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!