One of the invisible questions that writers face is what story they should write.
The question is invisible because writers tend to come up with a lot of writing ideas, then fail to follow through on them. Which might make anyone feel pretty lazy! But laziness is rarely the real issue.
Most advice for writing focuses on how to a) overcome writer’s block, b) write better in general, or c) brainstorm story ideas.
Writer’s block happens when you’re stuck on a story, that is, after you’ve already started.
Advice on writing better (at least for beginners) tends to divide writers into two groups: plotters and pantsers. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants with little to no planning, that is, supposedly with zero writing ideas in mind. The plotters are supposed to plan everything out ahead of time, with their writing ideas already locked in stone.
Brainstorming ideas without knowing what you want to write leads to the 1001 writing ideas that vanish when you sit down at the page.
None of that covers it when you say, “I don’t know what I want to write…and everything sounds wrong today.”
Most of us have hesitated in front of a refrigerator, a grocery store shelf, or a restaurant menu, asking ourselves, “Okay, I know the point here is to eat…but what?!?”
Life is throwing the question of what to write in my face a lot lately:
- I got let go from work and joked about writing a novel between jobs. It took me over a month to decide what novel to write.
- I put together what I thought would be a quick test project on teaching people how to write short stories. Step 1: Pick two genres. Nobody has gotten past that first step.
- I’ve had a lot of stories and story openings to write for some writing classes lately, and most of them have turned into things I didn’t want to finish.
I’m pretty sure a lot writers would say, “Just pick something and keep writing! All writing is good!”
But the truth is that lots of people have issues “just picking something” and/or following it through after they’ve picked it.
- It takes willpower to make decisions. Many of us put creative work last on our list, after we’ve used up our willpower for the day.
- Creative types often have ADD/Autism or similar, and may have biological problems making clear decisions quickly when it’s not an emergency.
- Many people have gone through situations where they no longer value their own opinions and instead do what other people tell them.
- A lot of people are perfectionists, and hate the thought of writing something that they might not write perfectly.
- And many of the writers I know personally have said they’re stressed at the thought of “exposing” themselves by writing about things they actually want to write about (and not just erotica—anything).
If you’re struggling with “just picking something,” then the roots of that struggle might go pretty deep.
Maybe it’s not just you being lazy.
Maybe you’re tired and distracted and hurt and doubting your own abilities and point of view, which is a lot to get over.
Let’s not worry about resolving all that right now and instead break the process of coming up with useable writing ideas down into two parts: how to know what you want to write, and how to translate that into a fiction starting point.
(Please note this is just my perspective! It’s an informed one based on millions of fiction words written and having lots of writing friends and acquaintances around the world. The best approach, though, is to take in other informed perspectives and go with what resonates.)
How to know what you want to write
At the heart of knowing what you want to write is knowing what you want, period. That may not be easy for you. (If it were easy for you at the moment, would you really be reading this article? You shouldn’t be! Go write!)
There are three main ways to find out what you want:
- Experiment and see what makes you feel good.
- Research and see what options are available.
- Ask for informed expert opinions (from people you trust).
In writing terms, these loosely translate to:
- Write in a bunch of genres.
- Read in a bunch of genres.
- Ask readers what books they want to read, that they think you could write well.
Those are pretty good strategies, but they don’t help when you’re staring at a blank page. Also, that last option can get you stuck, when you get advice to write stories that aren’t right for you.
So let’s assume you don’t have the brain space for long-term thinking right now, and toss those aside.
Instead, let’s focus on the current moment: what are you passionate about right now?
- What was the last thing that made you feel passionate? happy? sad? angry? frustrated? interested? opinionated?
- What was the last creative work that you turned to, when you were so exhausted you just couldn’t deal with anything else? How did that make you feel?
Try to come up with one of each. If you can’t, you might be in a bad enough place that coming up with writing ideas is the least of your problems. Please take care of yourself and maybe come back to writing when you feel better!
Fiction, no matter how cheesy it is, isn’t just junk food for the soul. It helps you process emotions, and it helps you recover when you’re too tired to have emotions. If you start from a place of passion mixed with relief from exhaustion, you’re probably on the right track, for yourself and for your readers.
How to pick a genre
Now that you have an idea of some kind of emotion you want to deal with (either to process or to use to heal), it’s time to pick a genre.
In my opinion, the genre you really want to write is the right genre to start with. But, again, we’re talking about a situation where you’re not sure about what you actually want, so you’re probably not going to know that.
Here are some things I’d like you to consider:
- Just because you haven’t written a genre before doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it now. Now, when you don’t know what you want, is the best time to test out a new genre.
