BRAINSTORMING NEW IDEAS: Part 4, Perusing the Press

As a writer, being faced with a blank page can inspire either crippling fear or wondrous anticipation — or both!

In this writing series, we’ll be discussing the ways we can generate some ideas to get started — though I love and worship the good ol’ imagination machine, I’ve found that mine can be somewhat unreliable at times.

In Parts 1, 2 and 3, we discussed people watching, word association techniques and genre checklists as useful ways to get started on your next project.

How else can we practically help our brains fill that blank page? Take out your pen or bring up a new word doc and let’s get started!

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Part 4: Perusing the Press.

It’s almost a guarantee in our media-driven world, that anything weird and wonderful going on will be covered in the press by someone, somewhere.

Journalists are always on the hunt for content (with much more urgency than us mere mortals) and so they hungrily seek after anything that they can spin into an entertaining story.

How does this help us fiction-writing folk?

Newspapers don’t just publish anything about anyone; they look for headlines that will hook you in. They look for scandal, adversity, out-of-the-ordinary. The material you’ll find in newspapers is an excellent starting point to spin off your own tales and weave a web around their initial stories.

But of course, rather than just leave it at that and send you off to fend for yourselves, I’ve come up with a few ways to help you structure your searching and generate some compelling new ideas.

1. Spin the Mundane into an Exciting Headline Story

I had a seminar with an ex-journo recently who talked about the ways journalists find their material. Her inbox would be inundated with hundreds of emails from people trying to get their businesses featured, with subject titles like:

‘Start-up company launches today!’

Now, for the person whose company that is, woohoo! That’s so great for them and it’s exciting and tense and risky and full of brilliant stories. From the perspective of someone on the outside, it’s boring. They have no personal investment, therefore no personal interest.

So what would make it more interesting?

Free tea and biscuits at the launch event? No. Something incredible or out of the ordinary needs to happen in order for the average joe to be drawn in enough to read.

The writing exercise: Take an average story and spin it into something dramatic and exciting as an initial story idea.

For example, this might be a little bit more interesting: ‘Ex-professional-boxer comes out of retirement to open a bakery.’

Already, we are compelled to know more — the questions we now ask can drive your ideas generation. Why is the boxer opening a bakery? Male or female boxer? Does he/she need money? Why? What is the bakery called?

Take these questions and make them more ridiculous: has the boxer gotten into such deep gambling debt that the mafia has forced him to open a bakery that’s a front for arms dealing?

Even normal headlines can conjure some interesting questions, let alone crazy ones.

2. Create a Backstory for an Over-the-top Tale

If journalists are stuffing their main pages with the out-of-the-ordinary events that hook us in, there must have been a lead up.

Let’s take an example:

“Woman dressed as turkey arrested for shoplifting”

Yes, this is a genuine headline… the mind baffles.

The writing exercise: Take an unusual or strange headline and think of the very human lives that led to that moment.

But how did this woman come to be dressed as a turkey trying to rob a store? You could read the whole article and research her life for every speck of the truth…

Or you could do some creative thinking and create your own tall tale.

Again, the best starting point is to ask a lot of questions. Why did she need/want to steal? What was the shop called? Was it the first time she’d stolen? Did she have a specific reason to dress in a turkey costume? Did she wear it especially to shoplift, or was this her everyday attire?

Remember that character development is the most important drive of a narrative; what has led this woman to this specific crisis point? What are her relationships like?

Sometimes, even the strangest stories have ordinary beginnings — in a way, this is the opposite of the first exercise: where before we took normal situations and spun bizarre backstories, here we take the bizarre and make the ‘characters’ more human.

3. Secondary Character No More!

“Contractor fakes death to avoid paying customers”

Now, the natural inclination is to focus a story on the contractor — what’s his background? How has he come to this? Is he destitute, or just a scammer?

But let’s look at the wider story that centres on this event.

The writing exercise: Consider the other people involved in this story and tell it from their point of view.

You could write from the perspective of one of the scorned customers and their crusade to recover their money.

Then again, you take it one step even further from the centre of the event and write the story of the contractor’s grandmother, who is now the subject of ridicule at her weekly ‘Ladies who Lunch’ club.

You might write about the life of the judge who now has to deal with him in court.

You could write about a rival business owner who is now swooping in to reap the benefits and can finally afford to buy his kid the bike he’s wanted since last Christmas.

What I hope you see, is that the possibilities really are endless.

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In Part 5, we’ll be looking at another technique for generating ideas: pictures as prompts.

Don't forget to check out parts 1, 2 and 3 as useful ways to get started on your next project if you've not already.