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Story Inspiration From the News

December 30, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified December 30, 2014

You may be a writer who has no trouble coming up with plots and story events, tumbling your characters into one mess after another easily and without too much thought.

But if you have trouble devising believable plots, a perusal of newspaper articles, whether on paper or online, could give you enough ideas to last your entire writing career.

I’m not necessarily talking of stealing an idea in full, enough so that readers would recognize the plot or some of the events. I’m talking about using as inspiration a kernel of some story. You may not even use the idea for your main plot—maybe something you read in a newspaper or news magazine is perfect, with a twist or two, for a secondary plot. A piece of back story. The key to a character’s motivation.

Try reading through some stories online. It’s likely that one that interests you will lead you to other stories and other information and additional topics that inspire something for a story you’re working on. Use it. If a topic or oddity or event catches your attention, it’s likely to catch the attention of others as well. So take what you read about or discover and put it to work in your fiction.

But use the tidbit or information in a way that fits your story. That means you might need to change it from its original form. You need the interesting (or unbelievable) event to fit your story’s genre, setting, characters, and other events. You don’t want to steal a story whole from the headlines, as some TV shows do, and plop it into a novel and call it your own. But you can certainly let the events of a true story influence you.

You are already influenced by all sorts of real-life people and events—there’s no prohibition against using topics from the news to add the feel of reality to your fiction.

News reports have shown us—

police killing citizens

citizens killing police

countries invading their neighbors

plane crashes

cruise ship illnesses and accidents

school shootings

kids killing other kids

acts of uncommon bravery

acts of uncommon cruelty

selflessness

selfishness

parents leaving children in hot cars

revenge porn sites

discovery of mummified remains in odd places

the rise of new political groups

wars based on religion

killer diseases

demonstrations based on race or economic factors

hiding of kidnap victims for years

computer hacking

cities falling into ruin

the search for the perfect selfie

teenager revealing too much of her personal life online

not getting a job/getting fired because of negative Internet presence

shoppers killing each other over the last toy, sport shoe, fancy purse

the rise (and possibilities) of 3D printing

wild weather extremes

stories that seem true at first glance but which prove untrue after an investigation

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Can you see it, a mystery based on the discovery of a mummy in a place no mummy should be found? Or maybe a love story based on the same discovery—what if the love story took place two thousand years ago and an explorer finds the remains of one of the lovers today and recreates the love story from the clues left behind?

Or the discovery of a mummy could lead to a horror story. A mummy that’s found and then lost again could make a fun and humorous YA adventure.

So many options out of one news story—don’t feel that you can’t take a snippet from real life and wrap a fictional adventure around it. You can. You can use any piece of information or news that moves you. You can use any piece of information and fashion it into fiction.

Make it Real
When you can’t come up with either the main plot or some event or issue that you need as an influence for a character’s motivation or goals or personality, get thee to a newspaper and see if you can’t find something “real” that can be folded into your fiction to flavor it with a touch of authenticity.

Don’t copy events detail by detail, but allow your imagination to grab hold of a real-world event and then add it, like a spice, to your story. Instead of relying on old standards—plot lines that came from some event so far back that you know nothing about it, but likely something based on a real event or a scientific possibility or fear—substitute something more modern: cyber crime for a traditional kidnapping, ruining a person’s reputation via social media rather than killing him, hijacking a plane and hiding it rather than demanding a ransom midflight. Or hide the plane for political purposes. Or merely pretend to hijack and hide it. Maybe you don’t actually take the plane somewhere, maybe your plane never even leaves the airport. With readers primed (from reading the same news stories you read), they may expect a plane to turn up in some hidden airbase. But if you perform some literary sleight of hand, your plane might be hidden at the same airport from which it supposedly departed on its ill-fated trip.

Don’t be shy about taking the influences of the day and working them into your fiction. All ideas come from somewhere—it really is okay to use real-world events to inspire story events. Do you think all the famous novels from the past came solely from the minds of the writers, with no outside influences whatsoever? It’s not true. We are all inspired. So take what moves you and use that inspiration to influence your readers. Make them cry or shudder or laugh because they can imagine such events happening. Give readers believable fiction, events that they can almost see and touch.

