On February 19, 2010 Katie wrote, …how do you get… ideas? I really like to write, but I can never think of anything good to write about. How do you come up with such good ideas?
In Writing Magic there’s a chapter called “Eureka!” about getting ideas.  You may want to read that as well as this post.

In my opinion, the most important word in Katie’s question is good, which is a stifling word, especially when you’re in the idea stage.  My definition of a good idea is an idea that makes me think of more ideas.  It may feel stupid, for example, to write a story about a girl with an enormous left thumb.  So you abandon the idea and feel hopeless about ideas.  But suppose you don’t abandon that thumb and let your mind roam.  What would happen if you yourself had a big thumb?  Would you keep injuring it because it gets in the way?  Might you spend a lot of time in the nurse’s office at school?  And in the nurse’s office might you discover a boy who’s there almost constantly, a boy who’s been seen by hardly any other of the students?  What’s he like?  Why is he always sick?  This line of thought could get you started on a story.

Or suppose the thumb belongs to your main character.  It’s a family trait that has skipped five generations.  The last one to have the thumb was a pirate who was hanged, and the queen herself came to the hanging.  But there’s a family legend that someone else was executed in his place, and he’s still sailing the high seas.

Or suppose the big thumb hurts at particular times–during family arguments or before earthquakes or whenever a political figure anywhere in the world is about to be assassinated.

If you decide too soon that an idea is rotten, you lose the chance to hop on its back and fly to all the follow-up ideas.  So I say relax.  When you’re fooling around with ideas, nothing is at stake but some thinking time.

Ideas come to you for a reason, often a reason you (and I) aren’t aware of.  Whatever the idea is, stupid or not, it has meaning.  You don’t ever have to find out what that meaning is, just know that it’s there and try not to judge your idea, because it’s part of you.  Conceivably it’s the goofy part, but goofy is playful, and playful is good.

Suppose you really are dreadful at coming up with initiating ideas, the ones that start a story.  Well, you can borrow someone else’s idea.  This is not theft.  As Maybeawriter commented on the last post, nobody owns an idea.  It’s the expression of an idea that becomes the writer’s intellectual property.  If you want to write about a maiden who’s strangely obedient, feel free.

Copyright law is complicated.  If you write about a character named Ella who is cursed with obedience by a fairy named Lucinda, you may be poaching on my work.  But just the bare bones idea is yours for the taking.  If the story you’re thinking about is very old, you can even borrow the characters including their names.  If you want to call a character Hansel or Gretel, you can.

People have built on stories forever.  Shakespeare did it.  The playwright George Bernard Shaw did it.  I do it (to put myself in exalted company) when I adapt fairy tales for my own use.

Once you pick up an established idea, obviously you have to make it your own, which calls for secondary ideas.  Even a short story needs lots of ideas.  Where is your story going to go?  What characters do you need to take it there?  What obstacles can you throw up to make it hard to reach the ending?  Staying with a goofy idea, you may want goofy obstacles and goofy characters.  The ideas in my series The Princess Tales are mostly goofy.  Goofy, not bad, not stupid.

Without drawing on a particular story, you can ask yourself the kind of story you want to tell:  fantasy, historical, romance, contemporary, mystery, whatever.  Write down your answer or answers.  Think about subcategories.  For example, if you love mysteries, do you especially enjoy the historical ones or the contemporary?  Hard-boiled or soft?  Do you like the emphasis to be on the puzzle or on the action?  Speculate about how you might write that kind of story, where it would take place, who would be in it.  Write notes.

Before I started my mystery novel, I remembered how much I loved the Nero Wolfe series (okay for middle school and above and maybe below, I think, but check with a parent or a librarian.  If you want to build up your vocabulary, these books are great.)  My favorite aspect of the series was the relationship between Nero Wolfe and his faithful assistant, Archie Goodwin.  (We named our first dog Archie.)  I wanted to do something similar, create a detecting duo, in my case a girl and a dragon.

For what to do when no ideas come, when you are utterly empty of ideas, try notes.  If idea emptiness describes you, look at the chapter in Writing Magic, because I have a bunch of suggestions there, which I don’t want to repeat. 

Here are a few idea-priming prompts:

•    Pick an object, something in your house, anything, the stove, your violin, your uncle’s needlepoint.  Separate it in your mind from its real history and invent a history for it.  Think of the drama, the tragedy, the comedy that went into its creation, its passage from owner to owner, its effect on the lives of its owners.  Write a story about it.

