Where DO Ideas Come From?

By this I mean useable ideas, not something along the lines of “pigs.  Flying all over the place.  Write it down.  It’s an idea.”

It’s a question that comes up at every convention panel where three or more writers are gathered together.  It is usually asked by a naïve beginner or an admiring reader.

Look, in the past I’ve cheated you of an answer.  It wasn’t your fault.  It also wasn’t my fault.  When you get asked the same question over and over again, it becomes boring for you, and you forget that the audience is not the same that annoyed you with it before.

So, I got in the habit of making an answer that’s an allusion to an old joke, and which makes my fellow writers smile, “I get my ideas from Hays, Kansas, but you have to send a SASE.”

I could also have said “I email a yahoo address, and they send me back twenty ideas.”

But this is not fair to the readers in the audience, who want an honest answer.  And it’s particularly not fair to the budding beginning writers, who might be serially gagging on stories, because they’re not working from real ideas – not useable ideas.

So here it is, the real answer: ideas like any part of the writer craft are trained.  When you’re a beginning writer you don’t have very good ideas.

Let me explain – I’m not calling you unimaginative much less stupid.  I spent years stuck in the “not workable at all ideas” and then progressed to “too simple ideas” and my concept of “ideas” is still evolving and will continue to, as long as my craft grows.  (Till death I hope.)

But now, at this point, most of my ideas present as “useable” and can be improved – because I’ve learned not to even think of the unuseable ones, or not very long, or not consciously.

Take a joke on facebook today where someone said “What if the now went up?” Instead of coming down down down.  I answered that I didn’t need any more ideas.  It was a joke.  “What if it snowed upward?” is not an idea.  It’s at best the germ of a story idea.  It’s a precipitating incident, a disruption in the pattern of thoughts.

To be an idea, it needs to have more.  Does this happen normally?  If so, how and when?  And where are we? – this could lead to a complex hard sci-fi set up.

Or is it some disruption in the pattern of normal events, a disruption that could lead to a whole story?

Note that in the first case you have a setting – you still don’t have a story idea.  Settings are very important, and a complex sci fi set up could be a good setting for a novel idea.  BUT a setting is not a story.  You could set up, say, an enclosed habitat, where it snows upward (for whatever reason) and then the snow is captured for recycling.  (Or whatever.)  Then you could have a short story about the person who disrupts the mechanism one fine day, or the novel about why the system needs to be changed, and the people whose lives are affected by it.

In the second case, you can have what you very well please, and it can either be an opening scene to a novel whose main problem is completely different: “It was the day the aliens landed.  The first thing I realized was wrong, was when the snow started falling upwards, past my window” to a short story where the whole problem is that the snow is falling upwards, and you must figure out where it’s coming from and where it’s going.  (And the answer is probably “magic!” or will be, after several trials and tribulations.)

Do you see the difference?  It can start with “the snow is falling upwards” but that’s not an idea, it’s at best a seedling.

How do you get from the seedling to the story?  Practice.  You learn to build stories.

I’ve mentored a lot of people and most beginning writers just write the whole story about “the snow falling upwards, ZOMG!” and there’s never any reason for the characters to care, any explanation or any way to solve it.  This, unless you have the right contacts, is not a story.  (If you have the right degrees and contacts it is a literary masterpiece.  But it’s still not commercial fiction.)

Take one of my early stories “people discover way to create gate between worlds.”  No, that’s it.  That was the story.  There was never why, how, or the consequences.  It wasn’t an idea, it was people meandering around vaguely, where an idea should be but was not.

So, you want to have good ideas?  First, read a lot.  Second, learn to ask yourself the same sort of questions journalists ask: who, what, when, how?

As in, you’re going through the paper, read about a car crash.  The step to thinking “What if it were a flying car” is easy.  The next step to “who does it affect most if that’s different?  How does it change the story?  Where (time and space) would this happen?” is the big one, but is the one that will give you stories you can finish – and maybe even sell.

Then write.  Write a lot.  Write as much as you can.  Because writing will also help you perfect the “ideas you can write” – i.e. the sense of who you are as a writer.  Not every idea belongs to everyone equally.

