Idea Generation: Some of the Work is Done for You

Ciao, amici! I wanted to discuss idea generation today. I’ve always known this was a possibility (and maybe I’ve even subconsciously done this before), but after a long discussion—and subsequent project assignment—at work, I thought I’d bring it up here.

At work, we’re all doing an exercise where we’re given a very generic outline to write a story in our genre. This is for two reasons.

  1. To complete a writing assessment so we can have it critiqued for strengths and weaknesses.
  2. To show that even though there are no new stories anymore, every writer will have a different take on the same premise (proving there is always a fresh take on a tired idea and fiction will never run out of creative interpretations).

This work exercise goes hand-in-hand with an idea generation technique I’ve shared with my writing circle for some time: take any story premise and create your own story from it.

What specifically do I mean by that?

Think about what you see when you’re scrolling through your television’s menu. Every show episode and every movie lists a very basic premise to entice you to view it.

What if you take that premise and write your own story? It doesn’t have to be in the same genre or follow the same tropes. In fact, the more you can make it yours, the better. But that’s an excellent place to start when you’re brainstorming ideas.

Let me give you a couple examples.

Premise of Manchester by the Sea (Drama): A depressed uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.

Springboard for other genres:

  • Romance: The uncle begins a relationship with his nephew’s teacher.
  • Thriller: Nephew goes on a killing spree but the uncle is the suspect, and the boy terrorizes the town until his uncle is forced to kill him to stop him.
  • Western: Uncle must learn to put his young ward above his own desires, and both learn the power of family while braving the wilderness on a cattle drive.
  • YA: Told from the nephew’s POV and shows how the boy becomes the man of the family and saves the uncle from the evil warlock who killed his parents.

Premise of Groundhog Day (comedy): A weatherman finds himself inexplicably living the same day over and over again.

Springboard for other genres:

  • Sci-Fi: The weatherman is the only one who recognizes a weather anomaly as an alien invasion, so he is the only one fighting them. Every time they kill him, his day somehow starts over.
  • Dystopian: The weatherman (coming from a white collar job) has no useful life skills and keeps dying in the zombie apocalypse, only to inexplicably wake up at dawn, reliving the same day over and over.
  • Mythology: The “weatherman” is a lesser god (let’s say he’s the god of rain) who angers the main god, who forces him to relive the same day over and over until he learns how to use his power to defeat the main god, freeing all the punished deities.
  • Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction): As global warming begins to destroy the livability of our world, the weatherman must use his knowledge to save his family. Every time one of them dies, he mysteriously wakes when his alarm went off Monday morning, twelve hours before a cataclysmic event wiped out half the eastern seaboard.

Admittedly, some of these ideas were better than others. I don’t write in a lot of those genres, so sometimes I reached for the story concept.

But you aren’t me. Maybe one of those genres is your preferred genre, and maybe one of the above premises sparked an idea in you for a whole series of books.

The point is, while every story has already been told, there are infinite versions of them left to tell. And if you’re struggling for an idea, why not look at some stories that have a proven track record of success?

Have you ever taken an existing premise and changed it to suit your needs? If you haven’t, would you try it now?

Here are a few more (to get your creative muscles flexing):

  • Gone with the Wind: A manipulative woman and a roguish man conduct a turbulent romance during the American Civil War and Reconstruction periods.
  • Iron Man: An industrialist and master engineer is kidnapped and forced to build a devastating weapon for the enemy, but instead he builds a mechanized suit of armor and becomes a superhero.
  • Frankenstein: A super-human creature goes on a killing spree when his creator refuses to make him a partner to love.
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: A troubled child summons the courage to help a friendly alien escape Earth and return to his home world.
  • Unforgiven: A retired Old West gunslinger reluctantly takes on one last job with the help of his old partner and a young man.
  • Se7en: Two detectives, a rookie and a veteran, hunt a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his motives.
  • While You Were Sleeping: A hopeless romantic Chicago Transit Authority token collector is mistaken for the fiancée of a coma patient.

Okay, I’ve given you a wide variety of genres and premises. Take a stab at repurposing one (or more) of them and share below. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Staci Troilo Bio

31 thoughts on “Idea Generation: Some of the Work is Done for You

  1. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 1: Ideation | Story Empire

  2. I never considered TV listings as a springboard for story ideas, but your post provided excellent examples of how they can be used. I can’t come up with anything off the top of my head, but enjoyed your ideas. Another place I’ve always considered as a well of inspiration for story ideas is the Bible. I need to revisit a lot of those.

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  3. A very interesting and thought-provoking post, Staci. I will have to give this some thought to have a go at one of them. 🙂 My late husband always used to take song lyrics and twist them up. Like for instance Merle’s Haggard’s song, “That’s The Way Love Goes,” there is a line that goes, “I’ve been throwing horseshoes over my left shoulder…” and Rick would sing, “I’ve been throwing whore’s shoes over my left shoulder.” Craziness! 🙂

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  4. I’ve often heard there are no new stories, just different ways to tell them. I’ve never thought of using the TV listings for idea generation. I once heard the Home Alone stories were inspired by the Biblical account of when Jesus’s parents left him in the temple. That one I would have never guessed.

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  5. I used to do something similar to this back when I taught a creative writing class at my school (before they cut it because of budget restrictions eye roll). I love the examples you gave. I might try to incorporate this into my language arts class after the “all-important” testing season is over. more eye rolls Lol!

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