Every writer gets asked the age old question “Where do your ideas come from?” It’s easy to either discard the question as impossible to answer or to lob the easy answer “everyone is different.” Maybe because it’s not an easy question to answer without a lot of self reflection and effort.
I decided to give the question some serious thought and come up with 10 techniques you can use right away to help you come up with ideas. Some of them could be whole articles on their own, but I’ve tried to give you enough to get started. There’s nothing here revolutionary, but each one is a good piece of a larger strategy that has worked for me all my life.
Stephen King said “If you want to be a writer, read a lot and write a lot.” He’s a pretty good guy to listen to, and that quote has techniques #1 and #10 in it. Everything you consume during your life is raw material for a writer. Ideas beget ideas and stories beget stories. Your brain works associatively. It’s really good at taking one thing and morphing it into another, or combining it with something else.
Reading excites your imagination. You exercise your brain by picturing things how they might be in real life (see #7), and you learn to do that with your own ideas. When you see what other writers are writing it can spur you to your own ideas. Vampires became very popular at one point. Justin Cronin came along and rewrote the vampire story in a very different way. He took something that existed and made it his own.
While you do want to read the genre in which you want to write (because you should be very familiar with it and it helps to know what’s out there) don’t limit yourself. Good ideas come from mixing things up. Read from genres you wouldn’t normally pick up. Read fiction and non-fiction. Read widely, and then read deeply. Fun books are great, but dig into serious topics, too. Psychology and philosophy are incredibly useful topics to help you understand how we as humans behave. The more you know about humans, the better writer you’ll be.
2: Life Experience
The truth is, you’re already full of ideas. You have both unique experiences and those common to the human condition–and both are important. Pay close attention to the events of your life as they unfold. Ask yourself why they happened. What motivated that person to act in such a way? Why did some organization do the thing they did? How did your recent argument/trip/date/work experience affect you? Real experiences are a great source of ideas, especially because people can identify with them. And they don’t have to be your life experiences, either. (See #5)
3: Intellectual Inspiration
I’m using the term intellectual as in “given to study, reflection, and speculation.” What interests you? I’m very interested in artificial intelligences and where technology is taking humanity. I’m also deeply interested in human psychology and philosophy. Whatever your interest, find ways to increase your knowledge of those subjects. As you do this, you’ll find you are opened up to parallel or complementary fields or topics, and you can dig into those. Podcasts, TED talks, YouTube videos and documentaries are all good ways to feed these interests. Everything you learn (even a new skill related to work) might be an important input into a story idea.
As you learn about new things, they become possibilities for any and all ideas you have. Your new knowledge becomes another lens to view things through. The more of these lenses you have, the more varied and interesting your ideas.
I’ve read writers who disagree here, but to me there’s not such a great difference between reading a book and taking in a movie. A movie (or a good streaming series) is quickly consumed, and you can take in more of them in a shorter amount of time. Even with movies that aren’t particularly good, you can take away interesting ideas. Since movies start with a writer producing a script, you can also read the screenplays. Movies have to move along much quicker than a book. There’s an economy of story that has to take place. How did they do it? Why did they do it that way? Think about the emotional impact produced by scenes in the movie. Why did they affect you that way? What inspired you? What disgusted you?
In particular, indie or small budget movies often tell very interesting stories that can be inspiring. The movie Moon starring Sam Rockwell (spoilers ahead) deals with an energy collection base on the Moon that is staffed by clones – except they don’t know their clones. How might you construct a similar concept where a person is living their life completely unaware of a critical piece of information, that when they learn it, shatters their world?
People live amazing lives. Make an effort to sit down with people and have a conversation, and really listen to their stories. Not only will you learn interesting things, but you’ll hear viewpoints that are different from your own. It’s good to know how other people think instead of always reinforcing your own beliefs and positions. It will be difficult for you to write varied and interesting characters if you are only aware of your own small worldview. So don’t just sit down with your close circle of friends. Have coffee with someone at work that holds opposing views. Talk to a friend of a friend you don’t know at all. Speak with that weird neighbor you’ve been avoiding. He might be weird for a really good reason.
I’m not talking about the mindfulness practice, but rather the idea of “continued or extended thought; reflection; contemplation.” Thinking is something of a lost art in modern society where we’re always filling our time with activities or media. To meditate on something means to retreat within yourself and really contemplate. Let’s take general artificial intelligence as an example. What might that look like when it has free reign in a human-like body? How would two such entities interact? You can contemplate an idea like this for some time. When you start thinking something through, questions naturally arise that will lead you in other directions–often directions you had no intention of pursuing. This is incredibly helpful in generating new ideas beyond what you normally think about.
7: Mental Iterations or Daydreaming
This might be my favorite technique (See The Idea Walk: Grow the Seeds of a Great Idea) Let’s say you have an idea, or even a scene in mind. I like to begin this process by taking a walk, but I’ve done it in the shower, while mowing the lawn, while exercising and even driving (careful with that one!) This is thinking again, but it’s thinking directionally. What will happen if my hero does this thing? Play the scene in your mind–literally daydream about it–play it as a movie in your own head. What would it look like? You come to something you don’t like. Change it. Play it again. Better? Good, what’s next? You need a good 15 minutes at least to do this right. A good long walk, say 60-90 minutes, is great for really sorting out ideas. I wrote my whole novel using this as a primary technique to sort out ideas.
8: Understanding Story
It helps to get a little academic and know about the nuts and bolts of story construction. Learn about the hero’s journey and the monomyth. Explore The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Learn about Jungian archetypes. Dig up Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling. Dig into ancient myth and fairy tales and examine how they were written. All these things are tools to help craft and generate ideas. For example, take the rule “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.” That might lead you to think of a character who is a local hero not because he has ever succeeded at anything, but because he tries harder than everyone. What kind of town is it? What is he trying to do? Now you move to the Daydreaming technique and start working it out.
9: Understand Yourself
What are the things you want in life? What part of your life is currently unfulfilled–or completely satisfactory? What has made you happy, angry or sad lately? Any answer you give to these questions is common to the human experience. Using meditation, dig into yourself and really contemplate some of these questions. What if something were to change? What if you were to suffer a loss–or a windfall? What if you got what you actually wanted–but you’ve changed from when you first wanted it? Thought experiments like these lead you down paths you would not normally walk and are great for generating ideas.
Lastly, the very act of writing might be one of the best ways to come up with ideas. It sounds counterintuitive, especially because some writers are daunted by the white page. But this is what “discovery” or “straight ahead” writing is all about. Take an idea from a thought experiment and start writing. Where might this character go or what might he do? It’s a combination of thinking about it and writing down what comes to mind and repeating the process. It’s going to be messy and that’s perfectly fine. Because as you start stringing these ideas together, the story you are building creates new possibilities. The more you write, the more raw material you have to add to and modify. Eventually you’ll edit and delete things or rewrite them completely. When all else fails and you think you are stuck, sit down and start writing on the first thing that comes to mind. Look out your window. You see a rabbit chased by a squirrel–that’s the start of your story. Why is the squirrel chasing a rabbit? It’s up to you!
I hope I’ve shown you that ideas don’t just manifest themselves out of nothing. They are part of who you are, what you think and how you live. The techniques here will help you engage with that and pull out the great ideas that are just waiting to come out.
Pick a technique here that’s new to you and try it out. Let me know how it works for you!