Ever wonder where writers get their ideas? Maybe you’ve watched Under the Dome and thought, how did Stephen King come up with this? There are several answers, and they vary from author to author, though there are several commonalities.
The most common answer is the “what if?” One writer shared a story with me of a piece of paper flying against his windshield, then promptly blowing away. His mind immediately asked a simple question: What if that paper had my name on it? Scientists ask “what if” all the time, and many turn these ponderings into fantastic sci-fi stories. Ender’s Game grew from Orson Scott Card’s wonderings about what zero-g combat might look like. For my Hand of Adonai series, I asked the question: what if a group of teenagers were sucked into a video game they’d created.
Neil Gaiman says, “You get ideas from daydreaming. you get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.*”
The idea here is to be deliberate. When the paper hits your window and you wonder what would happen if your name was on it, make sure you right down your ideas. We call these story seeds, and they die unless they’re planted in words on page.
Keep a journal with you, or an iPad or iPod or Surface if you prefer. Whatever you’re most likely to jot the ideas down on. I’ve been known to leave myself voice mails while driving when an idea strikes. Do whatever it takes, and do it deliberately, so when you envision a massive invisible dome encompassing a small town, you’ll have something to plant it in when convenient.
Almost all writers attest to the importance of constant input, from which they derive inspiration and influence. The most obvious form of influence is books. The more you read, the more ideas you’ll have. You’d be hard pressed to find Stephen King without a book. Ever. But this isn’t the only way to find inspiration. Many writers attribute their influences to things like poetry, movies, television, and especially music. Of course, a new generation of writers is increasingly pointing to two other forms of pop-culture influences: comic books and video games.
When you’ve got a stream of constant input and an active imagination, you can come up with fantastic ideas by combining elements of different stories. For example, my Hand of Adonai series combines elements of Tron and Narnia (as well as several old-school fantasy RPG tropes). Steve McLain’s Betrayal is a loose forging of elements of Harry Potter and the Count of Monte Cristo. The popular Hunger Games series grew from the melding of reality television and the roman gladiators. If you find yourself stuck for ideas, take two or three of your favorite stories, smash them together, and see what kind of story sandwich you get. It might be tasty.
FREE (EXPLORATORY) WRITING:
Though this idea isn’t as popular, I find it to be rather effective. Most of my short stories begin this way. I simply imagine a character in a tough spot and begin writing. Then, I make sure to surprise myself as much as possible. The more I do so, the more the story takes shape. If I stumble across a puzzling contradiction, rather than dismissing it and changing what I’ve done, I try to find the source of contradiction. I find a way to make it true. Once I have, I’ve learned something new about my plot and my characters. Though effective, this can often take a while to get rolling. It takes perseverance and determination. Throughout the process, you’ll find yourself asking “what if” and “now what” often. Those questions push your story along.
DEVELOP INTERESTING CHARACTERS:
While plots tend to get our attention from the back of the book, it is the characters we remember from our favorite stories. If you come up with an interesting character, almost anything that happens to them will be story-worthy. I think of USA Networks slogan “characters welcome.” They’ve got some outstanding shows. A few of my favorites are Monk and Psych, both detectives, though one’s crippled with OCD and the other’s an elaborate but loveable hoax. Steve McLain mentions his love for House, a droll, selfishly morbid, semi-psychotic medical genius on FOX. If you can come up with a character like this, virtually any situation you put them in will be interesting and story-worthy.
DREAMS AND DREAM JOURNALS:
Keeping a journal near your bed is another good idea. We dream almost nightly, but seldom recall what they’re about the falling morning. However, many great books started deep in the subconscious of their authors. My first novel was based on a dream, and while it will likely never be published, the intense emotions it inspired helped fuel me to finish my first full-length novel. Stephen King’s Misery came from a dream he had on a plane. Even the infamous Twilight, love it or hate it, came from a dream Stephanie Meyer had one night. It’s important, when these dreams come, and you wake in some sort of emotional turmoil, for you to write down as much as you can about the dream, specifically the imagery, the setting, the sensations that inspired the emotional stirring.
For more on books based on dreams, click here.
[box] Here’s what Steven and I had to say about getting our ideas in our Firsts In Fiction podcast. Listen below, or download here. Enjoy.
* For more information on how Neil Gaiman answers the questions “Where do you get your ideas?” Click here. You can find out more about what he has to say on writing here.
More on Neil Gaiman on writing, click here.