How Do I Come Up With a Story Idea?

This workshop (nor this presenter) pretend to be an authority on the subject of Storytelling. For the purposes of this workshop, you need to think of a rather short concept that can use perhaps 4-8 images, text, maybe audio or music to bring a story to life on the web.

A story can be broader than a personal tale of a dog (!)-- it can be slide show from a vacation , a project report, an idea pitch, a teaser for a class topic. if you are doing this in one of my workshops, time is limited, and you will want to pick something quickly, and not worry about it being worthy of a national art prize. The purpose here is to experience the creative aspects provided by the web tools, not to create a cinematic work. You will need to find images and other media from public collections that can represent the characters, places, or metaphors in your story- so try to think of ideas that lend themselves to visuals, sound, and video (of course it's hard to think of something that does not!)

But first, for fun, let's give you an example of how not to tell a story (and why the story approach is important even for presentations) -- see if this version of Cinderella is as touching as the story you remember. (Power Point 20th Anniversary Cinderella is a clever Slideshare by Rowan Manahan.... Slideshare is one of the 50 tools!).

Now compare that to a version created by a middle school student in class taught by Amy Burvall, where Grace tells the story of the story of Cinderella as a music video cover:

Same story, told in two rather different ways. Get it? There are many ways to tell the same story so what counts is having a well designed story to start with.
You will find on the internet many kinds of recipes, methods, and formulas that promise to help you create a great story. Pyramids. Triangles. Three Act Fill in the Blanks. And you know what? They look nice but are not very useful.

Take the advice of Ira Glass, the creative genius behind the audio stories of This American Life:

Every story had to have some moment that was there to amuse me — a funny moment, an emotional moment, some original observation I’d made on the scene that no other reporter had. It could just be a nice moment in the script. Every story had to have someone who was more than a talking head, spouting out their point of view on the issue of the day. To make them more human, it sometimes only took a line of description, an original thought about who they were and why they believed what they believed, a surprising moment, a funny moment on tape.

If you cannot find a deep interest in the story to begin with, that's a warning since. As Pixar Filmmaker Andrew Stanton advises in his TED Talk on The Clues to a Great Story:

And that's the first story lesson I ever learned. Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn't always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core

Both of these masters of the craft talk about the multiple levels of a story; one is a series of events "This happened, then this, than that..." but also is the larger lesson in provides, the "How the World Works" idea of Glass, the "So What?" I will ask when you tell em your story idea. That big idea ought to be hinted in your very opening, but not be given away until the right moment near the end.

Starting with a Prompt

So if you are stuck for ideas, here are some prompts:
  • What was your favorite childhood pet?
  • Where was your most memorable vacation?
  • What topic most inspired you in grade school?
  • Where is a place in the world you'd like to visit?
  • What is the most adventurous thing you have done?
  • Who was an influential authority in your subject discipline?
  • Or just describe a collection of things such as
    • Five attributes of a great writer
    • The top technology gadgets of the future
    • Most important discoveries in your field
    • Favorite cars, vegetables, flowers, tools
    • Collection of things that don't belong

It need not be an epic or a best seller! Think short, and think of something that is going to have media, especially images that can describe your elements, especially if they have metaphors.

Average stories are ones that play out like a tape, a series of events. The great stories are ones that provide a twist, something unexpected. They hinge on the crisis faced and resolved by a single character. They have a plot of events, but also tie into a larger important message about culture or history, to relate something of "how the world works" according to Ira Glass (see his Manifesto on for more powerful ideas about what works and does not work in storytelling).

So, let's say I try the question on "Where is a place in the world you'd like to visit?". This is how I might sketch out my story as an outline.
  • I've never been to Africa, but wish to go on a safari
  • One day I will fly to say, Kenya, and say head out to the bush country, with a set of trusty guides
  • I will see elephants up close
  • We will have a close call with a lion
  • The nights will bring campfires, stories, and camaraderie
  • As I return home, I begin to wonder about the own wilderness in my own land, and if I appreciate it as much as a strange land.

Or Starting with a Visual

Some people are more creative in a visual mode, so another way is to find an image that moves, inspires, disturbs, or affects you, and build a story around the image. For example, searching on the flickr creative commons collection:
  • Sunrise- a time to re-energize, start over, find warmth, get to the basics
  • Road - a theme of travel, movement, going somewhere, leaving the familiar
  • Despair - devastation, loss of hope, travesty- hardships your character faces, but then overcomes
  • Grandmother- someone special in your life, a mentor, an influence,

Not only will this jog perhaps an idea for you, now you have at least one piece of media you can use! See also Objects With Meaning for an approach that starts with a physical object.

Try the Story Spine

I've come across one structure that appeals as a method, because it provides a guide to finding the supporting elements of a story, but not really much of the dramatic or visual detail. The Story Spine is a model Pixar recommends for developing a story based on the work of Director and improv teacher Kenn Adams (see the original concept) Both of those links have examples of popular movies matched to the elements of the spine.

