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By Colleen McAllister

Has your writing become generic without your permission? The habits and routines that help us write with regularity and consistency can take us down stale story paths without us realizing.

Here are some ways to break out of your comfort zone and breathe new life and specificity to your work.

Character Backstory Challenge

Do you have a pile of old magazines you keep meaning to throw away? Flip through one and pick a picture of a person and write their backstory. Where are they from? What have they done? What secret is their smile hiding?

Don’t have a magazine lying around? Look in your mailbox! What’s the story of the smiling couple on the retirement ad you were about to throw away? Cut out the photo, post it where you can see it as you write.

Location Facelift

Have you unwittingly set your story in Generic Town, USA? Time to give your setting some specificity! Google “weird things to do in (insert place you’ve never been to).” I picked “Sarasota.” My search popped back; “Navigate the famous Mangrove Tunnels,” “See a 27-foot squid corpse at an aquarium.” Instantly, I’m thinking of setting a murder in Mangrove tunnels or a stolen kiss between lovers behind the giant squid corpse display. Coloring your scenes with fresh, local details helps your writing stand apart.

Travel with Cookbooks

Pull one off your shelf and flip to a page at random. Construct a short story with that food item playing a crucial role in the plot. Does it bring two characters together? Does it cause a breakup? Is it a clue that helps solve a murder? What location do your characters have to be in to eat it? A beach-side restaurant with the smell of sea in the air or at a hole in the wall, deep in the LA Valley that no one’s discovered yet?

Find a New Spine

Look at the books on your shelf. Which do you return to? Which storylines can you pitch from memory? If your plot is feeling expected, what happens if you try to fit your story to another’s spine? Can you put your characters into the plot of The Martian? Jane Eyre? How about the central beats of Macbeth?

A Classic Movies Unlock Many Doors

Most streamers (Netflix, Hulu, PBS, HBO, Amazon) have a library of classic movies. Put one on, see what arises for you. Perhaps you watch 7 Samurai and now you know how to unlock your thriller heist idea. Perhaps Monty Python and The Holy Grail gives you a much-needed comedy boost. Maybe watching Harold and Maud gives you an idea for a contemporary version of it.

Use these tips to kick-start your inspiration and find the spice and unexpectedness you need. There are unique ideas all around us, just shift your focus ever so slightly and you’ll find them.

For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.

Colleen McAllister is a comedy writer. She’s currently working on an upcoming animated series for Nickelodeon and recently wrote on the I ♥ Arlo animated series which premieres on Netflix August 27, 2021. Before making the leap to writing full-time she was a film and TV executive and worked on such titles as Minions, The Secret Life of Pets, SING, Hasbro’s My Little Pony Franchise and the Littlest Pet Shop series.

Images provided by author.