•    Pick an emotion:  anger, joy, sadness, fear.  Remember the last time you felt that emotion or you watched someone else experience it.  Now move that feeling to a new setting.  Suppose your brother was mad at you for hogging the computer.  Put a character who stands in for him on a rowboat, and make him be the one who wants to row.  What happens?  Or move him to archery practice in Sherwood Forest, and he thinks it’s his turn next.  Think of situations that have built-in tension (possible drowning, arrow wounds).

    If the emotion you pick is joy, you need to make the feeling short-lived.  What will destroy your character’s happiness?

•    Pick two characters from stories you know and put them together in a tight situation, a sinking ship, for example.  Rapunzel and Cinderella.  Captain Hook and the witch from “Hansel and Gretel.”  Jack from “Jack in the Beanstalk” and Snow White.  What would they make of each other?  Would they understand each other?   How can you make them join forces?

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Ms. Levine,
    Great post! This is just what I was waiting for.
    Also, do you have any advice for those of us who can't find a good beginning and get stuck on it for hours? I like writing my stories in order -no, change that, I NEED writing my stories in order- and sometimes I really want to get onto the better parts, but I'm stuck on the beginning sentence. Help!

  2. Thank you, Mrs. Levine, for this excellent resource.
    I'm a long-term fan of yours, and enjoy your work beyond belief.
    Your blog has proved an excellent source for my writing development, and what better person to learn from then your role model?
    Ella Enchanted is by far my favorite of your books I own- I've read it 15 times, give or take a few. It was also the first of your works I purchased, back in third grade. I'm going to need a new copy soon, this one is falling to pieces!
    I hope to be an author soon someday, writing fantasy and realistic fiction novels.

    Because I'm eager to learn how to better my writing, this will be my question for you:
    "Which is a more important element in a story: character development or plot? If you have good characters, should you go right ahead and bend a story to fit them, or wait until a better one comes along to click? If your plot is excellent, but the characters are as believable as purple unicorn turtles, should you write anyway?"
    This is probably what I struggle with the most.

    Thank you for all your help and inspiration.
    I look forward to a reply with bated breath.

    Adumma ubensu enusse onsordo!
    Please write soon.

  3. I tend to over explain. I read your post about not enough dialogue. It's not that I don't have enough conversation (although I probably struggle with that, too), it's that when something is needed to be explained by a narrator, I tend to explain it TOO MUCH, so much that it makes even less sense. Then I try to delete some and there just doesn't seem like I can delete ANYTHING, without deleting too much. How do you deal with this?

  4. I'm so happy I discovered your blog. I love your thought process about finding ideas, and these prompts are great. I'll definitely try them out. And thank you for gracing us with your wonderful books!

  5. Guivevere–I have two chapters on beginnings in WRITING MAGIC, "Getting Into It" and "Back to Beginnings." Hope they help!
    EquusFerusCaballus–I like purple unicorn turtles! Let me see if I can write a post about your question. Glad you like ELLA ENCHANTED.
    Darby–I hope you're waiting until the story is finished before you revise the over-explaining, because that's when you can best judge what you need to keep. If you're not sure if something is clear, you might ask someone you trust to take a look.

  6. How can you tell when your story is sounding too familiar, like from something you’ve already written, or something you’ve read. I don’t want to be stealing any ideas from anyone, but sometimes when I write, the story starts to sound much of a muchness to what I’m reading, or at least parts of what I’m writing. I don’t do this on purpose, but still it happens. Or I’ll use a similar plot twist that I thought was entertaining. I also enjoy suspense, and like to use that extremely in my writing. But I want my story to be fresh, and don’t want to bore the reader in the first chapter, because it’s a previously used idea. (Or because I’m taking too long to jump into the plot. Or I jump into the plot too fast!) I like the concept of parallel universes, or doors between different realms, but it’s been taken many times. How do we make an old idea still new and exciting? I don’t have a problem with coming up with ideas. I have many, many story ideas, but it’s just a few that sound unoriginal.

  7. Oh! I also meant to say that the blog on the 24th was very helpful, but never got to. I feel that way sometimes in the way I write. I’m not writing romance, but still I don’t like sharing what I’m writing until the end product. I’ve made a few exceptions to this personal rule, as some of my family has seen snippets of what I’ve written. I also have one friend that is helping me with the editing process, as we share our stories with each other.

    But sometimes I do feel like my plot is going in a way that I hadn’t expected, and tends to be on the overly violent side of story telling. I don’t think I’m specifically writing for children. In fact, I feel that most of what I write is geared toward the young adult audience. I have that problem with beliefs in writing as well. Seeing as I’m a Christian, I don’t want to deny that in my writing. But, I don’t want to make my characters overly biased in any area, and so wish to present the story to the general public. Meaning, I don’t want to focus so much on my characters’ beliefs, but reach a moral with the use of allegories. And I don’t want to go the opposite way, and make the story dark and gory. And how can you tell when your villain(s) is/are too extremely evil.

