Story Ideas (Where they Really Come From)

Okay most of us have heard the old `write what you know’ adage. This is okay when writing articles or how-to guides (unless you’re going to research them first) but what about fiction? What about fantasy and sci-fi?

I have never been abducted nor met an alien (at least to my knowledge) so how can I write what I know if I’m writing an alien abduction story?

Where do story ideas really come from?

Explore #136

Image via Wikipedia

  • The Common Answer – From what you know, search through lists and newspapers and films and books you like etc etc.
  • The Alternative Answer – We don’t know. That’s right, no one knows! Don’t go searching too hard for ideas. What you will often end up with is a stack of ideas that seemed good at the time but now seem boring and which you have lost interest in. Scribbling down ideas so you don’t forget them is helpful but you brain will often remember the better one’s and forget the dull ones anyway. Write down ones you really, really want to keep to work on for, let’s say, tomorrow or next week, but stockpiling them can just give you more and more bits of paper floating around that you don’t want or need.

The best way to find ideas is just to be open to them. Watch TV, read books, listen to music, go out and do stuff. You’ll find ideas. Don’t think about it too much and they’ll often pop up out of the blue.

The X-Files

Image via Wikipedia

There was an episode of X-Files on TV today which was filmed like an episode of Cops called X-Cops. My first thought was `what a great idea ‘. I wondered if the writers of the show were watching Cops one day and just thought `a-ha, X-Files meets Cops’. Maybe they started picturing how Mulder and Scully would react in that situation.

The point I am trying to make is that ideas come from you.

While other things will sometimes trigger them and you’ll sometimes see something and think `yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll write…’ most fiction novels are just made up from the writer’s imagination.


Image by angelferd via Flickr

They may come from the unconscious mind or from mixing two concepts or genres. They may be inspired by what you do for a living and what you experience on a day-to-day basis. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to be aware of them.

I know from personal experience that trying to make `concepts’ work in writing actually has the opposite effect for me. It’s better, in my opinion, to write what you want to write because it interests you. Let the daydreams, ideas, thoughts, feelings, images you create inspire you.

This is not always a popular answer.

People want something tangible. They want some sort of plan or secret formula that will help them write.But fiction writing is actually the opposite of planning and structure. It comes from the creative side which yearns to explore and, most importantly, it comes from wanting to write stories. In short, we just make it up!

What do you think?

Do you find ideas a different way?

or do they just come to you on the spur of the moment?

There’s an excellent essay here by Neil Gaiman about where he gets his ideas from.

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