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