Getting Ideas for Stories: Listening to Others

When I attended RWA 2013 in Atlanta, I remember asking a published author, “Where do you get your ideas for your stories?” The answer I got was definitely not what I was expecting, but it made perfect sense. She answered with a big smile, “Just by listening to others.” What she meant was that she simply listened to others while restaurants, coffee shops and other public places. She also added, “You’d be amazed at the ideas you can get simply by overhearing a conversation.” It was only after I returned home that I realized this author was right. The journey home alone sparked an idea for a character in a future short story.

Oddly enough, coming up with ideas for a great story isn’t that easy. With countless stories out there, it’s difficult to come up with a story that hasn’t already been done. This is not to say that we as writers can’t take ideas that have already been done. We just have give them a twist and make them better. In our stories, we need characters, themes, settings and plots. The plot is often the most difficult. Think of it as a race – once it starts it has to finish. If it can’t finish, it loses.

Listening to others in conversation can lead to new ideas and it’s so easy to do because we can do it everyday. Of course if you do this, you must make sure you’re not intentionally eavesdropping (you don’t want to arouse suspicion). Try doing this passively (read a newspaper, do a Sudoku puzzle etc) and listen. If this doesn’t appeal to you, you can get ideas simply by chatting with your friends/co-workers. You never know, perhaps they might spew out a few witty ideas for that next novel.

So in short, why should you rely on listening to others directly/indirectly for story ideas?

  • it’s simple, it doesn’t cost anything (maybe a buck or two for food and drink)
  • people love to talk about things affecting their daily grind. You can use that for a plot in your book, which will appeal to the reader.
  • you’re bound to run into people from different cultures, so you’ll hear different dialects/accents. You can easily get an idea for a new character with his or her own distinct voice.
  • daily conversations spark ideas which readers will relate to and more importantly what they want to read in stories.
  • you are not actively trying to find an idea. You’re listening and talking with others and then the idea FINDS YOU. It’s like everything else in life – when you’re looking for it, you don’t find it. When you’re not looking, it finds you.


Unless you have a great memory, I suggest you bring a notepad or download EverNote on your Smartphone so you can jot the ideas down. So try this out. It’s worked for me and still does.


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