Once, at a time of great financial distress I turned down a writing project.  It was a thriller, set in Washington DC.  I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t even begin to do it.  Oh, sure, I could research DC, but writing about this “corridors of power” thing is NOT something I can do.  It’s not interesting to me.  It’s not the type of character I like.

Now, give me the scrappy outsider who is operating against all the power brokers and… that I can do.

I know this because I’ve tried many kids of writing – I know what’s mine.  Nothing improves this sense like practice.

Then there is another level.  Your first complete, workable – sometimes – good ideas will feel simple to you as you get “older” in writing.

Take my shifters’ series.  It was supposed to be episodic “mysteries” with shifters, set in a diner.

But that’s not how life really is – episodic I mean – the main characters grew and so did their problems.  The series is becoming more complex even as it goes on.

Which brings me to where I am now.  My ideas are now trying to be – without imitating life, because no, really, you can’t, not in commercial fiction and I like commercial fiction – complex enough that people get the feeling of real life from them (a real life bigger than life, as it were.)

A Few Good Men benefited greatly from my reading a lot about the American revolution while doing it.  Real biographies temper a lot of the flags flying and buggles playing sense of the revolutionary war.

(I think part of my problem with Through Fire and why it’s been slow is that the French Revolution depresses me.)

So, where do you get ideas?  From practice.  And with practice, they become more and more yours, every time.



  1. That P.O. Box in Schenectady still works, but the cost of postage….

    (Somewhere I actually have a copy of “It came from Schenectady”)

    Stories are not events, they’re a process of somebody DOING something.

    Rocketships made of cardboard is not a story. Kids making a rocketship out of cardboard (And it flies!) is.

  2. In other words…

    1. What happens?
    2. Why does this matter?
    3. To whom?
    4. And what do they do as a consequence?
    5. And what changes when they do?

    1, 2, and 3 might be snatched out of the blizzard of random idea snowflakes that fly around us every day. (I usually call these “idea seeds”, but in keeping with the snow metaphor…) I think those idea snowflakes are everywhere, and most people filter them out as nonsense.

    Writers grab a few snowflakes from that blizzard and say “Hmmm… Could this grow to 4 and 5?” That’s the work part, where the snowflake becomes a story.

    1. I don’t really know where i learned those things, but I have known about asking questions like those for a long time. I think it was reading some writers’ talking particularly about how Science Fiction stories come about. Basically, by starting with, “What if this change is made? How will it affect people in the future?” Or in some cases, “How would things be different if [Past Event] happened differently?” Which is a broad-brush coverage of all the questions above.

      1. Science fiction has always been a What If genre, where those questions are explicit. Even Gray Goo SF does it: what if we’re all as doomed as they tell us we are unless we Get With The Program?

      2. Alt hist has some fascinating answers to “what if this changed.” I’ve found that with four minor and pretty believable tweaks starting in 1625, the history of Eastern and Central Europe gets rather different.

          1. 🙂 1625. Emperor Matthias hesitates on some decisions. Then in 1629 Leopold II issues an Edict of Restoration codifying how former Catholic properties will be returned to the Church, and acknowledging that some have been in Protestant hands so long that the Church has given up claims to them. This makes him more popular with the wavering, and when Gustavus Adolphus attacks, G.A.’s claims of liberating oppressed Protestants don’t go over as well.

  3. And of course, the classic, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to the characters? How can I make it even worse?”
    A trusted writer friend critiqued a story I sent her, with the response that there was no action – the characters were acted upon, they responded, but didn’t initiate. So now I have them stuck, marooned in a disabled cargo ship somewhere between the stars, without the technical knowledge to extricate themselves (hey, they are only 10 and 9!).
    And things are looking better, from my viewpoint.
    But the idea didn’t really start working until a friend told me, “that stinks, do something different”.

    1. Yep. The characters can’t be observers. Got told that early on, and the reader was correct. _Whose_ story is this is critical. Now if I always knew that from the start, life would be so much easier.

      Because there’s this _other_ nasty requirement that the MC should be the one who solves the problem. If he can’t, then he’s not the MC. The person who can solve the problem is. So go back and rewrite the start to emphasize his involvement. ARG!

