Listening For Ideas

Finding ideas for your novel often presents a challenge. But whether you are starting a new story, are stuck in the middle, or are looking for a new plot twist listening can help.

Sounds Inside And Out

I earned a Writing/English degree from Columbia College in Chicago. During our fiction writing classes our professors often had us sit in a circle in complete silence.

The professor directed us to listen first to sounds inside the classroom and the building. Next, because our windows opened onto Wabash Avenue, a busy street, we listened for sounds from outside.

Eventually as we kept listening the city noises and sounds prompted us to imagine scenes. After 15 minutes or so of quiet the professor had us describe each of our scenes to one another. We were pushed to include not only what we saw and heard but what we (or our characters) smelled, tasted, and felt.

The last step was to write as fast as we could in our notebooks the scenes we’d imagined.

Some of the scenes sparked new stories. Others became part of ongoing projects. Still others (probably most of them) I forgot.

I admit that when I was in college this exercise struck me as being as much about filling class time (our class sessions were over 4 hours long) as about generating ideas. Since then, though, when I’ve gotten stuck I often try this exercise and it helps.

It’s also pretty relaxing.

Your Friends, Foes, And Family

Another great place to find ideas is through day-to-day conversations.

The next time you talk to a friend, family member, or coworker, practice really listening. So often during a conversation we rush to say what’s on our minds. (Now that I spend most of my time alone writing, I notice even more of a tendency to do this.)

Instead, try setting aside your own concerns and hearing what the other person says. Ask questions to encourage that person to share more about the issue, the feelings it prompts, and the circumstances around it.

You can also try taking a breath after you think the other person has finished talking and before you speak. That may allow the other person to finish a thought or elaborate on an idea. And if your conversation partner has truly finished, it will make the conversation more relaxed and comfortable for both of you.

I’m not in any way suggesting that you put these conversations directly into one of your novels. That’s an almost certain way to get people angry at you.

If you’re like me, however, you’ll find that bits and pieces of what you hear from others spark ideas about conflicts that could become novels or scenes. You can take day-to-day issues and exaggerate them or put them in other worlds, whether that literally means on another planet or simply in another profession or family situation.

Also, the more people whose points of view you truly listen to and understand the more diverse characters and situations you can create.

Listening To Strangers

I’m also a fan of listening to conversations of strangers out on the street, on the train, or in a crowded coffee shop.

I don’t sneak up on people and eavesdrop (though I admit sometimes I’m tempted). But these days given how crowded Chicago sidewalks are and how often people talk on the phone right behind me outside, on public transportation, in stores, or in restaurants, it’s often impossible not to hear. So rather than feeling constantly annoyed by it, I listen.

As with day-to-day conversations you have with people you know, overheard conversations are great sources of ideas for novels. You’ll also gradually develop a better and better sense of other people’s speech patterns.

So next time you are walking down the street, rather than putting in earbuds and listening to audio or making a phone call yourself, pay attention to what is going on around you. It may just spark a great idea for your next novel.

That’s all for today. Until next Friday —

L.M. Lilly


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