How to Know a Story Idea When You See One

It looks like a duck; it quacks like a duck; it must be a duck

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The lightbulb goes off. Photo: Akshay Paatil / Unsplash

Sometimes I think my superpower is coming up with story ideas. It’s an undervalued component of being a writer, which is quite an irony since you can’t write unless you have an idea of what you want to write about.

When I got my first writing job, right out of college, I assumed I’d be told what to write. After all, being a student means being assigned a topic. So when my first editor at that first job asked me what I planned to do for my first story, I froze. No one had ever taught me how to think of a story idea, or advised me on what made for a good story, or told me how to find one.

The usual wisdom is “write what you know”, but that puzzled me: Why write what I know when there’s so much I don’t yet know that I’d like to know? Why not choose to write the stories I’d want to read? It would be a steeper climb, for sure, starting with no knowledge, but I was willing to do it.

But what makes a good story? It can’t merely be a topic (ie, orchids). There has to be some question being begged or it will read like a term paper. It can certainly be a person — though it helps if there is a question there, too, to make it more than a bio. It can be something strange or it can be something very familiar. Novelty alone does not make a good story, although good stories are often full of novelty.

The truth is almost anything can be a great story if the writer is passionate about learning about it. A great story idea should nag at you, make you mull over it, get under your skin; you should find yourself marveling at how much there is to discover about it. And most importantly — most essentially — you should be itching to tell other people about it. No other measure matters as much as that.

Written by

Writer, writer, writer. Oh, I also write. Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…

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