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Writing Ideas and Inspirations (6)

Updated on June 2, 2019
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Colin's novels, story collections and stage plays are available as eBooks and paperbacks.

Writing Ideas and Inspirations - Another Bag of Tricks
Writing Ideas and Inspirations - Another Bag of Tricks | Source

Another Bag of Tricks

This is the second part of my bunch-of-tricks writing exercises based on prompts and ideas I've used with writer's groups in schools, universities and community settings. As I always say, I don't use these sort of tricks myself since I generally don't have too much trouble coming up with things to write about, but I know some people need an occasional kick-start to get them going, so here's a few more ideas for starting off...

The 'What if...?' Scenario

Contrary to what I've just said, this is one idea I did use myself. Some years ago, I attended a playwriting session at His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen, Scotland. I don't recall who was running the sessions but I do remember one of the exercises. Well, I say that, but in fact, what we were given was only part of the exercise. The idea was to come up with a 'What if...?' question we could then use as a prompt for a short writing session, but we weren't given the actual prompt, just the 'What if...?' bit, which I thought was a little lame, however...

Not being much of a literary sadist, I won't demand that you finish your own sentences, so here's a few suggestions to get you going, starting with the one I came up with at the aforementioned writing session.

  • What if time starts going backwards and you're the only person who knows why?
  • What if one of your own characters came knocking at your door?
  • What if the road outside your house collapsed, revealing a secret underground chamber?
  • What if your ex-partner called in the middle of the night claiming someone was stalking him/her?
  • What if the plot of the short story you've been commissioned to write for a literary magazine starts to come true?
  • What if your left hand began doing things of its own accord?
  • What if, on your bus journey to work one morning, you see someone who looks exactly like you?

Developing the 'What if...'

Now, these aren't necessarily ideas that will lead directly to a brilliant plot, but they will work as starting points and that simply means they will get you thinking about something, and that's when you need to start exploring 'outside the box'. Don't limit yourself. Work out what could happen and if there's a possible answer to your initial question. Of course, your question might change, but that doesn't matter, the point is to come up with a storyline that interests you.

For instance, that first one (about time going backwards) was my initial thought in that writing group, but that first thought prompted me to think about time travel. I came up with a character that got himself into a situation where the only possible solution was to go back in time in order to fix what he'd done wrong. A few months later, I entered a play-writing competition which required that I write a synopsis of the basic story. At that stage I didn't know how the story would end, so I came up with a synopsis. I've included that original synopsis here to demonstrate how my initial idea developed:

Synopsis of 'How to Build a Time Machine'

A mysterious grey cloud appears over the North East coast. Pete MacTaggart has a theory. He has several theories. Unfortunately, his fiancée Anna is not interested in theories.

Pete and Anna’s wedding is only a few weeks away. The preparations are going well. Or at least they are until Pete forgets to book the restaurant to mark Anna’s 30th birthday. With dozens of friends and relatives travelling to Scotland for the event, this is a major catastrophe. Anna will never forgive him.

To make things worse, Anna thinks Pete’s obsession with time travel is getting ridiculous. It’s not as if he’s a scientist, or in a position to pursue his ideas. Anna has had enough and when she discovers Pete has neglected to perform the simple task of booking the restaurant, she packs her bags and gives him an ultimatum - one he can never hope to achieve.

Or can he?

Pete’s only hope of getting Anna back is to accomplish one of the following:

Plan A) Turn back time and put things right.

Plan B) There is no Plan B. Revert to Plan A.

Pete’s long-suffering best pal and sci-fi fan Hamish offers to help. If the mysterious grey cloud over the coastline is what Pete thinks it is, maybe they still have a chance.

Pete must somehow overcome his lack of scientific knowledge and harness the power of the mysterious grey cloud. But what about Anna? And why is Hamish persuading Pete to attempt the impossible?

In a true race-against-time adventure, Pete and Hamish build a time machine, book the restaurant, get Anna back and save the universe from certain disaster. Or at least…that’s the plan…


I'd love to say that I won the competition, completed the play and went on to win major theatrical awards on the West End stage, but I can't, because it didn't happen. The play is still unfinished and I'm now considering rewriting it as a short story. So, good ideas sometimes take a while to reach the finish line.

A Funny Thing Happened...

As I've said elsewhere, I like monologues - they're a great way to explore what's going on in a character's head as well as being a useful exercise if you're not sure about the character's voice, what sort of language they use, how they speak etc.