Writers of historical fiction do this all the time, borrow real-world events for their novels. They may use a complex event or they may simply pick one thin sliver from the real world—a character related to a famous person, perhaps—but they bring reality to their fiction in a way that readers recognize and respond to.

You can do the same.

Make it real. And don’t hesitate to use the real to color your fictional worlds and events.

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7 Responses to “Story Inspiration From the News”

  1. Great article. Very inspiring.

  2. I agree with your ideas in general, but your reference to the lost plane that crashed into the sea is a tad insensitive… It’s too early to exploit this tragedy as a good story line. I think writers have to be careful not to make a direct reference to sad events that are too easily recognizable. It feels like exploitation to me, which you rightly pointed out, but you used the example nonetheless..

    • I understand Marie-Claire’s point, but the very fact that such an event – events of that nature – are heart-rending – gives the writer the chance to set out their own reaction to it and may be able to touch the reader in a way that connects each human paving the route to compassion and understanding. Placing the reader in the shoes of the ones left behind, or indeed, the victims. Handled with sensitivity, adding depth to the news story, may help humanity grow. Just my thoughts. Anita

  3. Marie-Claire, as I was falling asleep last night, the very same concern you had was on my mind as well. While I wasn’t trying to single out the one air crash—I was thinking of crashes and aviation incidents in general—because the one was on all our minds, I was second-guessing whether I should have even mentioned the topic. And yet other incidents are as equally difficult for those involved. If I mention a kidnapping, anyone involved in a kidnapping (or maybe even dealing with a child custody issue) will be affected. If I mention murder or embezzlement, those involved in those events will also be affected. If I mention a teenager shot by the police in Ferguson, MO, don’t I stir up the issue for all those involved?

    But does all that mean we shouldn’t address certain topics because of the very real human pain involved with those topics? And will waiting a certain amount of time to address those topics and events be any easier on those involved? I rather think not. It may be easier on those of us involved only as bystanders, since we have little attachment to those involved in a tragedy—time and distance do lessen our pain and shock. But those involved will be changed for the rest of their lives; they’ll be affected forever. The passage of time may help the rest of us feel less of an impact, but I don’t think that’s true of those intimately involved. They may feel less raw, but they’ll probably never be the same.

    This doesn’t mean we exploit people and their pain for our writing, but we can acknowledge events that touch us in profound ways. We can do what we do—write—as a way to work through pain and overwhelming events. People have always tried to make sense of what doesn’t make sense—writers are in a good position to help them do that. Fiction in particular is a good way to help others make sense of a crazy world. When we see characters in books triumph over pain and sorrow, we realize we can do so as well. At least we have hope that we can triumph.

    The point of the article is not about exploiting people’s pain and sorrow, but about opening the fiction writer to possibilities regarding sources for subject matter. I hope that’s what came across.

    • Thank you for your reply. I take your point and understand that you only have the best of intentions. Having been on the receiving end of tragedy myself (under very different circumstances) it’s possible that I am more sensitised than most people and possibly biased. I’ll admit that on the one hand it’s an excellent example because it’s all over the news, on the other hand because of the timing and emotions are very raw, it could be misconstrued as exploitative. What I mean by timing is “events that just happned” as opposed to events that are already a few months old (like the Ferguson issue). Somehow, it seems to make a difference to me. Of course, it depends how you deal with tragedies around the world: they can be used for good to inspire people or they can be turned into a cheap sensational story. I do appreciate your blogs and certainly don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’ve tried to see things from your point of view, my head says it’s okay, but my heart feels differently.

      • I’m sorry that you’ve had to deal with a tragedy of your own. Those events change us in ways we could have never expected.

        Discussion is good—I’m glad you brought up the point and your concerns. I hope you feel welcome to address any topic here.

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