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

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.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)

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