Where Do Ideas Come From?

Not long ago I was asked the following question by the lovely Stacey: where do you get your inspiration, and how do you develop that into a plot? What comes first: character idea, world idea, or a personal achievement idea?

I turned the question first to all of you, and unsurprisingly your answers were as varied as the potential starting points: something that triggers an emotional response; something that I think and latch onto; a personal experience I want to get down.

Common amongst these perspectives was the idea that…well, you just sort of know if you want to write about an idea. I think this is true, but it misses an important truth about writing – you will write many more unfinished or unused ideas than you will complete ones. For every novel, there is a list of concepts that you never bothered picking up, or tried picking up but just didn’t work.

So where do these ideas come from?

Personally, I find that most of my ideas come from my personal engagement in other storytelling. Not to say that my writing is strictly derivative – though all writing is derivative – but that the times that I get ideas are the times that I’m reading or watching or acting another story.

What tends to happen for me is that I will watch or read something, and then as I am going to sleep (or during the day if I’m particularly tired or bored!) I will daydream about ideas that spark from that. Often, this is in the traditional fanfiction style of self-insertion. However what will then generally happen is that this idea, or part of this idea, will flourish.

One of the main characters in Protos came from precisely this. I was watching Critical Role, and started imagining a character to play as part of Vox Machina. The concept I had – which I shall not reveal, for it is dark and full of spoilers – was interesting. I liked it, and spent a lot of time developing plotlines wherein the character fell in love with Percy went adventuring with the group. That idea, that character, has now become part of Protos – though sadly without her gunslinger romance.

Okay, so we’ve got an idea. How does that become a novel?

It doesn’t. You’re not ready yet.

The thing is, one idea does not a novel make. I have dozens of Evernotes that are just a repository for ideas I’ve had. I spent a sizeable amount of my sister-in-law’s recent wedding asking people to pause mid-discussion so I could make a note of something. Writing is a constant, never-ending project to collect all of the ideas you can – because you’ll doubtless not use a lot of them.

Eventually you’ll have a few ideas, a few characters, a few plot points. These are where you’ll then start to see links. Maybe two of your ideas have crossover somehow. Maybe you’ve had an idea so good that you want to make it the core of your story. Congratulations – that is the Holy Grail of writing.

The fact is that having ideas is really hard. There are things you can do to help yourself have them – watch things, read things, spend a lot of time walking, have space in your schedule for some thinking time – but you can’t actually force yourself to have ideas.

I’ve got several ideas. Can I write now?

Sure. But you might want to consider planning first – not just because it will help your story have better structure and depth, but also because you will get more ideas whilst you are planning. And in my experience, brainstorming works best when you’ve got fuel for the storm – not when you’re just looking at a blank page.

The simplest form of planning is just to do a chapter-by-chapter plan of what happens (or if you’re going chapterless, scene-by-scene). There are also some incredibly complex versions of novel planning, whether that be using the aid of a tool like Scrivener or Bibisco, or a tool put together by another writer. If you’re keen to really get in depth with your planning, I really recommend the tools from Rachel Stephen – check out her plot embryo outline especially.

Whichever option you use, the act of writing all of this information down – and researching it – will give you more ideas. Suddenly, you’ll gone from answering where your main character was born to realising that they were born in the same place as an ancient ruler. Maybe you decide to name them after that ruler instead. Maybe they are influenced by that history and want to become part of their legacy.

All of these ideas wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t sat down to try and plan things out. So consider planning – it’s not just about giving yourself a structure!

I started writing! I wrote loads! And then I ran out of ideas. Help?

It happens to absolutely everyone. You’re keen. You’ve planned. You’ve had the Big Idea. You’ve spent hours upon hours writing it out, got a huge amount of a draft down…and then you realise it’s missing something. Something isn’t right. Something isn’t enough. But you don’t know what that something is.

At this point I would advocate the putting it down for a little while option. Whether that’s a few hours, a day, a week, a month. Step away from your draft and take some time to let it brew in your mind. Go back to the beginning, to finding ideas in other places. After your break, come back and read through what you’ve written again.

You might have an idea by now. You also might not. At that point it can be helpful to consider what your novel needs. Is it missing a C-plot, something to drift along in the background without being fully linked to the main thread? Another character to offer a different perspective? Maybe it just needs a change of scenery.

Work out what the shape of the hole in your novel is, and that will make it easier for you to get an idea to fill it in.

This is great and all, but I just never get Big Ideas…

You will.

Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep watching. Keep diving headfirst into stories whenever they come near you.

And for the love of all that is magical, write your ideas down. Keep a notebook by your bed so you can get those ones you think of when you’re half asleep. Carry that notebook with you during the day, to work, to the gym, to everywhere – write in it when you get told an interesting bit of history or see something curious whilst people watching.

Because maybe your Big Idea isn’t one idea; it’s two. Three. Five. Ten. So keep writing things down, and one day you’ll find out.