One of the exercises I used to get students to do, was:

  • Think of a fairytale character
  • Think about the other characters in whichever story it relates to
  • Choose one of those other characters (maybe someone we don't usually hear from)
  • Write a monologue as if it were that person speaking, telling us what their life is like, what it's like to be them.

Here's an example of something I wrote for a series of workshops I did with school kids in Hull, exploring one of those lesser-known characters:

Illustration from 'Tales of Sons and Daughters of the Educated Classes'
Illustration from 'Tales of Sons and Daughters of the Educated Classes' | Source

The Tall Guy

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a giant? I have, and you'd think I would know, being a giant myself. Oh yes, it's true! I can see some of you sitting there thinking 'He's not a giant. No way - I've seen bigger things in soup.' Well, alright, I'm not all that tall, not what you'd call gigantic. But when your mam's a giant and your dad's a giant and all your brothers and sisters are giants, everybody expects you to carry on the family tradition, even if you're only five feet eight.

So what about other possibilities? Let's consider the story of 'Beauty and the Beast'. Forget the main characters - they've been done to death. Focus on some of the minor players. We could have:

  • The woman who comes in to trim the Beast's toenails
  • The pizza delivery guy who struggles with the 'monster' pizzas he has to deliver
  • The window cleaner who sees a lot of pretty strange goings-on through the castle windows

Now, let's suppose you like this idea but don't really want to re-write a classic fairytale? Take the second one (pizza delivery guy) and see where it might lead:

I tell yer mate, the first time I went up there I knew somfin' wasn't right. The guy what lives there always demands the extra-extra-extra large ones and they're so bleedin' heavy I can hardly get them on the back of my bike. Anyway, first time I went to the door, this young woman appears and I'm like, whoa, she's a bit of alright, but then she's like 'Not here, go round the back - he'll go mad if he sees yer.' So I go round to the back door and she takes them off me and gives me a bag full of cash and wants to know if I'll do a little job for his lordship, so of course, I think it's gotta to be well dodgy...

Chicago gangster Al Capone
Chicago gangster Al Capone | Source

Now, we know this bit comes from 'Beauty and the Beast', but our reader doesn't know. Therefore, it could be read as if it's a pizza guy who gets involved with a Mob boss (like Al Capone), or a gang leader, or maybe even (heaven forefend) a bent politician? Which takes us in a different direction altogether.

So have we got the beginnings of a story here, or have we not? (Obviously you're meant to answer a resounding 'Yes!' to that one).

Ch-Ch-Ch Changes...

The idea of taking something you're familiar with and turning it into something else, isn't a new one, but it can work very well for our purposes. Take the premise of a famous movie - Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Wrong Man'. It's the story of a man who is mistaken for someone else. Now, if we just take that idea of someone being someone or something they aren't, there are lots of possibilities, so we could have:

A woman takes the wrong hire car and finds a handbag with a photograph of her husband in the glove compartment. She is forced to pretend to be the owner of the handbag in order to find out who this woman is and how she knows her husband.

Hamish McNice is being blackmailed by Black Jock McJock. When Hamish visits Jock at home to have it out with him, he discovers Jock in a pool of blood, dead. When the police arrive, Hamish is mistaken for the new Chief Inspector...

Jenny uses Sandy's desk when the other woman is off sick and discovers a folder in Sandy's drawer with Jenny's name on it. The information relates to a folder on Sandy's computer, but the only way Jenny can get to see it is to pretend to be Sandy and request a new password from the IT department...

Poster for Alfred Hitchcock's 'Strangers on a Train'
Poster for Alfred Hitchcock's 'Strangers on a Train' | Source

Therefore, by taking the basic premise of another story we can easily come up with a new one. Here's a few more from the Hitchcock canon:

Rear Window - a man sees what he thinks is a murder from his apartment window

Suspicion - a young heiress suspects that her new husband is trying to murder her

The Man Who Knew Too Much - a family on holiday accidentally uncover an assassination plot

Which could give us:

Rear Window - a young woman out shopping sees her wealthy friend stealing a large kitchen knife

Suspicion - an elderly woman begins to suspect her next-door neighbour of trying to poison her cat

The Man Who Knew Too Much - a university professor is mistakenly sent a copy of a report which uncovers murder and corruption within his own university

Over to Stevie

That's all for now, folks, but as Steven King says, if you want to be a writer, you have to write. So go to it!


