Where Do Story Ideas Come From?

My creative writing professor once told me that there is a world of stories around you and you simply have to be aware of your surroundings. To be a great writer is to be a great watcher. Once I began writing, I realized that it is actually the other way around. There are worlds of stories within you and you simply have to be ready for when your surroundings trigger them. 

Back then, my professor used this example to explain her point on how stories live in your surroundings: when you watch raindrops splatter against the bus window you feel a sense of sorrow or melancholy. This burst of emotion, spurred by nature, lets your mind wander to stories of gloom and trials. Thus, the external world affects and excites your imagination.

However, nature is objective. Rain does not strive to wear down your mental walls and rain definitely does not want you to be moved by its movie-cliché scene for the purpose of writing a story. So why do we have this compelling concept that nature (our external surroundings) inspires imagination?

Nature as Imagination: A Romantic Concept

The idea that nature inspires imagination existed from a long time ago, but it is most prominently thought to arise from the Romantic Period. During the Romantic Period, the mind was seen as an active agent of perception, a notion vastly different from the Enlightenment period that came before, where the mind was seen as a passive register of sensations.

Think of the novel, Frankenstein, by Mary Shelly. The scene of the monster’s birth provides an excellent imagery of how people in the Enlightenment Period believed minds functioned: as an intake of colours, sounds, and touches that were then later processed to have a meaning and a name.

But then, the Romantic Period rolled around and poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote on how imagination is a unifying power of internal and external powers. Imagination, he explains in his Biographia Literaria and in his poem, The Eolian Harp, ignites simultaneously from within humans (the soul) and from nature (the external world).

Yet, this concept – as breathtaking as it is – did not continue to our time today. Instead, we seem to remember Romantic poets as keen watchers of a magical-nature. Of course, with the Romantics’ tango with Greek mythology and great imaginative poets, like John Keats who take us on magical flights of imagination (read Ode to a Nightingale), we are bound to think it is only nature that invoke our imagination.

But that isn’t what the Romantic poets were trying to convey about imagination and that is not how we actually come up with creative stories.

The Mind’s Subjectivity Influences Nature’s Objectivity

Have you ever looked at the flickering flames of a fire and swore that you saw figures – a roaring lion, a royal dragon, a castle from far far away- in the flames?

It is a common thing to believe that nature understands you. It must be storming outside because you’re angry, it must be a sunny day because you’re excited, it must be raining because the universe is attuned to your every emotion.

I think this is partly due to our ego, our need to believe that the world revolves around us, but this can also be seen as our understanding that we see the world as a reflection of our inner thoughts, questions, and stories.

William Cowper explains in his poem, “The Winter Evening“, from his collection of poems called The Task, that it is our active minds that carve our thoughts into the external world:

“The glowing hearth may satisfy a while With faint illumination, that uplifts The shadow to the ceiling, there by fits Dancing uncouthly to the quivering flame. … The mind contemplative, with some new theme Pregnant, or indisposed alike to all. …. Me oft has fancy ludicrous and wild Soothed with a waking dream of houses, towers, Trees, churches, and strange visages expressed In the red cinders, while with poring eye I gazed, myself creating what I saw.”

William Cowper, “The Winter Evening” from The Task

While Cowper has a separate overreaching concept for The Task, here he illustrates how our active minds continuously turn over “some new theme” and we end up imprinting this to our surroundings so that, like Cowper, we see ourselves “creating what [we] saw” in our minds.

“People-Watching” as the New Hearth

In the last decade, we have come from seeing figures in the flames of a hearth to seeing the imaginary lives of people, in other words we have begun to analyze what we call “people-watching”.

I believe we have all, from time to time, sat alone and watched people live their lives. Their behaviour or their outfit would give us a sense of who they are and what life they may live. This entertaining pastime may lead us to continue to search for more clues until we have created an entire fictional life for them.

We then realize we have imprinted our own thoughts onto their existence, without meaning to and without their permission.

This odd pastime that lingers between daydreaming and bored wanderings is explored in a psychological level in the novel, The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. The distortion between the intricate life the main character, Racheal Watson, imagined for a couple she sees from the train each day and the real life that the couple lives is troubling.

In ways, Racheal’s supposedly “overactive imagination” tells the reader more than the literal facts laid out in the novel (Hawkins).

Know That Stories Come from Within, Not from Your Surroundings

By analyzing both nature (external world) and the people around us, we can see that we are constantly imprinting our thoughts and the stories we want to see on the world around us.

Our surroundings may trigger new thoughts, but it is ultimately our thoughts that we see reflected on our surroundings, not the other way around.

So, next time you see raindrops blur the ratty, old city bus window think about why your thoughts may stray to stories of gloom, trials, or even joy.

The human mind is powerful, and you might be surprised at what kind of stories you may find in your subconscious.

Have any stories you want to share? Or different thoughts on how story ideas are formed? Leave a comment below!

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