Where do ideas come from?

I’m sure every single writer has been asked the most dreaded question of all: where do you get your ideas? I have to admit, before I really committed myself to writing, this bothered me for years. Where do these geniuses get their inspiration? How come I never have ideas like that? HOW IN HELL DO THEY DO IT???

It didn’t seem fair. I had a lot of random ideas but never got further than a few pages. I wrote down a lot of episodes of what I supposed would be larger narratives but I couldn’t find a story.

It was only last year, after thirty years of telling myself stories and writing them down, only to have them all fizzle out, that I stumbled across a short, free course at Writelink that told you a number of steps in writing a book. (Last I heard, the course wasn’t remaining free for much longer. Unfortunately I can’t find a link – hopefully the site admin will get back to me soon. The site has a bunch of other resources.)

It was then that I realised. The initial idea isn’t actually the most important part of a story. I mean, it’s important, obviously. Without that first idea nothing happens at all, but how many people get ideas and still nothing happens? Once you have the idea, that isn’t the end of the job. You don’t snap your fingers and have a complete, publishable manuscript appear in your hands. Unfortunately, just to fly in the face of the popular quote, that complete publishable manuscript doesn’t even appear magically if you sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.

No, you have work through the bloodflow, with the slippery hands and the dizziness, in order to find a story to fit around your idea. A girl who has magical powers she can’t control is an idea (actually it’s my idea, well on its way to becoming my second novel) but it’s not a story. A girl with magical powers she can’t control who must kill a god in order to prevent the destruction of all of Creation? Ah. That’s different.

An idea is one thing. A plan is quite another. The problem with an idea is that you need more than one for a story. As general wisdom has it, you need a protagonist – that’s your hero or heroine. You need a goal – in this case, preventing the destruction of Creation. And you need an antagonist – that’s the one who gets in between the protagonist and their goal. If the antagonist caused the goal in the first place, so much the better. That means your hero(ine) and your Big Bad Boss are guaranteed to be in conflict. Aha! The holy grail! The great thing about novels is that you can have a whole bunch of antagonists and the best stories do – everything from annoying so-called allies to Big Bad Bosses – just as long as they keep getting in the way of the goal. (see Kristen Lamb’s excellent series of blog posts about bad guys, as well as a lot of other incredibly useful information for anyone who needs/wants guidance on writing. You should also check out her book on social media for writers – We Are Not Alone – The Writers’ Guide to Social Media)

Conflict is the fun part – I get a huge amount of enjoyment out of making life difficult my poor main character. She has had to handle a whole lot of crap, some of which occurs even before the book starts. But she’s still soldiering on, bless her. And that leads to the most important idea. How will your main character change between the first line of your manuscript and the last word?

The more you think about your idea, the more ideas form around it. Writers don’t sit around waiting for ideas to appear over the computer in a ball of light accompanied by a divine chorus. They actively cultivate the idea-producing process. They look around them with interest and listen to life.

When you get right down to it, they indulge their most twisted fantasies about what they would like to do to their enemies. Then they do it to their main characters, or maybe that’s just me. It’s a strange way to show love, but there you go. Ideas spring from ideas, but they need good soil and some encouragement and fertiliser. Historically the fertiliser was often alcohol, but you don’t have to follow the crowd.

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About Mhairi Simpson

Writer, dreamer. Magic, dragons, pink mice, cake. Come say hi!
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12 Responses to Where do ideas come from?

  1. Nice post.

    I love the image of blood, as writing is often so much harder than many would-be writers want to deal with….I’m a journo and NF author (new book out April 14!) and one of my blog posts refers to the inevitability of rejection to a writer being like blood to a surgeon — a necessary part of every day.

    The rejection may be external (editors, agents, fellow writers) or internal (kill that character off! lose that lousy dialogue.) But you have to be tough! to succeed as a writer. Sensitive, sure. But tough and determined.

    I find my ideas by observing the world around me with fresh eyes; as a Canadian living 22 years in NY I see things and ask questions that others here aren’t asking. I know, that sounds pretentious…

    But I read your “about” and now want to read a book about your life in Peru. Your short description of that (been there, loved it!) made me curious to read more. That’s half the battle!

    • ๐Ÿ˜€ I glad you liked it! As you say, there is a perception of writing from the outside that is wholly inaccurate!

      By the way, it’s funny about you being interested in a book about my time in Peru. My friends keep bugging me to write that book – I do intend to some day. What’s funny is that I looked at the “About Me” the other day with a view to changing it (because other writers have really cool ones!) and found myself thinking, nah, it’s still all true. It’s great to know that someone who hasn’t known me for years is interested in the Peru book ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for letting me know ๐Ÿ˜€

  2. Sonia M. says:

    I recently wrote a post about ideas too. I’m fascinated with ideas and how they grow into stories. I imagine my ideas live in a huge garden with many strange places and winding paths. Little bits and piece fall as seeds in the garden. Some grow into into stories. Sometimes that part takes a long time and the end result is vastly different than the seed.

    • That would be cross-pollination at work ๐Ÿ™‚ Seriously, give two writers the same idea and their personalities, the sum of everything they have been and done and know will work on the idea to produce completely different stories. Just look at the recent writing prompt for the Writers Platform-Building Crusade – everyone did something different. Even with the fish-making-a-break-for-freedom stories, they were still all told differently.

  3. I’ve found a couple of things that really work for me. The first is that I write down EVERY single idea I have on whatever scraps of paper are handy and compile them later. I also look over them frequently – a lot of times stories have come out of several ideas combined together. Lastly, I start with the idea and then start asking myself what world that idea could happen in. The longer I think about it the more I come up with a story to fit around my idea.

  4. Akoss says:

    I get ideas out of the blue and try them out as short stories. If they make it and are still interesting I put them on my list of Possible Novel ideas.
    And I use a notebook to keep them all in one place.

    • That is so much more organised than my method which could be accurately described as “Extended Drug-Free Hallucination”… Although I do make a lot of notes as I go. I’ve learnt my lesson on pantsing… ๐Ÿ˜€

  5. Pingback: The Building Blocks Of Story – Finding The Ideas « The Graveyard

  6. Lauri says:

    Yes indeed, ideas form around other ideas, and grow and change and form other ideas. I was trying to get that point across to a young writer who thought she didn’t have a good enough idea. Thanks for putting it this way, I think she’ll understand this.

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