.
Synthesis: Can you unify apparently unrelated developments to establish an interesting new pattern? Downhill skiers suddenly prefer wider, fatter skis. Water skiers turn from slalom skis to wake-boards. Windsurfers adopt shorter boards and shift from sails to kites for propulsion, allowing them to leap and somersault. Has the influence of skateboarders shifted the emphasis in gliding sports from speed and grace to acrobatic tricks?
Localisation: Does some national or international development have local consequences that nobody’s noticed? Maybe a ban on importing Iranian cashews has increased demand for locally-grown peanuts?
Projection: How does some central development play out in terms of consequences? Bill looks for two types – impacts and countermoves. If interest rates fall, will home buyers buy the bigger houses they can suddenly afford? And if home buyers begin buying bigger houses, will home builders increase the average square footage of the houses they construct?
So you have a cracking idea. What now? Here’s a very simple outline of how many stories are conceived, gestated and finally born. Next we’ll start looking at gathering information – from contacts and sources.
Write a single sentence (which will become known as your ‘theme sentence’) that describes succinctly what your story is about.
Your theme sentence won’t be used in your story (though it may be used as a standfirst, or precis, to the story). You’re writing it to guide your research, your interview questions, and finally, the way you put your story together.
Theme sentences can be really hard to write, so take your time!
(If you have trouble generating ideas, read more about how to do it in this post by Natalie.)