How Do You Find That Killer Idea?

A while back, there was a trending hashtag on Twitter about where writers get their ideas. This was my response.

sparrow ideaIf only it were that simple.

Many people think writer’s block is not being able to think of anything to write. It isn’t, at least not for me. It’s when you can think of things to write, you just think all your ideas suck.

So where do the good ones come from, since the sparrow isn’t showing up any time soon?

1. Real Life

crazy story ideasThere’s a plethora of ideas out there, and sometimes they smack you in the face. The other day, I saw a guy riding a motorcycle whilst wearing a suit. Odd, I thought. Most people around here 1. Don’t wear suits, and 2. Especially don’t wear them on motorcycles. I live in the city voted “worst dressed” by some fashion mag – that means people like to wear jammies in public, not suits. A jammie-wearing guy on a motorcycle wouldn’t have hit my radar. So the event stuck out.

Once something hits your radar, developing the idea involves questions. Why is the guy wearing a suit? Is he headed to a job interview? Did he bomb an interview and steal the bike in order to make a quick escape? Is he late for a wedding and borrowed his buddy’s bike? Is he on his way to court?

See how those could develop into a story?

I wasn’t even looking for a story idea at the time. I just saw something odd on the street.

The lesson for point 1 is this: Get the hell out of your house once in a while. Consider it research.

2. The News

I don’t watch or read the news often because it depresses the hell out of me. But sometimes, when I do catch wind of current events, they’re strange enough to perhaps be a story.

Last year, I heard a news story about a car accident that involved three men. Two died, and one disappeared. A friend told me about it, so that was all the information I had. I instantly thought that would be a great way to start a story. What happened to that third guy?

I used that scenario as the opener for the suspense novel I’m about a quarter of the way through writing. Allow me to share a few paragraphs.

Javier pulled his hand away from his forehead and confirmed his suspicion: he was bleeding. Or he had been. The sticky trail coated his cheek and neck and soaked into his collar.

He sat up in the back seat and squinted through the stabbing head pain. The tree hadn’t budged in the wreck. The thick trunk rested against the windshield in front of the driver, where the hood and engine had been. Those now smashed the driver into an impossibly small space. The guy who’d occupied the passenger seat was gone; bloody glass shards surrounding the hole in the windshield told how he’d left the vehicle. The driver would have been similarly ejected, if not for the tree.

Javier shook his head, sending a jolt of pain down the back of his neck and a wave of nausea through his stomach. Fatigue threated to take him again, but he couldn’t stay here. Another pair of men in another Impala could show up at any moment to finish the job these two guys started.

Ideas can also come from elements of a news story, not necessarily from the whole story. I figured out an important part of my soon-to-be-published YA as I was contemplating the health effects of GMOs.

3. Pictures and prompts

Some people like direct prompts. Others don’t. I like prompts for short story ideas. Once, I overdeveloped the idea and it went from a short story to a new YA novel. That one’s in the revision stage at the moment.

As a personal exercise, I created a new Pinterest board to collect pictures that could be story ideas (click here to see the two pictures I added since creating the board yesterday). Notice I said could be. I haven’t asked the necessary questions to develop them into stories, but if I’m stuck for something new, these could provide the nudge I need to get started.

4. Questions

If you paid attention to the first three points, you’ll notice this isn’t so much a fourth point as the thing that makes developing ideas possible. No matter where you find an idea, questions are required for it to become a story. A guy riding a motorcycle whilst wearing a suit is just that. A news report is easily forgotten. But ask the right questions, and you have a story.

Allow me to demonstrate how this could work using the first thing I randomly think of.

At Denver International Airport, there’s a huge, creepy-ass blue horse sculpture. It has glowing red eyes.

blue horse

If I were developing this into a story, I might ask the following questions: Who put it there? Who designed it? Why the red eyes? Does the blue color mean anything?

Then I’d use one of those questions – Why the red eyes? – to ask another layer of questions. Is it haunted? Does it have something to do with a Native burial ground? Then maybe tying it into one of the earlier questions is appropriate – who designed it? Someone with a score to settle with the governor, so he thrust this haunted horse on all of us?

