Finding Good Story Ideas: Do More Listening Than Talking

By Lee Walburn

Good stories begin with good ideas.

While at the barber shop or hair stylist, listen to what people are talking about. Do it in the checkout line at the supermarket. Do it at the neighborhood saloon. Do it wherever people congregate and talk. What seems to be concerning them? What about their jokes and their stories? Has the news of the day had any impact on their lives? Are they excited about anything or anyone?

Use your own emotions as an idea factory by thinking in the abstract and writing in the specific. What makes you angry? What are you afraid of? What intrigues you?

Texas Monthly had a saying, “Creativity is never overlooking the obvious.”

My all time favorite is the words of Chief Joseph. “The secret to life is making big things small and small things big.” I adopted that as an idea catalyst. Take small issue everybody can identify with. A man and his dog. At least once a week I go to Atlanta’s Dirtown Deli for a sausage and egg biscuit. I sit and listen. Suppose on one of those days I hear them talking about Joe Jones and his dog being inseparable. You make a common everyday relationship huge by doing a story about Joe leaving his best friend behind when he shipped to Iraq.

Take an issue like burning the American flag. Find a person who sits at a sewing machine making American flags and explore her feelings.

I most often see confusion between a subject and an idea. Ted Turner is a subject. “How learning to fly fish saved Ted Turner from a nervous breakdown” is an idea.

Young writers are especially prone to pitch subjects rather than ideas. Any subject can be subdivided into countless ideas.

Here are examples of how to think in the abstract and write in the specific.
When your 10-year-old goes on his first overnight camping trip.
Dogs that go crazy when their masters leave home.

The toughest job a doctor has: telling a family a loved one didn’t make it.
Where have all the great doctors gone? What has driven them out of their profession?

Are Big Rig Drivers Expressway Terrorists?
Truck Drivers See the Darndest Things

Lee Walburn was editor-in-chief of Atlanta magazine from 1987 to 2002.

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