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    • Evamatu k profile image

      Evamatu k 

      2 years ago

      Great tips.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Think that would be: 'Three days of the Condor', yeah, great movie, and kind of a scary situation, a little like 'Enemy of the State' but without all the techno stuff. Thanks for reading, Laurence, much appreciated.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      3 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Some of the best novels and movies got started with the creator/writer asking the "what if?" question.

      I remember a Robert Redford movie where he's an analyist paid to read novels for the CIA. One day he reads a novel and sends in a report then that night someone tries to kill him!

      He slowly realizes that the novel he just sent the report in about is a mirror image of a CIA black op that they are now convinced is blown and want him dead!

      Great hub.


    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks for reading, Lee, always a pleasure.

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 

      4 years ago

      Extremely useful gear, thanks for sharing, voted up, Lee

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks William / Rapidsoft - glad you enjoyed them.

    • Rapidsoft Techno profile image

      Rapidsoft Technologies 

      4 years ago from 3705, 74th Street, Jackson Heights, NY 11372

      Helpfull information...

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      4 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Fun exercises! You present them well! Thanks for sharing! ;-)

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks Larry, I aim to please.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      4 years ago from Oklahoma

      Very helpful.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Kylyssa - you're right about recognising ideas, it's important to know which ones are likely to bear fruit, but like I say, you have to be interested in them too. I sometimes work on more than one thing at once, but usually when I've got something that grabs me, I have to just go with it and work on it until it's done. Sounds like you've got the balance about right.

      Vocalcoach - thanks for reading - glad you like my ideas.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      4 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Thank you for sharing these great writing prompts. Very helpful and will share.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 

      4 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      They all get my attention, there's just not enough time in a lifetime to do something about them all. A single novel takes a long time to write while writing for clients, for the Internet, for submission, for charities, and for therapy. I won't live long enough to write three hundred novels. I don't see it as a problem; it gives me a lot to choose from.

      I've prioritized and I'm currently working on a science fiction trilogy and the first novel of an open-ended sci-fi series. I decided that four novels was the maximum number I could work on at once without going batsh*t insane. I have an odd method of writing novels that goes well with working on more than one project at a time but I figured I had to set a limit somewhere or I'd never finish any of them.

      I just find the idea of not having ideas to be completely alien and I wonder why some people have an overabundance while others seem to think they have few or none.

      Those who think they have no ideas seem eager to get ideas. I think they'd be pleased if they could learn how to recognize their own ideas when they have them.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Hi Kylyssa, thanks for reading. I have to admit that I do have a folder with unfinished stories in it, and that's simply because the basic idea didn't grab me enough to want to continue. Nevertheless, sometimes I'll go back to one of them and I'll see a way to do it differently. The difficulty with all ideas is that they have to interest you or there's no point. Do you know why the ideas you have don't get your attention? Is it because you're not sure where they're going, or just that you don't know how to get started with them?

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 

      4 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      My difficulty is selecting which ideas to write about. I have a folder just for novel-length science fiction ideas that I've thought out rough plots for that I've recently pared down to just over 300 I'll consider writing.

      I think almost everyone has plenty of ideas or at least the capacity to have abundant ideas. Perhaps those of us with idea-diarrhea should get together and figure out why we have more ideas than we know what to do with? Judging from the number of people who've come to me with their ideas thinking they are so rare and precious I should drop all my own and write their books for them, some people either don't have or don't realize they have ideas all the time. I think if we could help wake that capacity up in other writers, they'd write good things for us to read and think of us fondly.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks for that, Heidi, much appreciated. Glad you like my ideas.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks for that, Heidi, much appreciated. Glad you like my ideas.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      4 years ago from Chicago Area

      These are great writing prompts! Voted up and sharing!

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thank you Kamalesh - 'inspiring' is always a word I like to aspire to! Glad you liked my ideas, and thanks for the feedback.

    • Kamalesh050 profile image


      4 years ago from Sahaganj, Dist. Hooghly, West Bengal, India

      Very interesting, useful and a beautiful hub . Also inspiring! Well done. Best Wishes, Kamalesh

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks Peggy and Buildreps - glad you found my ideas interesting. Often the act of writing about writing gives me ideas for more stories - I'm already thinking about the time machine story again. It just goes on and on. Thanks for reading.

    • Buildreps profile image


      4 years ago from Europe

      Wonderful Hub with great ideas! Thanks for this inspirational Hub.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      4 years ago from Houston, Texas

      It is interesting to me how just a slight deviation from a storyline already written can turn out entirely different when using prompt ideas such as you have given us here. Kudos to you and thanks for sharing.


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