How to Spot a Story

Building daily habits can generate a flow of good ideas

One of my family members, a herpetologist, has the uncanny ability to spot snakes in the jungle at night. When I asked how he could differentiate a snake from a stick in the dark, he explained that his abilities weren’t psychic but based on psychology. Through extensive training, he developed a “search image” that helped him see the entirety of a scene and then recognize specific patterns.

Finding good story ideas can feel as impossible as catching snakes in the dark. But the ideas are all around you—you just have to learn how to notice them. 

Getting in the flow

Establishing rhythms to immerse yourself in your subject is the first step to training your brain to spot stories amidst the chaos of life. If you’re looking for ideas for fiction or personal essays, that might mean people-watching during your commute or intentionally striking up conversations with strangers. If you’re writing about a specific subject, you can immerse yourself in it by following relevant social media accounts, reading books and articles, watching YouTube videos, and subscribing to newsletters.

Spending bite-size amounts of time, say fifteen minutes each workday, reviewing the information that comes in will help you digest it better. Daily research also helps keep the subject top-of-mind, making it easier for you to make connections while doing other tasks.

Just as important as immersing yourself in your subject matter is making the time and space for good stories to show themselves. Concentrated brainstorming sessions or freewriting may help, but the best ideas surface organically—perhaps while you are walking, washing the dishes, or chatting with a friend. The stories will come when your mind is prepped, and you give yourself space to think.

Learning to see stories

Here’s a personal example. Last summer, I was tasked with creating two pitches a week for social media posts and blogs for a client. Two presentable ideas meant I needed at least twice as many bad ideas to cull down before meetings. When I first started, I was overwhelmed. How could I possibly find a half dozen ideas each week for such a specific subject?  

My colleague advised me to set up automated Google alerts and tailor my Feedly account to include relevant sources. I immersed myself in the voices of the industry daily, and, with time, I started to recognize which stories had clear, actionable connections with my client’s service. I did give them a couple of stories that were too far-reaching at first, but then I started to spot the snakes in the jungle—the really good ideas that fit the brief and made my client smile.

Systems help you track your ideas

When your ideas come, you’ll need a way to capture them. From personal experience, I know that scribbling them on the back of a notebook or a grocery list isn’t ideal. Notebooks get lost, handwriting gets muddied by spilled coffee, and the memories of ideas fade away with more pressing tasks.

Systems can save writers from the tragedy of a lost story idea. Freelance copywriter Jason Montoya describes his strategy for organizing ideas as his “writing garden.” He captures every idea in a folder or “notebook” in Evernote, a software tool for collecting information. As an idea progresses into a story, Montoya moves it along a series of progressive notebooks. This way, he always has tender new ideas, maturing outlines, and complete drafts ripe for publishing.

Organizing your ideas is an important step to being able to use them. If anything, it helps quell the rising panic you feel when staring at a blank page with a deadline approaching. You can visualize your digital notebook crammed with unique ideas and breathe a sigh of relief.

Learning to recognize stories out of the noise is an important part of having a sustainable writing practice. By filling your mind with applicable information, giving yourself time and space for the ideas to come, and establishing systems to contain your ideas, developing a continuous flow of good stories is completely possible. 

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