- Just because it’s not going to be perfect doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it. Again, now, when you don’t know what you want, is the best time to practice and work out some bugs in your writing. Practice makes perfect—so do it now, when you’re not writing “That One Story You’ve Always Wanted to Write.”
- If you want to make everything easier down the line, don’t just pick one genre, but two.
Stories are driven by emotion and conflict. If you start with an intense passion or personal emotion, the story will be meaningful to you personally, and you’ll have a motivation to finish it. If you start with two genres in mind, you’ll have conflict throughout the story.
A lot of people will tell you to avoid cross-genre stories. (These are probably the people who tell you not to write prologues, too.)
Picking two genres isn’t the same as writing a cross-genre story. A cross-genre story is a story split about 50/50 between two genres. You will instead pick two genres and make one of them more important (80/20-ish), for example, a mystery with a romance in it, or a horror story with Western themes.
Here are some suggestions for sorting genres by emotion:
- Romance = falling in love, relationship dynamics in general, identifying priorities
- Mystery = disentangling complexities, examining injustice, intense love for a place, nostalgia
- Science Fiction = pushing all the buttons!, excitement/renewed focus, exploring social issues/politics
- Fantasy = immersive escape, coming of age, processing change/grieving, accepting responsibility
- Horror = emotional reboot, processing change/grieving, identifying priorities
- Fiction = a sense of connection, examining social issues/politics, establishing boundaries/selfhood
- Literary = immersive escape, processing change/grieving, a sense of connection
- Comedy = relief from grief, emotional reboot, examining injustice
- Erotica = erotic relief, establishing boundaries/selfhood, relationship dynamics in general
- Historical = immersive escape, niche interest, identifying priorities
- Young Adult = coming of age, establishing boundaries/selfhood, relationship dynamics in general
- Western = renewed focus, niche interest, examining injustice, relationship dynamics
- Thriller/Adventure = excitement/renewed focus, establishing priorities, disentangling complexities
- Suspense = excitement/renewed focus, disentangling complexities, relationship dynamics in general
You will see some crossovers! And these are just my observations. If you find yourself going, “But what about X emotion in that genre?!?” then add that to your list. I didn’t want to make the list longer and more confusing than it was. And this is hardly an exhaustive list of all possible genres; feel free to add more.
Some of these crossovers between genres are so well established that there’s a whole subgenre to address them. Romantic suspense is one example: the characters may fall in love, explore relationship dynamics, disentangle complexities, and have a lot of exciting danger to face, which renews focus in the reader.
Please note that stacking up genres can be pretty fun, but the more genres you pile on top of each other, the more you’ll have to focus on one or two emotions from each genre.
How to combine the two
Let’s say you don’t know what to write.
What was the last thing you were passionate about? What was the last creative work you turned to, when you just couldn’t even?
Take me, for example:
- Passion = assessing a new restaurant (I’m a foodie).
- Last thing I turned to = cute romance webcomics with underlying dark relationship dynamics.
For my next story, I’m going to keep in mind:
- Romance genre.
- Comedy genre.
- Maybe a little horror genre.
- Involving assessing a new restaurant.
Here are four brainstormed ideas for that:
- A restaurant critic falls in love with a restaurant owner, but the restaurant is haunted by the previous restaurant critic.
- Two friends with visit a new restaurant. The food is good, but someone dies after eating the same dish. One of the friends is a serial killer.
- Two friends run a restaurant where they are cursed to get only bad reviews from critics (but everyone else loves it). They fall in love.
- A witch on the run from a vindictive family member starts working at a café under an assumed name, where she has to pretend to be one of the cook’s sisters in order to conceal her identity.
To brainstorm ideas, start with the passion first (something about a restaurant, in this example). Then add one element from each of your genres. Be as cheesy or cool as possible. You don’t have to be original or deep. The details of your story can be original and deep! But on the writing idea level, stories are meant to tap something universal in people, which usually translates to something cheesy or cool.
What if I already have existing story ideas? Which one should I pick?
My advice here is…well, honestly, it’s “check your deadlines!!!!”
If you don’t have deadlines, though, then my advice is:
- Check your deadlines again!!!!
- Write the story you’ve always wanted to write, unless you’re still doing research (that’s a whole other topic).
- Write the story that combines something you’re still passionate about with things you turn to, when you’re too tired or burnt out to go on.
Writers write essays (like this one!) to find out what they really think about a topic. Writers write fiction to address their own emotions, perspectives, and interests. If you can’t figure out what you want to write, then writing something that connects to your passions and helps you find comfort is not a bad place to start.