Craft,  Creativity

Getting to ‘What if…’ Sparking Ideas For Your Writing

by Christine Hennebury

Writers often say that their stories started with a ‘What if…?’ Sometimes, though, it’s a challenge to get to that starting point. 

It’s okay if you have trouble coming up with ideas, even if it happens frequently. But, to save yourself some stress, I recommend having some idea-generating techniques ready to go so you can get back to writing as soon as possible.

So, what should you do to get your ideas flowing?

In the big picture, you’ll want start cultivating idea-generating habits like going for walks, and regularly reading books, listening to podcasts, or watching shows that get you into creative mode. You can also spend time with other writers and chat about ideas, and you can practice capturing fleeting ideas in a file or a notebook.

Those big picture plans are great in the long term, but they won’t be much help if you are already facing a blank page.  If you need to get your brain in gear right now, perhaps one of these techniques will help:


1) Gather Some Information

You don’t want to go down the rabbit hole with this, so be sure to set a timer for your info-gathering.  Start by googling something really broad that you *might* want to write about – frogs, dinner parties, annoying habits. Have a look at the sorts of things that come up, especially in the image search. Does anything there spark a ‘What if…’ for you?


2)   Look Around

This can be closely related to point one but it is a bit more specific and hands-on. Pick any object in your immediate environment. and ask yourself a few questions about it.  What kind of person (aside from you!) might own this? Why would something like this be important to someone? What could it be used for? What *else* could it be used for? Why might someone keep this? Why might they try to get rid of it?

(This is inspired by Julie Duffy’s Story-A-Day May instructions for short story writing.)


3) Compare and Contrast

If one object doesn’t spark something for you, perhaps two will. Either look at objects in the space around you, use a prompt generator, or just do a search for ‘common objects.’  Select two and think about how they might be used together or why they should never be used together. What kind of circumstances would lead to someone having a wrench and a chicken nugget in their back pocket?  Why would someone need to keep a knitting needle and a rubber boot in their trunk? How could a hand print and a heart-shaped locket end up on the side of the road?


4) Go Off On A Tangent

Take a simple word or concept and go off on a tangent about it. What different things could being green mean? Do you have a character that would be particularly interested in green? Or that might look particularly good in green? Could green mean elves? Environmentalism? Being new at something? Being rich?

The point is to generate ideas, so it doesn’t really matter how odd your suggestions get. Just keep jumping from one to the next.

(This is inspired by a technique described by ‘Renegade Writers’  Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell.)


5) Write About Your Writing

If you don’t have any ideas, it’s okay to start by writing about writing (actually, it’s okay to do this even if you *do* have ideas.)  Grab any old sheet of paper or open a new computer file and start writing about writing. Complain if you want. Talk about the kinds of things you like to write, or settings/people/concepts you might want to write about. Once your brain gets into writing mode, a useful idea might just spring forth.


6) Ask Someone For Ideas

Call a friend and ask what they would like to read about. Ask a kid how they would build a spaceship from tinfoil. Get on Facebook and ask about the weirdest thing someone has found in their purse. You may not use any of the specific things that people say but getting other people thinking will help you get started. Go ahead and have some fun with it!


Getting to ‘What if…’

The point of all of these idea-generating techniques is to get you into a creative mode of thinking. 

After all, you don’t have to stick with any idea that comes up for you, you can just use them as a springboard to the next idea.  As long as you are open to seeing where those first ideas lead, you will eventually get to something you can write about.

If you build the habit of getting into that idea-generating mode regularly,  then it will get easier and easier for you to think of things to write about.

Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her  hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her  at  or visit her on Facebook .