Sometimes an idea just seems to fall into an author’s head out of nowhere. Tolkien, for instance, was grading papers when, suddenly, on a blank one, he scribbled a line that occurred to him: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” At that point, Tolkien didn’t even know what a hobbit was.
But the truth is that writers must actively work at generating ideas. As author Steven Johnson says, “Chance favors the connected mind.” What sometimes seems like the blind luck of inspiration is really the result of years of learning to cultivate an active imagination.
Writers need to make generating ideas a habit, and then they need to learn how to nurture those ideas, allowing them to grow into poems, novels, stories, or screenplays. Developing ideas may require weeks, months, and sometimes years of planning and revising. Tolkien, for example, had to figure out what a hobbit was and why it lived in a hole and why this particular hobbit—which he named Bilbo Baggins—was so important.
Getting an Idea
Ideas are everywhere—once you learn to see them. Keep a small notebook with you or use your phone to jot down ideas so you don’t forget them. Here are some active ways to begin generating ideas. (While most of these suggestions are focused on fiction, the concepts can be applied to other kinds of writing as well.)
Sit at a coffee shop or on a bus and observe. Take note of someone who looks interesting. Write the person’s history as you imagine it. Does he always order the same kind of coffee? Why does he drink that kind? Why does he come to a coffee shop but never actually order coffee? Why is he wearing a red scarf? Does he always wear it? Don’t be afraid to be silly or playful with your answers.
Pick a memory of your own. Then write about it from someone else’s perspective. If you have a memory of teasing your kid brother as a kid, ask yourself how he felt and write about it from his perspective. This is a useful exercise because you’re practicing two essential plot factors—conflict and point of view. You have identified who an event hurts the most and who has the most to lose and are writing your story from that perspective.
Collect stories from other people. People have fascinating stories. Maybe a friend got stuck on an elevator last week when the power went out. That could be fodder for a story about an office building under attack or a horrible storm hitting a city and the chaos that ensues. Eavesdrop (discreetly!) on planes and buses and the grocery store. Get inspiration from websites like Post Secret or Texts from Last Night or ads on Craigslist.
Write about what other writers AREN’T writing. Think about what is being left out by writers of conventional fiction. For example, in romance novels, the couple always end up together. But what happens when they don’t? What kind of lives do they lead after? Do they find love? As another example, lots of writers have written about vampires, typically portraying them as dark, mysterious, and alluring. What if you turned some of those assumptions on their head? Maybe your vampire wants to sing or do stand-up comedy.
Play with words. Open a dictionary, choose a word from the page at random and then turn to a different page and choose another random word. Now, combine them. What do these words make you think of? You can get a whole story from a single word. An example is the science fiction story by Cyril M. Kornbluth, “The Mindworm.”
Ask “what if.” Entertain your inner six year old and ask yourself questions: What if dinosaurs came back? What if everyone looked the same? What if toys could talk? What if aliens came to school? What if people could turn into animals? Again, don’t be afraid to be ridiculous.
Find a photograph or painting that intrigues you. Think about the moment that photograph was taken. Who’s behind the camera? Why? Where are they? Why are they there? What are the people feeling?
Write for at least 15 or 20 minutes every day—or more if you can. Write about anything. Write about your favorite song lyrics or what a squirrel thinks. It can be gibberish; just write something. Think of it as writing practicing, the way you’d practice an instrument. Or think of yourself as a writing athlete, stretching your writing muscles to keep them limber.
Developing an Idea
Developing an idea or “figuring a story out” may be tougher than having the initial idea. There is no foolproof method for developing ideas—all writers do it a little differently. Some writers have an idea and then begin to write as things occur to them, never quite sure where they’re going. Then they go back and rewrite from the beginning to make sure the work flows. Other writers let their ideas marinate and develop, planning and researching long before they start writing. Here are some strategies to help develop your ideas.
Start from a mental picture. Sometimes your idea begins as a picture in your mind—maybe it’s a little girl alone at night in a graveyard. She’s holding a book. Now look for an image in the little girl’s future. What do you see her doing? Maybe she’s standing in front of a legion of spirits, her arms raised commandingly. Then search for an image from her past—she’s alone, in a gray room, with no toys, no color, and no family or friends. Then connect the dots. What happened get her from alone in a room to standing in a graveyard to commanding spirits?
Start from a daydream. A lot of stories start as a daydream or from a personal fantasy. Who hasn’t daydreamed about an unknown relative dying and leaving them a million dollars? Then take your fantasy and look at it from another person’s perspective. What about the children of the rich relative? How do they feel about you getting their money? That’s an immediate conflict—the root of any good story.
Start from an object. A lot of writers have an idea about an object—like a stone that makes the carrier immortal. What sort of person would be after the stone for evil purposes? Who may be after it for good ones? Where is the stone? How do people know about it? What does it look like? Think about the history of the stone. Then think about the future. Does the stone need to be destroyed? Why? Who has to destroy it?
Start from research. Research can be just as important for creative writers as it is for academic writers. For example, if you know you want to set a story in a particular time period, say New York in the 1850s, start researching the everyday habits and customs of that time and place. What you find will suggest all sorts of particular characters and plot lines.
Start from a character. A lot of authors begin with a character. J.K. Rowling says that the idea for Harry Potter came to her as a skinny eleven-year-old boy who was a wizard and didn’t know it. She had to figure out why he didn’t know. And why he was important. And whether there were other wizards. Sometimes you get an idea from a villain. They’re intriguing and twisted and charismatic. To create a story involving them, think about the following: What is he doing that makes him bad? What belief is driving him? What makes her powerful? Is she evil by nature or by circumstance? What is your villain’s ultimate goal? Then think about how your bad guy would be stopped. Every villain eventually makes the wrong person mad. Considering what goals your character would have and who would try to stop them will get you started on a plot.
The Six Questions
Once you have your idea and know where it’s going, it’s helpful to ask the Six Questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how. These questions should typically be answered for your readers early in your story—except “why” and “how” because that’s what readers are typically reading to find out.
Who is the story about?
Clearly define the main character. Then identify the antagonist. Next, identify important supporting characters and, finally, minor characters. You may want to keep a profile for each character so that you know all about them, even if you don’t use all of their backstory.
What is the story about?
What would you tell someone who asked what your story was about? “It’s about a detective looking for a serial killer.” “It’s about a girl taken to another land by a tornado. To get home, she must destroy a witch.” Summarizing your story in one or two sentences helps you understand the main arc of your plot.
Where and when does the story take place?
This question could refer to everything from the part of the world your characters are in to their tiny bedroom on the third floor of a house. Make sure the time and place are logical for your character and for the type of story you are writing. It’s also helpful to visualize the character’s space and identify the main places the action happens. Make sure your story, your topics, and even your dialogue reflect the time and place in which your words are set.
Why are the characters doing what they’re doing?
Make sure the character has something important that they really want. Driven characters drive your plot. What your character wants and is willing to do should fit his or her personality.
How do the characters get what they want?
Make sure you know the answer to this. It’s what readers read to find out. Even if readers know that good will win and the lovers will end up together, they don’t know how. What odds are stacked against your character? What does the villain try to do? What personal flaw must the character overcome? What does your character do to win? “How” is why you’re telling the story.
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Knight, Damon. Creating Short Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.
Schaefer, Candace and Rick Diamond. The Creative Writer. Addison-Wesley, 1998.