Finding Ideas for Stories ~ Ask, What If?

Sweet Peas in a Writer Podcast

Episode 2, April 11, 2012

Listen to the podcast:

SPWP episode 2

Read the transcript:

Theresa: Welcome to Sweet Peas in a Writer Podcast.

Betsy:  A place where beginning writers can be inspired encouraged and informed.

Theresa: Or at the very least entertained.  I’m author Theresa Sneed.

Betsy: And I’m author Betsy Love.

Theresa: Today we’ll be discussing where writers get their story ideas.

Betsy: And sometimes called the, what if.

Theresa: What is the what if, Betsy?

Betsy: What is the what if? Okay, sometimes you just get stuck and you don’t know what to write about, so we call that–what if?

Theresa: What if–I use that all the time, not only for finding story ideas, but developing them after I find them, because in my classes, when my students are writing to get them to develop their story–what if. If you ask the question, what if–you can always find the answer to that.

Betsy: And sometimes what’s really fun about the what if is it just opens up your imagination to really explore ideas and it gets your creative brain going.

An angel with an attitude

Theresa: That’s right, we love the, what if. Okay, so we have a few ideas that we can tell you and one of them is really very obvious–it’s from your life experiences–you need to write about what you know. I have a novel out right now and I wrote a lot of No Angel from experiences I had growing up and there not the normal experiences, I guess, but they were experiences that happened to me and they helped to develop me into the person I am today and so writing about No Angel has been like a life long thing for me. I just really wanted to be able to have my readers see the things that I see through my eyes, through the things that I write.

Betsy: Right. And so when you were writing the story, No Angel, did you use the what if?

Theresa: I sure did use the what if in No Angel, all the time. I started out with this character, Jonathan Stewart, and at the very beginning of writing, I went what if Jonathan Stewart was like, a nerd? He’s an angel! He’s up in heaven when the story starts, he’s a spirit and he has to come down to earth to be a guardian angel–it’s required of all post mortal spirits. So I thought, gosh, do I have to make him an angel that’s really nice? I mean you think of angels as being really buff. What if he’s a nerd? And that’s where I started. I thought, okay what if he’s a nerd–what if he has an attitude? And my goodness, I began to develop this character that–my critique group loved him!

Betsy: They hated him, but they loved him! He was great! Okay, on our blog, you will notice that there is a picture. It is a great picture. So I want you to take just a minute and look at that picture and Theresa is going to tell us about how pictures can help you with your writing.

Theresa: Right. This is another excellent tool for finding story ideas. The picture on our blog is–it’s very, well like 3/4 of it is nothing but dark sky with some stars above it. You’ll see it when you go to it. And right in the center, a little bit to the left of the center, there’s this funnel coming from the ground up to the sky and at the very top it’s surrounded with blasts of lightning bolts and at the very bottom where its the tiniest part of the funnel, it looks like the ground is on fire where all of this energy is hitting the ground. And so this is a great picture to write a story from. When I take a look at that, I see certain things that come to my mind. And I want you to just take a second, find it, and look at it. What comes to mind? What story could you write from that picture?

Betsy: Okay, so take a minute, okay maybe not a minute–take a few seconds. Okay that’s enough. Okay, so Theresa, tell us what kind of story you might write around this picture.

Theresa: Well immediately, when I saw this picture, the first thing that came to mind was those are like super beings up there above and they’re shooting bolts down to somebody that caused a lot of trouble in their kingdom and then he would be the guy that’s on fire.

Betsy: I take it he’s in trouble with somebody up there!

Theresa: He’s in trouble! What do you see Betsy?

Betsy: Well, when I saw this picture, I just picture these dragons, and they’re just flying around in this circle and they’re either having this battle up there and they’re creating all this smoke and of course them flying around is creating this whirlwind. I’d probably have to explore a little more why there’s that fire down there.

Theresa: Would you ask a lot of what if questions?

Betsy: Oh yeah, definitely–definitely.

Theresa: Look at things a little differently throughout this next week – the pictures that you see on TV or in books or the images you see outside, surrounding you–what story could you write from the things that you’re looking at?

Betsy: And if you will notice, if you follow the timeline on facebook, if you have facebook, people post all kinds of great photographs. So you can get great ideas from that too, And ask yourself, what if? And the other thing I like to ask is, what were they doing right before that photograph was taken? You can get great ideas from that too.

Theresa: Another useful tool, is the news stories. There are some incredible things that happen in the news across the nation and throughout the world. All you have to do is watch the news and I’ll bet you can come up with some pretty good dramas, some really exciting mysteries and suspense, some humorous things. Look at the news and see what ideas you can get from that.

