How to Take Inspiration from Reality & Turn It into Fiction

How to Take Inspiration from Reality & Turn It into Fiction

The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, Monster, Borderlands, Child’s Play, Scream, Open Water: what do all these films have in common besides at least one foot in the horror genre

They, along with countless other films and books across all genres, were inspired by elements of reality. 

Fiction writers frequently struggle to come up with fresh material for new stories. They look to create new and original characters and situations that move readers to keep turning the page or watching the screen to find out what happens next. 

Many times, these writers need to look no further than their own lives and the lives of those around them. There’s a reason you see the phrase “Based on a true story” so often on film ads and credits. 

Some of the best horror fiction comes from the inspiration of real life. If you have a true-life tale to tell or are seeking material for your next great novel, here’s how to find inspiration from real life and turn it into a work of engaging fiction.

Finding Good Story Ideas

Which true-life experiences make for good fiction? How do you find such stories? 

Firstly, you need to cultivate a lifestyle that invites new experiences, encounters, ideas, and inspirations. This may well mean you need to stretch your boundaries and step outside your comfort zone; or, it may simply require paying a keener eye to the goings-on around you in your already plentifully dramatic or comic life.


Brainstorming is the art of coming up with ideas judgment-free. Ideas are like water; without an obstruction in their path, they naturally flow. Judgment is the biggest obstruction people put up in the way of their flow of ideas. 

If you feel creatively blocked, it may not be a lack of ideas that’s blocking you, but premature judgment of those ideas. Enter: brainstorming.

Brainstorming allows — no, requires — you to let ideas flow without impediment by putting them down on paper (or digital print) or voice recording them, then moving on to the next before you have a chance to evaluate what you’ve just gotten down. 

List the ideas as they flow, one to the next, taking no more time with any one idea than it takes to get it down, knowing you’ll have the chance to go back to each one later and sort the wheat from the chaff.

Tools to help with the brainstorming process include:

  • Freewriting – Just write without thinking, without worrying about sentence structure or spelling. Just make sure you can read your handwriting later!
  • Mind-mapping – Much too involved to get into in detail here, research mind-mapping if you like to sort ideas by theme or other common quality.
  • What if? – What if this happened? What if that didn’t happen? These two questions alone, applied to endless situations and scenarios, can fill a library with stories. 


Do you love to learn? Is your mind an information sponge? 

If so, research newspapers and online archives and interview the people around you to find inspiration in the lives, experiences and events that interest, concern or move you.

Try starting with these research techniques:

  • Historical events and time periods
  • Actual people, locations, jobs, and cultures
  • Concepts in science, philosophy, and society

No matter how you find an idea you want to run with, research is the way you breathe life into it. There’s nothing like a good fact to make a work of fiction ring with truth.

Turning an Idea Into a Story

Now that you’ve found an idea you feel you can sink your teeth into, the next step is to refine it in order to clarify its central idea. 

Fiction can be inspired by real life, but fiction is not real life. Fiction, or fiction based on real-life, is a concentrated variation of real-life that contains only its highest highs, lowest lows, and most pertinent details. 

To turn your true-life inspiration into a truthful and compelling work of fiction, you need to identify those highs, lows, and most salient elements.

Here, freewriting can once again be useful, as you set down your idea in more expansive scope, then return to what you’ve written to scope out the essential, fundamental components.

The more you think about your idea, the more you may feel overwhelmed by all the various pieces and possibilities coming at you. 

However, as you consider your idea in greater depth, there are really only three types of information and inspiration you need to pull out of this morass: character, desire, and obstacle.


Character involves who you’re writing about. Who is/are the protagonist(s)? The antagonist(s)? Start there. With whom do you want your audiences to identify; and who do you want them to root against?


Desire is the central driving force of any story. What does your protagonist want more than anything in the world? 

The strength of this desire is what makes audiences care about a character and stick with a story. If you’ve done your job right, they’ll have a burning desire themselves to know whether that character achieves that desire or not.


Obstacles are what aim to prevent the character from achieving their desire. They are the source of the conflict in the story, and this conflict is what creates the drama that keeps audiences emotionally engaged. 

Therefore, the bigger, more numerous, and seemingly insurmountable these obstacles are, the more conflict you have driving this story forward.

The conflict between the desire and the obstacles standing in the way of its fruition determine the stakes for your story. 

In horror, for example, the stakes are often life or death. In other stories, it can be the survival or demise of a relationship or a life’s dream.

With the right combination of a compelling, relatable character with a burning desire thwarted by impossible obstacles, you have the seed of a powerful piece of fiction.

Meat on the Bones

If the character and central conflict are the skeleton of your story, the subplots, side characters and events, themes, leitmotifs and details are the flesh and blood surrounding those bones. 

These elements cannot be ignored, as they are what make a made-up story seem real.

In many cases, you’ll only have limited information about the true-life inspiration for your story. Research and memory can only go so far; after that, you need to do what a fiction writer does best and make it up. 

This gives you the opportunity to invent elements that help to better tell your story and tie its central components together.

In Summary

Creative writing takes time whether it’s horror or any other genre. You don’t want to rush yourself, nor do you want to fret you’re taking too long to iron it all out. 

Allow yourself and your story whatever time it needs to germinate or gestate, take your pick. Trust in yourself and the creative process. 

Most importantly, however, write. Because, ultimately, the only thing that can turn reality into fiction is writing it.


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