So here are the bits you can try outlining to frame your story:

  • Once upon a time... Sets the story in time, place, and introduces us to the central character.
  • And every day... This describes the "pre-story" life of the character, it sets the stage for what will change.
  • Until one day... Sometimes called the "inciting event" that changes that everyday world.
  • And because of this... The beginning of the unexpected path, the start of a journey.
  • And because of this... This series of events are all connected, one leads to another. Use as many as you need.
  • And because of this...
  • Until finally... This is where all the action leads to its major moment, a big event. It may not be what the character expected, but it does change their life.
  • And ever since that day... This is the "so what?" The life lesson of the story, what all of those events teachers the character (and us) about life.

A really good way to structure this is to take a hint of the last items, the so what, and turn it into the opening of the story. It does not give away the "so what" but it foreshadows it.

You do not need to follow this the letter, but is a valuable way to brainstorm a story. Let's see how in hindsight, it might work for Dominoe's Story

  • Once upon a time... I was in between.
  • And every day... Fiercely independent, had money saved up, and some time before I went west.
  • Until one day... My roommate called. Someone found a runaway dog. Dominoe.
  • And because of this... Named her after the damsel in Sharky's Machine... [she was] malnourished, skittish, afraid of a raised hand.
  • And because of this... We walked into the woods, she always following a few yards away, my buddy.
  • And because of this... One day we drove farther and walked in the autumn leaves. Met an old friend. We chatted about 15 minutes, and I turned around.
  • And because of this... She was gone. I was hours running up and down the trail, crying out her name. I was worthless. I could take care of myself, but no one else, worthless.
  • And because of this... Darkness. I would camp out, return the next day. I would do that every day until I found her. Every day.
  • Until finally... I cried back to the car... and there she was, waiting for me. My awareness became a circle of responsibility of more than just myself.
  • And ever since that day... We drove across the country, we had adventures, to new exciting lands. Made a home in Arizona. We were companions. We parted permanently, but I never forgot what I learned that day in the woods.

It's not an exact spine like the formula. And if I followed the formula exactly, the story might not be the same. The lesson is really in the "Until finally" step ("My awareness became a circle of responsibility of more than just myself.") which is referred to until the closing "I never forgot what I learned that day in the woods."

I did not even know of the story spine when I made my original story, but I was following it. That is why it works. It is natural.

How the Dominoe Story Was Created

For the story I will use as an example in the workshop, that was originally 60 second in length as a video, I had 18 images-- they are available as a flickr set and as an album in Picassa. I have a script written out, which I have set up as a storyboard and can also be used to cut and paste into the web tools.

dominoe storyboard

I have an audio file of my voice, saved as an mp3. I collected some video clips (also assembled them as a playlist on YouTube) including a video of the entire story, plus I made one that is an intro of me talking about the story, and found a few creative commons licensed ones on the Internet Archive. So before I even tried these tools, I had my story in text form, and I had supporting audio, video, and images.

What to Do

For this workshop, you may want to think even more scaled back to get started. Create a bulleted outline and try to aim for starting with 4-6 key images that would work to get you started. With all of these tools, you can return to add new images, re-order the slides, etc.
  • Don't spend a whole lot of time coming up with an idea- just pick something you can accomplish for the purposes of this workshop. Once you have some experience, you can plunge into that ward wining riveting tale!
  • Write out the elements of your story in bullet points- you can do this on paper, but please click the discussion tab above and leave your ideas here a scratch pad (and it may help the next workshop group!). Try the Story Spine. When you get it out, ask someone else to review it, or try telling the story to a friend. Do they gt it? Is there a "So What?" in the story?
  • For each bullet item in your outline, list ideas for visual or media metaphors you will need

Thinking visually, for my earlier example I may think I need to find images of African wildlife, perhaps a plane or a map showing Kenya, photos of a campfire, and maybe an iconic landscape shot of American wilderness. And important lesson is you do not always need literal images; consider finding images that can be metaphors), like maybe just a map to represent the unknown in my own home place.

Learn From Experts

More Storytelling Resources

Here are some other references that may help with the story creating process.

Now you are ready for step 2... find some of your media

If you have specific feedback, questions, or just some kibbles to share, you can post your thoughts to the discussion area for this wiki page.

cogdog-watercolor.pngThis site was created by Alan Levine in October 2010, the second incarnation of the original 50+ Ways concept. A 2014 expansion for mobile apps is being co-created with Darren Kuropatwa. Everything here is open to be linked, re-used, re-mixed, re-cast, etc. This particular page was created on Oct 19, 2010 12:02 am and has been edited 21 times. The last tweak was made on Mar 15, 2014 3:45 pm by - cogdog cogdog. Share freely, often, and voraciously by linking to