Before I started taking writing a bit more seriously (I’m not yet at the stage where I think of myself as a professional but I’m getting there) I always used to wonder where my favourite authors, screenwriters and playwrights got their ideas from. It’s probably the number one question writers get asked. I’d like to try and answer that question. So, perhaps you’re an aspiring writer, perhaps you’re new to the game, perhaps you’re just reading a book and trying to figure out where the idea came from. Take my hand…
At the moment I’m reading Stephen King’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. It’s a collection of short stories and it’s excellent. Before each story, King provides a little personal narrative about each story. Preceding the story Under the Weather King says the following: “Where do you get your ideas and Where did this idea come from are different questions. The first is unanswerable, so I make a joke of it and say I get them from a little Used Idea Shop in Utica. The second is sometimes answerable, but in a surprising number of cases, it’s not, because stories are like dreams. Everything is deliciously clear while the process is ongoing, but all that remains when the story’s finished are a few fading traces.”
Who am I to question Mr King? He rocks. Never mind how many published works he has created, he’s forgotten more stories than I’ve dreamed up and I’ve published very little. It can be difficult to hold on to the foundation of an idea throughout the long process of forging a story. In case you haven’t already been told, or haven’t already learned it the hard way, writing a story is an act of attrition: it’s the seed of a story wrapped up in determination, wrapped up in frustration, wrapped up in persistence. It’s no wonder that along the way the seed gets a little lost. And of course no story is ever just a single idea. The best stories are multi-layered with several, sometimes surprising, combinations of ideas. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to identify the ideas and I can certainly share my personal experience.
Some writers will tell you they get their ideas from everywhere. All around them, in everything they see and do, there’s the potential for a story. However, that’s only part of it. The magic happens in your personal response to the world. In short, where do I get my ideas, I get them from inside my head. I look around and sometimes my brain responds with a thought that might form the basis of an idea for a story. A lot of writers refer to it as the “What if…? Question”. But let’s face it, this is not practical advice. It’s not helpful because how do you know which of the billion thoughts that pop into your head will make a story?
Pablo Picasso is often quoted as saying, “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” I always find that I get the most useful thoughts and ideas when I’m already working on another project, or at least when I’m in a regular writing habit. It’s like my brain becomes tuned to the need to provide, or find, ideas. A behaviorist or psychologist would be able to give you a proper explanation for this phenomenon based in science. I’m neither but my instinct tells me that it’s something to do with training our bodies and brains to respond to certain triggers. When I want to go to sleep, I listen to relaxation music. I use the music as a trigger to tell my brain it’s time to sleep. All habits are basically just trigger and response mechanisms: You eat a meal and want a sweet dessert afterwards; you’re bored so you impulsively check your emails, Twitter or Facebook; and anyone who works regular hours Monday to Friday will know how difficult it is to not wake up early on days off. I think finding ideas is similar. When you’re working your brain is actively looking for narrative ideas so you see them more easily. So if you want to come up with ideas for something to write, the trick is to write something.
But perhaps you’re still struggling to understand the evolution of ideas. Here’s a couple of specific examples that might help.
My current work in progress actually originated from a dream. I awoke with only a single clear memory of the dream that amounted to one scene. It was a brief conversation between two characters. From that came the rest of the story. That single conversation gave me two characters. It told me who my protagonist is. I had to figure out how to bring them together, figure out what they want, what stands in their way and how they overcome it. I started writing without much of a plan beyond that so the first draft has been a discovery from the start to the 93% that’s done. And I’m still discovering. I know the ending but I’m still figuring out how to get there. If all you’ve got is a single scene, this is quite an exciting way to write.
My other work in progress, which is at the editing stage (and patiently waiting for me to finish the draft of my current project), came from a conversation twenty years before writing. It was a conversation with a friend about cell memory. Much more recently I’ve had conversations about muscle memory. (If you don’t know what these things are, deploy your best Google-fu.) Sometimes a story starts with a “what if…?” and in this case my thought was “what if cell memory and muscle memory translated into actual memory”. The first draft of this was a very linear story about a transplant recipient whose donor had been murdered. The recipient remembered the murder. It was quite a simple whodunnit narrative but upon finishing the first draft, I knew that there was a much more complex story to tell that asks questions about reality and sanity. The editing of this project will be very complicated because to develop the story elements that I want to bring out will require significant re-writing. The original seed may become hidden, but that doesn’t matter as long as the final product is something people want to read.
My next project will be one or two short stories in a series about childhood fears. I was recently looking at an old address on Rightmove and discovered that my childhood home had been split into two houses at some point in the recent past. It reminded me of a friend’s house that was down the street. Their house was still intact but the much feared dead tree that was in the garden was long gone. This prompted me to think about the stories we used to tell each other when we were kids. They were ghost stories and stories about haunted places. They were the monsters under the bed and the skeletons in the closet. This project is still mostly unformed but I know that what I want to do is bring those childish fears to life. In a world where I’m afraid of grown up things like war, failing economies, ill health and the future, it would be nice to explore more simple fears again.
Your ideas can come from anywhere. The writer’s skill, I think, is in perception. Either way, the idea is just the beginning.
And if you haven’t read The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King, I highly recommend it. The stories are fantastic but the authors little narratives are just as enchanting.