I was going to write a short post on where I get my ideas from – despite the fact that no one has ever asked me that (or, perhaps, to spite the fact that no one has ever asked me that). But then I realised that ideas on their own aren’t particularly interesting or useful: it’s what we do with them that matters.
I can’t remember whether I wanted to be a writer because I started getting ideas for stories, or I started getting ideas because I wanted to be a writer. It’s probably a tiny bit of the former, and a huge bit of the latter. When I began to take my writing seriously a few years ago, I recall being worried that I might run out of ideas. It turned out I was worrying about the wrong thing. Right now, even though I’m at the most productive I’ve ever been, I’m still awash with ideas for unwritten stories–some of which may never get written.
So, you see, ideas are not really the problem.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Where do stories come from?
My stories are typically inspired by one or more of these:
- a dream, or other random thoughts or slices of imagery
- a ‘what if?’
- a challenge
Dreams are pretty obvious. The idea for my story Graves came from a dream I had in which a man walked out of his front door one morning to discover that a gravestone had mysteriously appeared in his front garden. Most of my stories come from random scenes like this, whether dreamt or otherwise.
Challenges are where I don’t have a story in mind but attempt to construct a story around a particular theme. My first story like this was Strawberries. Someone mentioned strawberries one day and I decided I wanted to try and write a horror story about strawberries. You can also use competitions or other opportunities as prompts for writing challenge, or find one of the many sites that provide regular writing prompts.
Most of my ideas progress pretty quickly into a ‘what if’ process, but some emerge directly from idle ‘what if’ pondering. My story One emerged after I read an article about population control and I wondered “What if population control was managed differently? What if parents could have as many children as they wanted, but they were taken away on their first birthday?” (I can’t really remember why that thought came to be, but I’m glad that it did).
How are stories made?
An idea on its own doesn’t make a story. Left alone it will dwindle, fester or disappear entirely. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who knows the frustration of having once had a pretty good idea for a story, but not being able to remember what it was. A particularly good idea may keep coming back, but there (at least) two critical steps you should follow if you want that idea to survive in the wild:
- Write it down;
- Explore it.
Writing an idea down gets it out of your head, which may seem like a backwards step, but it means you don’t risk losing it amid your mental shopping list, musings over the last episode of Agents Of SHIELD and that reminder to take something out of the freezer when you get home.
Exploring the idea is where you get to poke and prod it, you ask it questions and find out if it really has any substance. A good idea will continue grow if you nurture it this way.
You’ll have already guessed from the above that ‘what if’ is one of my most heavily used tools: “What if someone found a gravestone in their front garden?” “What if eating strawberries made you go crazy?” and so on. ‘What if’ leads you to ‘why would something like that happen?’ and ‘how did it happen?’ and ‘what’s the impact of that thing happening?’.
Those questions lead you to ‘who is it happening to?’ (as well as ‘who would be the most interesting person for it to happen to?’) and ‘what happened before this thing?’ (why did it happen) and ‘what happens next?’ (what’s the impact).
Once you start exploring–and, more importantly, answering these questions—you to get an idea of the characters that might populate our story, and the shape and plot of that story.
What if a mummy story and a daddy story …? Ok, enough now
As this is already getting way longer than intended, I’m going to break it here. The next part will cover how you can turn the answers to all those questions you’ve asked into a plot.
Come back soon …
Since I’ve inserted a lot of questions into the big block of text above I thought it might be a slightly useful thing if I recapped those questions here:
- What if [insert exciting, interesting, or horrific thing] happened?
- Why would this thing happen?
- Who is this thing happening to?
- Who would be an interesting character for this thing to happen to?
- What is the impact of this thing happening to this person?
- What happens next…?