Inspiration cards


* A slow swirl of snowflakes
* A cluster of red berries that look like cherries but have no pits
* A large tree whose branches dip down and touch the ground
* A picnic on a dark red blanket beneath a wide-spread tree
* A lightning-flash across a dusky sky
* A field of corn stretches up impossibly high
* Black ice
* An intense cloud-to-cloud lightning show cupped within a small hole in the clouds

People, Creatures & Animals

* The dragon with blue eyes
* A small furless animal
* A young man sits in quiet meditation
* a star tattooed upon someone's brow
* A man and a woman dance slowly together in a drift of snow
* A loose eyelash lies on a pock-marked cheek
* A cheetah streaks across a dusty plain
* A young deer lies dead at the side of a road
* A sugar maple tree stands clothed in leaves of scarlet red
* A cat sits absolutely still and unblinking
* A line of penguins waddles across ice and snow


* Mirrored sunglasses that reflect a clear blue sky
* An obelisk made of bands of silver and red stone
* A small book with a plain, unmarked bright red cover
* Mandarin orange slices dripping with juices
* A spider's egg sack
* A collage of paragraphs torn from newspaper articles
* A single black stone hanging from an elegant gold necklace

Category 2: Phrases

Use these phrases much like the images. Use them wholesale. Use them metaphorically. Free-associate off of them to find something totally different.

* A hallucinatory adventure
* Emergency medicine
* Planetary defense system
* On the planet's surface
* It was just that simple
* The trash collector came around
* Feel the difference
* The electric sky
* The dragons rise over the city
* There was no hurry
* Big news in a small town
* Backing up your work


* Just thought I'd pass this along
* Tell me everything
* And, lo! Here I am!
* What am I doing here?
* Leave me alone!
* You're supposed to be dead
* You've been here before
* It was just a dream
* Please observe

Paperwork-Related Phrases

* Business reply mail
* Return to sender
* Update your records regularly
* Keep this portion for your records
* Please detach this stub
* Please return this form
* We look forward to serving you again
* Please check this information carefully
* All new technology

Category 3: Concepts

Here are some random situational concepts that you might apply to whatever scene, story, plot, etc. you’re working on right now.

* A moment of revelation
* A moment of despair
* Rebellion and revolution
* Keeper, guardian
* Civilization
* Heroism
* Official or unofficial?
* Rite and ritual
* Repetition
* Membership
* Outcast
* Sight and insight
* Intent and motive
* Culture shock

Position & Movement

* Exploration
* A crossroads
* A dead-end
* Bursting out into the light
* A dense jungle
* It's a long way home
* Things are out of place
* Buried beneath the waves
* It's all about the journey


* Discovery
* Hide a dangerous secret
* Hide something in plain sight
* Read a diary
* Open a cabinet
* Interrogation
* Treasure map
* Pangs of conscience
* Carry a grudge

Category 4: Techniques

Comments in italics after the suggestions give further suggestions for how to apply the suggestions. Only copy these further comments onto your index cards if you think it might be useful for you. Keep in mind that these are intended as techniques for finding inspiration, not as “instructions” for how to work on your project. Try a technique and see if it gives you new ideas, rather than trying it and then force-fitting the results into your actual piece of writing. Details

* Remember your sense of smell. What does the air smell like in the scene you're working on now? What scents linger in the protagonist's home? What does the breeze smell like?
* Remember your sense of taste. Even the air has a taste to it. Some emotions have flavors associated with them.
* Remember the way things feel. Texture, sensations. Hairs standing on end.
* Have you provided an up-front physical description for each character? If not, go back and do it now. You generally need to describe your characters before the reader will have formed her own, disparate images. Sometimes such a description is a full physical description; often it's just a characteristic detail or two.
* Pick a page at random and look at your details. Are they solid, physical details, or are you stuck in the abstract? Without solid physical details, your readers won't be able to see what you're describing.
* Go back and read your first paragraph separately from the rest of what you have written. Is it interesting? Does it immediately grab the reader and draw her in? Does it intrigue her? Does it make her want to read more?
* Read all of your dialogue aloud, preferably with the help of other people reading the other characters' parts. Does it sound natural, or does it sound forced, silly, or ridiculous?

Location & Setting

* Write a single scene of your story set in a different time period.
* Write a single scene of your story set in a different location. This could be a different city, a different world, or whatever.
* Write a single scene of your story as a different genre. If it's a science fiction story, write it as horror. If it's a fantasy story, write it as a mystery. And so on.
* Write a single scene of your story as though it took place in another author's universe. Pay attention to the little details; use the other author's characters and make them speak as they would if the other author were doing the writing. Force yourself to adhere to that world's continuity. This is a great exercise in contract writing. Just remember that this is an exercise--you can't write about another author's characters and then sell the result.
* Write a list of the physical locations in your story. What does each one contribute to the story? What makes each one useful and important? Can any of them be improved upon?
* Before you write about any given physical location, write down two abstract concepts that characterize that location. For each concept, write down three concrete details about the location that back up that concept.

Plot & Structure

* Invert your ending. Have your hero lose. Have your villain win. Turn your tragedy into a happy ending, or your happy ending into a tragedy.
* Begin at the end of your story. End at the beginning.
* Write up your plot outline as though it were a conversation between two of your characters. This is a good way to ferret out bits of plot that seem okay on paper, but are revealed as silly or ridiculous when you stop to talk about them.
* If you've been writing without an outline so far, then reverse-engineer an outline of what you've written so far. Does it make sense?
* Try chopping off your first section of material (page, chapter, whatever). Does it make any real difference to your story? Many writers find that their story "starts" several pages (or even chapters!) into their writing. The first pages end up being a warm-up, a way of getting into the writing.


Note that when I use the words “hero” and “villain” in here, I’m not trying to say that you need a black-and-white hero and villain in your story; it’s just a shorthand. Everything is a matter of degrees.

* Write out a dream that your protagonist might have had last night.
* Write a flash-back from the villain's point of view to something that happened one year earlier. This can be a great way to ferret out "cardboard villains." If you can't think of what on earth your villain would have been doing a year ago, it's time to put more thought into him.
* Look at your current scene from a different character's perspective. Does this tell you anything new about your story? How can you make use of that?
* List out the things, concrete or abstract, that each of your characters needs. If this list is short, you're probably missing some of your necessary tension and conflict.
* List your characters, and write next to each what purposes he or she serves in the story.
* Pick an underdeveloped character and write a page or two of notes on that person. Try answering a handful of questions from our character questionnaire.
* List your characters, and write next to each what makes him or her unique or interesting. Why should the reader care about them?
* Write a one-sentence description of each of your characters. Note which ones sound like popular stereotypes and cliches. Find ways to change or subvert that.
* Make your hero into your villain and your villain into your hero. Keep basic life history, quirks, and as much personality as possible the same.
* Figure out what point of view it would take to make your hero look like the villain, and vice versa.

Roleplaying Game (RPG)-Specific Cards

These cards are provided for people who are writing their own roleplaying material.

* Have you thought about how each of your player characters (PCs) will be pulled into your plot? Even if the answer is as simple as, "character A will be pulled in because character B will be intrigued by the plot," you need to think about each PC.
* Pick out the points in the plot at which PCs could make different choices than the one you expect or hope for, and explore some of those options. Just in case.
* Does your plot take into account the particular needs of party play, or does it try to force the party into the traditional literary configuration of a singular protagonist plus helpers?
* Make a list of the player characters in your game. Next to each, list the reasons why each character should feel personally involved in the game world. If any of the PCs have nothing next to them, find something to pull them in. If characters are personally involved, then players feel