Now that we’ve established what parts make up a story, let’s get to work answering the question that is the bane of many authors’ existence: “Where do you get your ideas?”
It’s not because this is a bad question. If you didn’t have this question, you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now. But a lot of writers have superstitions surrounding this process and some don’t know how to answer.
I’m not saying I have all my shit together, but seeing as how I had to get out of a deep slump in order to get ideas again, I have a little bit more insight into how it works than someone who’s never had to coax it out of themselves before.
Let’s start with the basics, shall we?
What IS an idea?
An “idea” is any thought or a unrelated pairing of subjects that come together to form what could become the basis for a character, plot point, setting, etc. This pairing can be deep, shallow, brief, a flash of an image, or even a super detailed world straight from the forehead of Zeus kind of inspiration.
Ideally (heh), an idea will come to you, get you started, and then everything kinda rolls out in front of you like a tapestry. Words fall from your fingertips like a stream of water when you pretend to have water laser powers in the shower (what, just me?). Sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn’t. But you can always take these ideas and save them later.
So then HOW do you get one?
They just happen. This is such a boring answer, but it’s true. Our brains constantly process thoughts, events, and previously consumed content on an unconscious level as we go through our lives and occasionally just…spit something out that you can label as an idea.
The real question is how do you speed up this process?
Do something different
You can’t think differently if you don’t do anything different. Though it’s possible that you are different, in which case your ideas will be unique for now. This doesn’t last forever, especially when you first start using these ideas on a regular basis.
“Different” doesn’t have to be crazy. Listen to different music, take an alternate route to work, try to have a meatless Monday or eat a new ice cream flavor. No matter what you do, be safe about it, and make sure to savor the experience.
Have you ever been a part of a brainstorming session at work?
“No stupid ideas,” your boss says, but the second you mention duck costumes, they tell you to be serious. pfft.
Judging shuts down your ideas before they’ve had a chance to grow. One undisturbed idea is like a seed for a tree. One stupid seed. Leave it in place – don’t judge it, don’t belittle it – and it will start to produce the wackiest, tastiest fruit you’ve ever had.
What does it mean not to judge it? Don’t say anything negative about it. Don’t try to make it “fit” into something that it’s not. It doesn’t matter if the idea is too childish or gross or even mean itself. This goes for people, too. Try not to say negative things about people and you’re already a step ahead of the game. Let everyone be themselves without trying to make them fit into some arbitrary mold and then be surprised at how easy this becomes.
This doesn’t mean you have to spout some positive nonsense, either. If you have an idea that you aren’t super jazzed about, then instead of saying “this is dumb,” tell yourself, “this is, in fact, an idea.”
It sounds simplistic, but it works wonders.
Along this same vein, don’t tell anyone your ideas. Not yet. An idea that is still a seed is too unformed for others to understand, and if you aren’t allowed to be negative about your own ideas, you certainly don’t want anyone else saying mean things about them, either. This kills the seed.
As you go through life doing weird shit that you aren’t being a negative Nancy about, also consider the “what if” possibilities.
What if – I were to smack that guy in the face?
What if – character X from that one movie witnessed that person over there complaining to management?
What if – character Y from this movie hooked up with character B from this book series?
What if – there was an airlock in this grocery store and it opened right now?
Always try to think of random scenarios like these (better than these, I hope), and then play them in your head as far as you can. Go deep down that rabbit hole if you need to. The more you do it, the better you get – it’s all a skill, so practice!
Read things that are challenging. Read things that are good. Read things that are bad.
Take them all in and think critically about them – not in a judging way (no judging, remember?), but in a “critical thinking” kind of way. Why did this work here, but not there? Why did this character act this way in response to that? Why did so and so use this word when they could have said this one?
This will also help you as you try to improve your writing on the whole.
No, not plagiarizing!
There is nothing new under the sun – there are anywhere from 2 to 21 basic storylines possible depending on who you ask, so you will probably not find a new one. That doesn’t mean give up! That means you need to take what you find and make it your own.
Think about how you would rewrite something – a fairytale, a classic story, an ancient myth – and keep changing it until it is unrecognizable. Or not, honestly. There are a lot of well done stories that are a retelling of a classic, and they are not lacking in creativity.
Even if you don’t get anything publishable out of this, you have done something different – which is, if you remember, one of the things you can do to generate more ideas. Yes, ideas can generate more ideas.
Prompts and pictures
My favorite way to get an idea is to look up pictures online. Go to google’s image search and type in “scary” or “spooky” and you are going to have pages of pictures to spark your creativity. Use this in conjunction with some of the other ideas in this list and you’re pretty much golden.
For prompts, you can also go to places like awesomewritingprompts where they will have one or two sentences or even a list of words for you to take and use in a story. Most sites and books of prompts don’t require that you credit them with ideas you use (and for the record, I don’t either), but some ask that you do. Please be polite and either don’t use those ideas or credit them accordingly.
Write everything down
Record thoughts, dreams, nightmares, conversations. Even the most mundane of shit can be useful. Remember, no judging!
Keep paper by your bed at night so that when your brain spits out your million dollar idea at 2 in the morning, you can record it before it disappears. Every idea you get, write down. Even if it doesn’t seem like it could go anywhere, writing it down and occasionally reading it over can foster more ideas in the future.
Eva Amsen wrote an article for The Writing Cooperative about a great way to keep track of ideas that I immediately stole for myself.
There are so many more things you can do to get ideas, and more specific ideas within the ones I’ve shared, but I bet this is enough to get you started in time for NaNoWriMo.
My NaNo idea
To tell the story of how I got the idea for my NaNo novel is to tell the tale of an idiot. Or at least a forgetful and/or drunk person. The order of events as my memory serves goes like this:
I was looking through some files in my google drive and happened upon one called “Haunted soul cavity thing??” Inside this file was a description of an idea that I do not remember writing down at all. It talked about a guy who has to go to abandoned buildings and then I asked myself why.
Then past me rambled on about something like a missing soul and a demon haunting this guy. It was a weird idea. The words were written like I woke up from a dream or severely drunk when I thought of it.
Then I remembered that for a while I was looking at a lot of pictures of abandoned buildings and was wanting to write about someone who went to them all the time, but I couldn’t quite think of a reason why. I guess in my drunken stupor/sleepy haze I came up with a reason.
Now in a more…coherent state, I decided to combine this idea with the world I started building in my first successful NaNo Novel. I’m not sure if I will continue with that part of the idea, but it spurred me on to start with my researching.
Where do you get your ideas? Are there any specific websites or books that you would recommend?