Betsy: And another fun place to look is the National Inquirer. You can really come up with some interesting stories there.

Theresa: Now Betsy though, your book Identitydidn’t that have something to do with an idea you heard in the news?

Identity, by Betsy Love

Betsy: Well, kind of. Identity started with a story that I was telling my daughter about a book that my mother had started reading and never finished and I was bemoaning that fact. And my daughter said, “Why don’t you write your own ending?” And so I did, and then my editor said, oh that’s not plausible and then the scenario happened twice in real life. And so even though it was kind of like an after-the-fact thing, it was something that happened in real life.

Theresa: That’s true–it’s a very fascinating story. Okay another thing that you can use to find fodder for your story, is dreams. We dream–a lot.

Betsy: I would hate to have Steven King’s dreams.

Theresa: I don’t know, I think it’d be kind of cool actually! Okay, so dreams–when you think about it, dreams are the closet things that you can do to experiencing something. I remember as a little girl, in my dreams, I would dream that I could fly. I really wish I could in real life, but I can’t. But in my dreams, I have flown, so I kind of can know what it feels like. I know what it feels like just from dreaming.

Betsy: Okay, so are you going to write about a character that flies?

Theresa: Haha! I already have written about a character that can fly!

Betsy: And so if you do have a dream that kind of won’t let you go–write it down, because you never know later as you’re thinking about that dream, it might just spark some kind of an idea.

Theresa: Absolutey.

Betsy: Another writing idea is flash fiction. I don’t know how many of you have heard of it. It’s where you’re given a prompt and you have to write a story in say, close to 200 words. Now that’s not going to give you much depth in your character or in your plot, but it’s often times a springboard for writing something else, because you just never know where it’s going to go. A couple of other ideas for quick writing things – there’s a book called The Pocket Muse, by Monica Wood. She’s got all kind of tips and writing ideas and prompts and that sort of thing. One of my favorite ones, when I was teaching a creative writing class, it’s called the Writer’s Book of Matches by Phillip Sexton and in that there are just so many fun, fun writing prompts that you can springboard and get all kinds of great writing ides from. Something else that I like to do, Angela Hoy from Writer’s Weekly, every quarter will do a short story contest. And that’s a lot of fum, because the prompts are so bizarre sometimes that you wonder where in the world you could go with it. I’ve written a couple of them, and one of them actually turned into a three series novel that I’m writing. I’m really excited about it, and who would have thought?

Theresa: Yes, who would have thought. I remember when Betsy was writing flash fiction or was it a contest thing–it was a few years ago, wasn’t it?

Betsy: Yes, it’s been about six years ago.

Theresa: And I remember the original story. It was a nice story. It had a beginning and an ending and had all the stuff you need for a short story, but she asked the question, what if?

Betsy: I did.

Theresa: And she expanded it.

Betsy: I did. And what was going to be a one book novel has now turned into three books.

Theresa: You guys are going to love this book–these books. If you love dragons–oh my goodness!

Betsy: And elves and fairies …

Theresa: It’s a great book.

Betsy: A lot of fun. The last one is character interviews. And this is something that I have down pretty much once I have a story idea. I have this character who has been bothering me. Now if you’re not a writer and you’re wondering how this character could be bothering you–he’s the voice in my head. He tells me what to write. he didn’t tell me what to write, he was just there. And I couldn’t figure out what he wanted and so I had to sit down and interview him. And I thought he was this Jewish man living in Babylon. It turns out that this character whose name is David was not Jewish at all. It drove me crazy, because he was blonde haired and blue eyed, and everybody knows that Jewish people have these beautiful brown eyes. I couldn’t figure out where he was from, so I sat down and the first thing I said was, “Who to heck are you David and why won’t you leave me alone?” And this interview unfolded and I found out that David is actually Scandinavian, but that he adopted, or embraced the Jewish religion when the tribe of Dan migrated north.

Theresa: I think that’s so fascinating. And I read the interview that Betsy did with David and I’ve got to tell you it’s really kind of freaky almost. We have this thing in writing called voice–our voices are unique, and our characters have different voices. Well, David’s voice was so totally different from Betsy’s. It’s not even funny–so, seek help on that!

Betsy: Hahaha!

Theresa: So Betsy, I think that we should give them our writing prompt.

Betsy: Okay, this week we’re going to challenge you with writing your own story. I’m not going to give you a word limit, but what I would like you to do is if you’d like to, maybe post the first 100-200 words in the comments. We would love to read what you’ve come up with and the prompt we are taking from a website, He does some flash fiction. So the title of your piece is going to be, “No Laughing Matter”, and here is your prompt, “It had been twelve years since Jeannine had laughed …  or was it thirteen?”