Now I’m thinking this story leans supernatural.

Next layer – so if it’s haunted, what does that mean? Does it run around late at night? Change positions slightly? Does it have some greater plan?

btw – I happen to think this would be a horrible story, so I’ll stop asking the questions. But both good and bad ideas start with this process. I spent two minutes asking questions before deciding it wasn’t worth developing further. Two minutes is a blip of my day, so I’ve lost nothing. But if it had developed into something promising, it was two minutes very well spent.

Where do you get your ideas? Did one of your ideas come from something especially strange? 

9 thoughts on “How Do You Find That Killer Idea?

  1. Pingback: Where Writers Get Stuck: Planning | A Writer's Path

  2. Pingback: Where Writers Get Stuck: Planning | Allison Maruska

  3. Mine usually comes when my mind starts drifting off on a particular topic. A few months ago, plot ideas for a 4th book of my current WIP came to me while zoning out at the copier machine at work. As soon as I got back to my desk, I typed an outline of all the ideas that set my mind on fire. And just yesterday, a story idea about murder mystery of a victim molded into a wax statue popped into my head because of the Nicki Minaj wax statue and inappropriate photos issue reported by EW.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

    I get story ideas everywhere, all the time. Doesn’t everyone? Don’t all writers? Please tell me I’m not an oddball!

    I get ‘em all the time.

    Ideas… If they are interesting enough, I do a quick talk-to-text and send it to me computer. That’s round one. The next day, I look at them to see if they’re still interesting. I see if the email actually contained anything that could be a compelling story. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If it isn’t for sure still interesting a day later, DELETE.

    Sometimes an idea is interesting enough to flesh out but not be its own story. That can become a cool back story or motivation for a minor character in a bigger story.

    The ones that are truly interesting get a few lines written and go into a file in my computer called “Story Ideas.” When I am struggling or bored or whatever, I sift through the file and see what’s there. I have about a dozen stories that I think would be good books. (I think most honest writers would admit to that, too, having a dozen ideas they want to work on.) Most of the ideas in my file will eventually be made.


    If I start writing the few lines to flesh it out and I look up and see I’m 3000 words in and it’s 2 am, I might just have a story. Check the clock again and it’s four months later and the first draft is done.

    Yep, it was a story all right.

    Strike while the iron is hot is fine – as long as you’re disciplined enough to get back to what you were working on. Most writers aren’t. They’ll start 12 stories and finish none. That’s not the way to go. Other writers polish and rewrite one story forever – also bad.

    There’s a happy medium.

    Right now, I’m technically writing four stories at once. That can’t end well, but one will consume me for a while, engulfing my thoughts as I shower and run and mow the lawn and drive to work, and that one’s gotta get written. Somebody, somewhere, is dying to read it (okay, it’s me), and there are so many facets of the story piling up – like unanswered questions and subplots – I can’t keep putting them off!

    So I’m writing about a Water Castle instead of something else. It’ll all work out. I don’t know how, but it always does.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve started hashing something out and then put it aside for a few months to work on other things. If it’s still promising after a break and with fresh eyes, chances are good it’ll be a decent story.
      You’re exactly right about smaller details and subplots coming from their own ideas. I got something as simple as a character description from a guy I saw at the gym.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Useful stuff comes from all sorts of strange places.

        I was having a crappy day – not an angry crappy day, a sad crappy day – and I said, well, I’ll have a character that needs to feel this way some time; maybe I can write down how I feel and use it then. I never put two and two together until months later when I realized my MC was about to have a super bad day and would feel very sad afterwards. I was able to dip into that little emotional pool I’d written down and swim around for a bit, drawing upon it for the needed scene.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Mine usually come at night, when I am supposed to be sleeping! Sometimes they come from something that happened that day or from something I saw. Sometimes it comes from my analyzing and reliving a situation in my head. Sometimes, I don’t know where they come from either. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s