      My story ideas seem to evolve gradually as I write. I keep telling myself that I’m getting better at this thing. Really. Less rewriting required with every story . . . err, maybe. My current WIP, in hindsight is about two groups of Bad Guys joining forces, and how the Good Guys beat them. So the other problems (and the other groups of good guys) need to be de-emphasized and/or shuffle off and find their own books and stop confusing my poor long suffering readers.

        1. I find my Nick Aames stories work better that way. Nick is a difficult, irritating character with a few redeeming features. I find it’s easier to make the reader feel that irritation through a first person narrator who experiences it personally.

            1. That, and also it lets you POV character be surprised by things the MC knows and does. Nick Aames is irritating, but he nearly always has a reason. Learning that reason is part of the hook (I hope).

    2. *chuckles* I had this: “How can it get any worse?” in bold, twenty-eight point font, underlined at the top of the second full story (has a beginning, muddle- yes, a muddle, because I had very little idea what I was doing- and ending) I wrote. Horrible stuff that shall never see the light of day. But it was a heck of a learning experience.

      My story ideas, now that I am getting them again, come from headaches. Not migraines, but headaches nonetheless. They don’t spring fully formed onto the page already accoutred with spear and shield a la Minerva. They can come from an idle mind. Or an over-tired one that effectively says “enough work, we’re playing games in your head now.” I rather hate it when that happens.

      I think they (my story ideas, at least) evolved from long running, elaborate excuses for bad behavior. As a wee lad, I got into trouble. Rather a lot. I found that if I could string the parent along long enough, make them laugh, or generally distract them with shiny idea-things, punishments seemed to be lighter. Thus the reason my algebra homework got a C- was definitely body-snatching alien lizard people and definitely not lack of study. Upon second thought, maybe punishments weren’t so much lighter as delayed.

  4. To keep it simple, I’d say that there’s an early step in a storyteller’s development that requires you graduate from “What if…?” to “And then…”

    The initial story seed, what most people call An Idea, is really a very small thing. And the Gee Whiz stuff that most people think of as the Main Bits of science fiction are really just edge effects of the world building.


  5. They get beamed into my head from out of the aether. It’s the only way to explain it.

  6. An idea is a good start but it needs to grow from there and find other ideas to fit around it. This is where I struggle sometimes. I currently have two novel WIPs (yes, I know, bad idea. I should concentrate on one. If one of you can keep the two from clubbing each other over the head to get attention I might do it that way.) that both suffered from some FREAKING HUGE plot holes in the first few chapters. Seriously. The one almost fell apart fifteen thousand words in. Not so much because I didn’t know what came next (I mostly did) but because I didn’t know how to get there. I think that’s where most people fall down.

    Your story about gates between worlds could have been awesome. The David Weber/Linda Evans Hell’s Gate series (more please!) works on this premise, as does Tomorrow is Too Far by I can’t remember who (but I loved it as a kid) and both were/are excellent pieces of work. It’s just the part about making things move where stuff stops working. Or where things move in a WTF direction that they go off the rails.

  7. Google says: Tomorrow is To Far is either a novel by James White, or a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

    I’m trying to write for 9 minutes a day. Short stories, mostly, to get in the practice of writing daily. Story seedlings – I’m (del)stealing(/del) borrowing that! (And some of these short stories are, at best, fertilizer!) 🙂

  8. I find I get ideas for a new project while I’m writing another, usually about the halfway point when things are really getting difficult on the current story.

    I don’t know what that is, but I make some quick notes for later and press on. I guess it’s my brain’s way of trying to relax. As the idea ferments, I’ll discover other nuggets to help shape the story.

    It takes discipline not to chase the new idea down immediately, and I’ve found it unhelpful to get really excited about the ‘next thing’ while the current work is unfinished.

    Lack of ideas is not a problem, for me. What I really need to work on is putting my characters in more peril. I’m struggling with that.

  9. You get a plot cat. Really. I’ve got a whole story about an author in search of his plot cat. *nods, looks very serious*

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