Theresa: That is a fabulous prompt.

Betsy: Theresa and I are going to also write a flash fiction, which we will post on our website. And we hope that you will check it out and we would love to hear what you’ve come up with, because nobody can tell the story like you.

Theresa: That’s exactly right. We’re going to go ahead and give you a writing tip for the week. And the writing tip for the week is very simple. It’s find someone that  you can brainstorm with. If you want to write and you’re kind of stuck and you don’t really know what to do–you like some of the ideas we’ve told you, but you kind of would like to bounce some ideas off–find somebody you can brainstorm with.

Betsy: Who do you brainstorm with?

Theresa: I brainstorm with, well–the voices in my head–hahaha! No, actually, I brainstorm a lot with my husband, and I brainstorm a whole lot with Betsy. But with my husband, it’s kind of unique, because, he thinks different than I do. And so it’s good to have that “grounding” kind of thing. I know if he likes it–most everybody will.

Betsy: My husband is my greatest brainstorm too. My husband, if he doesn’t like something he will wrinkle his nose and raise his eyebrows and I know that it’s really bad. And after I get mad at him and tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and then I really think about it. My husband is quite a genius. But the nice thing about having a brainstorm partner that you trust, is that they are not so invested in your story that they think it has to be written your way, which is kind of nice. Alright, if you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, or would like to suggest a topic for a future one, we would really love to hear from you.

Theresa: Yes, you can visit us at 

I’m Betsy

And I’m Theresa

Thanks for joining us!

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6 Responses to Finding Ideas for Stories ~ Ask, What If?

  1. Marsha Hanson says:

    I took your challenge and here is what came to this “writers” mind…….on # (2) podcast….Thanks for the fun hope to read others,,,was it suppose to be posted here ?

    I am not a novelist (at this time) so this was a fun challenge,,,,, one suggestion for a future podcast for writers like me,,, I have a comfort on writing narratives for my WIP and shy away from using dialog and have a tough time thinking about ever doing a novel which would need that feature….,any suggestions on how too make changes on that challenge….. please,,,,,,,, As always take care M.

    No Laughing Matter

    The calendar was the one thing Jeannine could focus on. It screamed at her in her mind. It could not have been twelve years and yet there it was. The year 2013 as bold and plain as it could be. Only those who knew her well would be able to understand her struggle. There was not even a trace of a smile as she reached to take the object of the shelf. How could the last twelve years have passed so fast? Yet, had it truly been a quick passing of time? No, if you considered all the nightmares she could still see in her sleeping hours, the look and stares that she had endured, the unkind comments as mothers tried to shush the innocent words of curious children from her hearing range. These all rushed forward along with the memories of countless hours spent in therapy. All of this being said, Jeannine knew it was time. The day had arrived, so long awaited for and one to be enjoyed by all who could hear her voice. This day was hers to laugh again.

    • I love it Marsha! It definitely “hooked” me and gave me chills! This is a great start of a potential story – I hope you will continue it. I wrote an entire novel from only two words … Earth Angel (my fourth angel book) … of course I already had characters in mind etc., but you’ve got a great start to something interesting here. You asked about dialogue – it’s really quite simple. Write dialogue the same way you would say it. So imagine a conversation – exchange of words between two or more people and simply write that exchange of words. You can add actions in then or later (what are they doing while they’re talking–you know, like body language.) For instance, if someone is angry, they might narrow their eyes, or stomp their foot, or glare, etc. Well, good luck with it and keep me informed on what you do with this great start!

  2. Marsha Hanson says:

    I tried to respond to your launch podcast ,,,had nothing but trouble would never accept my comments. I could not satisfy the requirement so hope this one goes to you…Congratulation on a great idea and your success. I like your writing challenge and if I get a chance will respond. M in Idaho

    • Hi Marsha! I have this site protected from spam (and believe me with a topic of angels – it lures a lot of spam) – so that the first time someone leaves me a comment, I have to approve it, but once I accept that person, they can post anytime on this site … Yes, we are totally enjoying our podcast – experimenting with skype video right now!

  3. Another great job, ladies. Dan Wells did something like this at the UVU Book Academy last fall. It’s great to see how much fun you can have with those questions. And the “what if” questions can be awesome if you stretch yourself–really look outside the box when you’re considering the questions. Scott Card also does a fab job with this. He gave an example of this in his writing SciFi book where he does this in teaching kids how to write.

    Theresa–Jonathan rocks. Hubby and I read the joust chapter last night. Loved the Grinch!

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