    I’m sorry. I’ll get off my soapbox now, but I normally don’t have time to leave any lengthy questions, and I do appreciate your advice. =) Thank you so much for all your helpful blogs!!!

  8. Gail,great advice, as usual.
    Do you have any advice for writing a convincing character change? I'm talking 180 degrees switch: you hate him at first and then you love him. I don't want my readers to put the book down because the love interest is a big jerk, but he kind of is…a prince-not-so-charming if you will, but through insight and a few character-defining moments you are supposed to fall in love with him, as my herione does.
    Would it be better to change his character throughout the story or to change her perception of him? Is this too ambitious for my first novel?

  9. Thank you, Mrs. Levine, I try to wait till it's done to worry about that, but I kinda get bored of my books unless their perfect. I guess I'll have to get over that! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I'm just so excited that you answered! You are one of my favorite authors! Thanks!

  10. Thanks this post was helpful, and I really liked your insight on ideas, because really, pretty much anything can be made to work, if you try hard enough.

    One thing I've noticed personally is that it's not so much the initial idea itself that's important, but rather the way its executed. Even one thats been used tons of times can be interesting, if you manage to approach it differently, so I definitley agree with this post.

    Characters are another fun thing for me, because really, just having them there can suddenly result in a bunch of other ideas, just from simple character interaction or a result of having them in a certain situation.

  11. Jen–I'm adding your question about over-used ideas to my list. As for how evil your villains should be, I suggest you let them be as bad as they want to be in your first draft and see if you need to pull back when you revise.
    Inkquisitive–I don't think anything is too ambitious, whether you succeed or not. Try and see where it takes you. I've never written a character who changes so drastically, but Jane Austen did a great job of exactly that in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

  12. I really enjoy your blog! Thanks for answering so many great questions! I really appreciate your insight and ideas.
    I have a question, I have an idea for a fiction novel, but the inspiration for the story is from my own life. Some of the characters I want to put in the story will be similar, but not exactly like people I know. Have you ever done this? Have you used people you know as inspiration, and if so, have they noticed they are similar to your characters? Were they happy about this, or offended?
    I plan to change the characters quite a lot, so really it is a fictional character from my imagination with just some basic similarities, but those who know me really well might be able to guess who I got my inspiration from. This makes me a little nervous to tell the story.
    Also if you use real events from your life as a spring board to write a piece of fiction, will a person think it is really autobiographical? I guess this might just be a possibility you have to accept if you write fiction. People will think what they will, but only the author knows the truth.

  13. Wow, I feel so honored to have my comment referenced! Almost as honored as the time you answered my question! (Imagine getting personal singing advice from your favorite singer. Take that feeling, and double it. Twice. Again, if you like. That's still less honored than I felt when I realized Mrs. Levine answered my question.)
    But anyway, back on topic, what should you do if you have too many ideas, and can't seem to finish any?

  14. I must say, i love your writing. I wish i could just buy all your books and read them all nonstop. I loved Ella Enchanted, and i just finished Fairest, so i am hoping the others are just as great. 😀 My favorite was ella enchanted, and i was surprised at how different the other book was, like it had a different flavor. Ella enchanted was one of the first books i sincerely wanted to read more then once. It seemed like you put much detail and heart into it. I wish i can write a book and do the same. I want to write books on the fairy tale based around "beauty and the beast" to take it for a small twirl. I have also had the idea to make a realistic version of "alice and wonderland" spinning in my head, for a while.

    I must also say, i am a terrible writer, or at least a terrible critique. I love to write, and ever since i read your books i wished i could write something to you. (and talk about how great of a writer you are!) But i didn't think i could contact you, since i didn't know how. So i found your blog miraculously and here you are!
    It seems really cool that you put up advise for writers such as me.
    One of the things that has helped me out the most -as writing technique- is just jotting down whatever comes into my head. Usually when an idea comes it will stick there until i can find something to do with it.
    Or i just think of an old memory, and try to think of details that have to do with it. I want to get your book on writing. I love how it makes no set rules for writing, just some tips and guidelines, so creativity can do the rest. You will be one of the writers who has inspired me the most 🙂 I hope you continue to write more interesting stories for people to read.

  15. Do you have any advice for writing a story with many characters needed in order for the plot to work? It seems like many of my characters are all alike and cardboard in personality. I have a character who is supposed to be important to the plot and I've just realized he doesn't have more than two lines (at the most).

  16. Maybeawriter–Let me come up with a post about too many ideas and not finishing.
    Meghan–Jen asked a similar question a couple of weeks ago. If my post in response to her (as soon as I get to it) doesn't help, please ask again.

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