Lightning Strikes (Inspiration)

How to Use Conversations to Spark Story Ideas

Don’t think I can’t already hear the screams and protests. I know, I know. Even the mention of the word “conversations” has your skin crawling. Writers will do ANYTHING to avoid speaking to another human being (cats and dogs are okay). If we wanted to interact with other members of our species, we would have become – well, anything else. But I’m only suggesting OVERHEARING others here. You don’t have to partake.

And you could walk away with a notebook full of ideas you won’t find anywhere else.

Conversations: A Listening Art

Everyone knows there’s a fundamental difference between hearing and listening. And most people would assume if you’re not participating in the conversations around you, you’re hearing. (After all, the people aren’t watching your eye contact or expecting you to weigh-in on the discussion) But you’re mining these public – no wiretapping – exchanges for potential imagination fodder. That requires more than casual eavesdropping.

When you start paying attention to what people discuss around you as a writer, you take in ALL of the subtleties. The emotion in their voice – changes pitch, tone, and volume as they speak. You catch hand motions they make for emphasis or nervous habits of biting their lip, twisting their hair, or drumming their fingers. Clues as to the importance they apply to their conversations provide you with details you can use for your story:

  • Is this a character flaw you want?
  • Are their interactions guiding you toward natural dialogue?
  • Can you see your characters having a similar discussion?

Readers want an escape from reality. That’s a fact. But if you attempt to craft characters TOO far outside the realm of possibility, readers lose the ability to identify with them. They can’t empathize. And they’ll set down the short story or novel you hand them.

By observing actual conversations, you get an idea of how people behave. And the more interactions you watch, the better your “file” of reference grows.

Finding the Spark

But you’re looking for REAL inspiration. (Not that we don’t need inspirational characters. Every writer wants that MC who leaps off the page) You can find that in words and phrases that sail past your ears, too.

Yes, that means you need to leave the headphones off. Or at least keep the volume turned down. (Which should trick other people out of engaging YOU in a conversation)

People talk about EVERYTHING! No, seriously. Have you ever paid attention – REALLY paid attention – to the conversations going on around you in a public space? You’ll catch snippets of discussions on the news, family drama, friendly (or not-so-friendly) updates, and debates on more subjects than I can list. Humans are curious creatures, and every mind’s wired differently.

If you sit quietly, you’ll find those sentences filtering into your ears, up to your brain, and sparking your imagination.

In college, my friends and I could stand in a parking lot and engage in multi-hour conversations that started on our opinion of a movie and ended on a deep dive into the current breakdown of society. (With random stops on debates of physics thought questions, arguments about lines of poetry, and musings on overheard remarks from other people in the parking lot) That’s A LOT of material for someone to work with.

And it fits any genre. You just need to keep your mind open.

That’s the kind of exercise you get sitting out in the open, surrounded by people talking.

Starting Conversations

Then there’s the conversation spark that might send you running for the hills:

Talking to another human being.

(I know, I know; I’m wincing, too)

Hear me out on this, though. People are FASCINATING. (Well, some of them) They’ve lived lives you can only imagine. Met people, participated in events you’ve never heard of (or only heard of in books or newspapers), visited places you can’t find on maps, and explored ideas your brain can’t conceive of.

Sure, you can use such people to write interviews and features as a freelance writer. But those stories can trigger your imagination, too. Allow someone to talk about something they love, and you’ll hear beautiful descriptions pour from their lips. In no time, you’ll find pictures forming in your mind’s eye.

It’s a short trip to fantastic world-building.

And you never know – you might meet someone you’ll want to include in your life. It’s worth the risk. (Trust me on this one)

Talk, Listen, Write

Whether you choose to lurk and listen (keep it discreet) or brave that human interaction, conversations provide the perfect spark for a writer. You can mine essential details for your characters, discover story ideas, and build new worlds. And it costs you nothing.

Well, except maybe bus/subway fare.

But when you’re flipping through your notes, looking at the results of your research, you’ll find it worth it.

What do you think? Are you willing to give conversation a go?

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