By far the most common question asked of professional writers is where they get their ideas. We all like to think that brilliant, fully-formed story ideas just pop into the heads of our favourite authors. We imagine that if we could somehow learn their secret technique then we too could crank out bestsellers as effortlessly as they seem to.
The truth is that you have more great ideas than you could ever write. Really, you do! The problem isn't a lack of great ideas; it's that you haven't been taught how to free these ideas from your brain.
Where to Start?
Every how-to book on writing will tell you that you need to start with a solid premise, or story idea. What they rarely tell you is where this idea comes from in the first place. This is the cause of great frustration and confusion in beginning writers and has helped create the myth that you either have great story ideas or you don't. The core of this confusion is in the mistaken belief that the creation of a solid story idea is an event rather than a process.
Beginning writers believe that creating a work of fiction starts with a single event - a sudden burst of inspiration that pops a fully-formed story idea into their minds. This single event then leads to the process of expanding that idea into a finished work. The truth is that coming up with a full, rich story idea is itself a process. Knowing this is the key to generating more ideas than you could ever use.
The Secret to Endless Ideas
The secret to generating ideas is the same "secret" that solves every writing problem: writing itself. The old adage that "writers write" is true in many ways, and none more so than in idea generation. Sitting in front of a blank page and waiting for inspiration to strike is not a recipe for success as a professional writer. Great ideas come from the act of writing.
But if you don't yet have that great story idea, what do you write about? The truth is once you free yourself from the concept of story ideation as an event, and start to think of it as a process you'll be amazed at how much there is to write about.
You actually need very little inspiration to start writing. You can and should start with almost anything that you find interesting. Maybe it's a location that fascinates you, a character sketch, a clever line of dialogue, or even a great title.
As a writer you will start to collect these story nuggets as you go through your daily life. You'll begin to notice when something you see or hear gives you that little tingle in the back of your brain that says there's something there worth exploring. Pay attention to this and jot it down in your notebook - you do have a notebook, right?
When you later sit down to write, start with these nuggets. Just pick one and begin writing about it - what it makes you think of, how it makes you feel, what questions it raises. And write fast. One of the keys to idea generation (and writing in general) is to write as quickly as you can. You don't want to analyze anything yet. You want a volume of words on the page.
If you find yourself writing about something completely different from the nugget you started with, just go with it. The idea is not to stress about structure, not to analyze where the story is going, not even to think about it as a story yet. You want volume, varied thoughts, and a wealth of possibilities. Don't make any decisions; just stay open and receptive to whatever comes. You will be amazed at what's in your brain just waiting to spill out onto the page.
How it Works
This process of starting with story nuggets and expanding them is the core of story idea generation. As you explore your story nuggets, start to ask questions and follow your answers wherever they lead. Do not try to force your thoughts into a story yet. Keep things loose and continue asking and answering questions. Feel free to backtrack and choose different answers.
And remember to write a lot. Volume is your friend. Ask a question, answer it, repeat. Keep at it for a few sessions and you will be amazed at the material you'll generate.
From these explorations a story idea will effortlessly begin to form - it always does. Your brain loves to put things in order, to relate one thing to another, and to do so in interesting and surprising ways. Your mind will simply not allow you to continue to think about this much story data without ordering it into something understandable. It's like magic when it happens, and it happens every single time.
By feeding your brain a fertile mountain of images, characters and possibilities it goes to work trying to make sense of it all. This process is the truth of where great story ideas come from.
A Bottomless Well of Ideas
You will probably find yourself coming up with multiple story ideas based on the same initial nugget. Great! Choose one idea to work on and work on it until it's done. File the others for later use.
When the pros say they have more ideas than they could ever work on in a lifetime they aren't showing off (well, maybe a little), it's simply that the process of working on one idea always creates new ideas.
That's the secret to a lifetime of story ideas. Collect story nuggets from your daily life, expand them into fertile story worlds, and then condense those worlds down to beautiful, rich story ideas worth writing about.