Ask any successful author what question they get asked the most, and they’ll likely say “How do you come up with your ideas?”
We’ve all had our days where our mental engines have sputtered. Many beginning writers have the fear that they won’t be able to come up with enough ideas. I can relate to that back when I first started.
“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” – John Steinbeck
Some people write quickly, but it’s not unheard of to take a year to write and polish a novel. As long as you can think up just one idea a year, you’ve got something to work on.
I firmly believe that the best way to come up with ideas is to simply live your life. Every single writer comes up with story ideas every day. The thing is, some writers aren’t fully receiving them. I equate it to opportunity. Everyone has opportunities that come their way, but if they don’t recognize them, or embrace them, they’ll whisk by.
The trick is to be ready for an idea when it comes. And I don’t only mean ready with a pen and notebook. I mean mentally ready to recognize that your random thought could be a useful idea. When you pass by an intriguing billboard, when a friend says something interesting, when one of life’s tidbits strikes you as ironic, or when you overcome an obstacle in your personal life, they all can be converted into the foundation of your next story if you see it as such.
“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper, you can lose an idea forever.” – Will Self
But if you’re still having trouble with that next idea, here are some suggestions on how to encourage the next one to occur a bit more manually:
Every once in a while, I’ll hear a news report, either via tv or the radio, and find the concept interesting as a story seed. Usually, it’s not the bare story itself, but I filter it through the genre I’m interested in writing at that time.
For example, I often strain ideas through the filter of fantasy. Let’s say I hear a news story about someone solo-boating across the pacific to raise awareness for a cause. I might imagine how the same type of thing were possible with a world of magical elements, for example, boating through the veil of the underworld.
If you’re a science fiction writer, you might digest the same news report as someone journeying alone across space on an impossible mission, documenting the ill-affects of loneliness. When you hear things happening around you, filter it through the type of writing you like to do.
“Ideas come from everything” – Alfred Hitchcock
I get some great story ideas from watching history documentaries. They could be about any subject, really, but history is an Olympic-sized swimming pool of concepts to sift through.
You have wars, political leaders, life, death, unification, power struggles, love, and most importantly, conflict. Many of our favorite books today are inspired by history in ways that you may not know about. For example, the popular Game of Thrones book series is loosely based on the Wars of the Roses in 15th century England. The two powerful houses, York and Lancaster (alternatively Stark and Lannister) battled for supremacy. In particular, the Night’s Watch’s wall is inspired by Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, which at one point had Roman centurions along it to keep the danger from the north at bay.
Another example is Brandon Sanderson’s novella The Emperor’s Soul, which also has its roots in history. Brandon mentions visiting the National Palace Museum in Taiwan and seeing ancient signature stamps, dated centuries ago, which inspired his stamp-based magic system. Both of those authors filtered history through the lens of their genre to create an original idea.
“One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
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Old Newspaper Articles
There is a wealth of creative narratives in old newspapers, mainly because the style of writing was so different back then. Also, what was believed to be possible has changed, so it forces you to think of things in a different light.
“A good idea always attracts other good ideas.” – Patrick Ness
For example, if you live in the United States, you’d never think of Hawaii not being a part of the union, but take this article in the Lewiston Daily Sun from February 27th, 1893:
“Headline: Hawaiian annexation. The scheme will probably fail. Emery Neuman says the Queen has not been deposed. Paul Neuman, envoy of Queen Lilioukalani to Washington, today expressed a belief that the treaty for annexation is practically defeated.”
Clearly, the view at that time, at least by some, is far different than it is today. Just think about the prior conflict that we take today as matter-of-fact. In those days, the Hawaiian Islands were ruled under a monarchy who had to adjust to a completely new style of government. Now, modify that for your preferred genre, add a different setting, and you have a juicy story seed.
“No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.” – Victor Hugo
Putting two elements together
What often is a simple way for creating a story idea is by putting two elements together that don’t normally go. When I create writing prompts, I sometimes use that strategy.
For example, I once wrote a writing prompt about an angel bringing deviled eggs to a pot-luck. It may seem trite, but that makes for a fun “hook,” even if just for a short story.
For an example on a larger scale, the 2012 movie mixed Abraham Lincoln and vampires. You almost can’t get more opposite of concepts than that. Look no further than the buddy-cop-opposites type style to see how two different entities make for a great story.
“That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.” – Ray Bradbury
Something normal minus a something
Imagine something seemingly essential missing from a concept that you’re well familiar with. For example, imagine golfing without a club, lies without consequences, or courtrooms without judges.
Often removing that one element can get your mind turning on a new story idea.
“Rules are a great way to get ideas. All you have to do is break them.” – Jack Foster
The “what if” factor is likely my favorite method.
By merely asking the question of what if machines ruled the world and harvested energy off of humans inspired The Matrix.
Think about your daily life. What if something fantastical about it comes about? It doesn’t have to be science fiction or fantasy based. It could be about a social dynamic that hasn’t been tried before in our world’s history.
You might suddenly wonder to yourself what if the concept of lying had never been invented, or what if humans never discovered electricity. You might think about political leaders and wonder what if one leader benevolently ruled the entire world. A “what if” of someone smelling fear could turn into a horror novel idea. Wondering the “what if’s” of life can easily turn into great stories.
“Ideas do not have to be correct in order to be good; it’s only necessary that, if they do fail, they do so in an interesting way. ” – Robert Rosen
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.