It’s one of the biggest challenges of being a freelance journalist, content creator or writer: coming up with new story ideas day after day. How do you keep your idea reservoir full of fresh, interesting stories?
When you’re stuck in a rut, one of the best things you can do is stop thinking like a writer, and start thinking like an improv comedian.
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That’s right—the people you see on stage at Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB) aren’t just adept at making you laugh. They’re also masters of idea generation: establishing scenes, characters and conflicts at the drop of a hat.
Here’s how to use an “improv mindset” to jumpstart your list of story ideas.
Listen and observe
Improv is an exercise in active listening. When story ideas aren’t coming, go out into the world and open your ears.
“I’ve found my best ideas come from just paying attention to what’s around me,” says Alex Grace Paul, a comedy performer who you may have seen at The Second City in Chicago, or in New York at the UCB or Gotham Comedy Club. She’s also a freelance writer who contributes to Reductress and xoJane.
“If I’m walking or taking the bus or waiting for someone at a coffee shop, I’ll listen and observe what’s around me,” says Paul. “There’s always material, I just need to listen to it.”
Write it down
“Whenever I notice something that makes me pause or smile or think, I type it into my phone,” describes Paul. “And I don’t just write the idea, but also why it made me laugh.”
Don’t forget to revisit your notes frequently to see if they kickstart any story ideas. As for Paul’s routine, she explains that, “About once a week, I read through my notes and decide if there’s anything worth expanding on.”
Take time to explore the possibilities of a single story idea
“My improv background definitely helps me turn my notes into full-fledged story ideas,” says Paul. “Improvisers always ask themselves, ‘If this is true, what else is true?’ This helps us expand our joke for an entire scene.”
Paul advises utilizing the same technique when writing articles, “this helps me sustain a joke for an entire article and discover nuances I didn’t originally consider.”
Whether you’re writing comedy sketches or blog content, explore every single facet of an idea before you start the actual writing process. You’ll be amazed at the creative conclusions you’ll arrive at after just a few minutes of exploration.
Find a common thread
“A lot of comedy is joining two different ideas into one joke,” Paul says. “If I’m writing a parody women’s article about bras that are more supportive than your best friend, I start by making a column for ‘bras’ and a column for ‘supportive friends.’ I write as many words or phrases as I can think of under each column. When I’m finished, I compare the columns to see if there are any patterns or common themes.”
When you’re stuck, follow Paul’s lead. Take two seemingly different ideas from your list and brainstorm words and phrases related to each. Can you find a common thread between these two ideas? That’s your story hook.
Say what you think
Take “something you hear in the news or online and [pin] down your personal perspective on it,” Paul recommends.
Sit down at your computer and start scrolling through news stories. Write down ten headlines that catch your eye, then write down what you think about each one. When you’re done, you’ll have ten new angles to pitch. Make things even more interesting by visiting a news source you rarely read or tend to disagree with—this will prompt even stronger opinions.
“We all have very unique outlooks on life,” says Paul, “and being able to tune into your specific opinions and reactions will open up a gold mine of story ideas.”
If you read great books, you’ll think great thoughts. Sit down with a fantastic book for 30 minutes to clear your head and refill your idea reservoir. Paul recommends “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. “It helped my writing—and my creativity as a whole—more than anything,” she says.
Register for our Develop a Successful Freelance Writing Career course to get even more story idea-generation tips.