Idea Generation

Where do you find your ideas?

This can be a difficult question to answer, since usually, an idea seems to come out of nowhere. One day you're driving in your car or taking a shower and BAM! An idea hits you. Some of us even wake up in the middle of the night and have to grope for a pen on the bedside table to jot down the idea that came to us in our sleep.

All of this would seem to imply that we as writers have no control over our ideas. I disagree. These ideas, I would argue, are the product of a subconscious mind that has been "trained" to act as an "idea generating machine."

Here are five suggestions to prime your mind to subconsciously formulate story ideas:

1. Always ask "what if"? You may have heard never to open a query letter with a hypothetical question - and I heartily agree with this advice - but that shouldn't mean that hypotheticals are useless to writers. Most of us think this way already. If it rains for three days straight, we say, "Imagine if this were snow!" If it starts to storm, we say, "Imagine if you had to leave on a flight on a day like today!"
Since most of us already think this way, I'm simply suggesting you take your questions a bit further, depending upon your genre, of course. You may ask yourself, "What if it never stopped raining ever again?" or "What if the rain that fell was acid and destroyed everything it touched?" You may think of the flight taking off in a storm and ask, "What if two long separated lovers were seated next to each other in a jet taking off in horribly bad weather?" or "What if lightning hit an engine just as a hijacker was storming the cockpit?"
Just pushing your "what ifs" a bit further will jump start your imagination.

2. Never accept that there is only one solution to a problem. If you have to pick up Joannie from cheerleading and Rebecca from field hockey, and they are ten minutes apart and you have only five minutes to make the trip, you can probably figure out at least one solution. Maybe Joannie catches a ride with another family. There's a solution, so the problem is solved. But as a writer, I suggest you train yourself to come up with a few extra solutions. Rebecca could walk to the local library and wait there. Joannie could ride her bike to practice so that you only need to worry about Rebecca. By looking for multiple solutions to problems, your brain acquires the habit of thinking creatively.

3. Ask questions like a child. I remember when my son was small he would ask questions all the time. "How does an antenna work?" "Why do fluorescent lights make my skin look blue?" "How does the TV find the right show when you change the channel?" I'm embarrassed to admit how many times I had to answer, "Go ask Dad." Shouldn't a grown woman know how an antenna works? And if she doesn't, shouldn't she be anxious to find out the answer? Unfortunately, as we get older, we let the day-to-day questions, "How am I ever going to pay the cell phone bill?" crowd out the questions that lead to much more creative thinking.

4. Read widely. While it's important to read in the genre you write, you should also be reading fiction you don't write, as well as magazine articles, the newspaper, travel stories, or science journals. Recently, while the miners were trapped, I developed a voracious interest in Chile, and tried to learn as much as I could about this country I'd rarely thought about before. Not long before that, a photo on a magazine cover spawned a frenzy of research into Machu Picchu. To date, I've never used anything I've learned about Chile or Machu Picchu in any of my fiction, but it has helped train my mind to imagine different environments, and the lives of the people who live there.

5. Think like a "social anthropologist." The best way I can explain what I mean by this it to tell you about a recent experience of having my car towed in Philadelphia. Finding my car missing from the place I had parked it started a series of events, each one more frustrating and inconvenient than the last. Hours later, my husband and I found ourselves in a neighborhood I most likely never would have wandered into, trying to negotiate with a very unreasonable man through a window so darkly tinted as to make it impossible to see his face. He directed us to a corner auto tags service - a tiny room where the none-stop sale of lottery tickets appeared to be the only purpose of the business. Once we managed to find someone who spoke enough English to understand what we needed, we were able to have proof of insurance faxed to the establishment so that we could then return to the rudest man in Philadelphia, talk to him through his bullet-proof tinted glass, and finally, claim our vehicle.
You may be wondering what this has to do with anthropology. Good question! After all, this experience was far from educational. Yet, it did introduce me to people, places, manners, and routines that are outside my typical life experiences. Through it all, I tried to make a mental image of the landscape, the behaviors, and the expectations that were unique to this particular situation. For that afternoon, I was a "social anthropologist."

As a writer, I'm sure you know that your mind is working on a subconscious level all the time, even while you sleep. Tell your subconscious that you want it to come up with new ideas and premises for you. Teach it as many creative thinking techniques as you can. Then, just get out of its way.

Do you have unique methods for generating ideas? Do you already practice any of these habits? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.


  1. Great post Julie!
    I tend to get my best ideas while showering or doing the dishes. These are the times my mind wanders without me directing it anywhere. I have nothing to do but think.
    I do play the "what if" game a lot too. My NaNoWriMo project was inspired by a tin of candy I bought: "What if this candy were magic and could grant wishes?"

  2. Hey Brooke! Thanks for being my very first commenter! <3
    I had to mention the shower because that is where I get most of my ideas, too. :) And I LOVE your NaNoWriMo premise! That is definitely something I would like to read. :)

  3. I promised I'd comment on here later!

    I use the "what if" scenario occasionally, but for me many of my ideas are born from reading one particularly inspiring quote in fiction, or listening to a certain song. Of course, there's also dreams. I'm not sure how many other people dream like this, but mine tend to function like movies. I'll have a really awesome dream, and if I wake up before it's reached its "end", it starts right back up where it left off the next night as though I had physically hit a pause button.

    Maybe an even less used way to generate ideas is roleplay. I roleplay extensively, both through play-by-post online and over tabletop IRL. Through roleplay I'm able to create entire storylines and characters, and actually give them a test-run before deciding whether I want to write about it. Occasionally I even mesh two entirely separately elements together to create a more unique and interesting story. The present novel I am working on was actually inspired by roleplay I did about four years back.

  4. Yay for the new site! These are all great ideas--I particularly like "ask questions like a child."

    "What if" tends to be the start of most of my ideas, I must admit. It's my most valuable creative tool, I think.

    I also get ideas from my own weaknesses. For example, I discovered a few years ago that I have a tendency to write passive heroes--so now a lot of my ideas come from me sitting down and saying "What is the LEAST passive hero I can come up with?" and often the story will unfold from there. If your weakness is dialogue, what situation can you write that forces you to work on that? And so forth.

  5. @rachelrussell thanks for commenting! I LOVE your roleplaying method. I'd never considered that before. Also - your dreams... My husband always comments how my dreams have full blown story lines, with a beginning and an end, just like a movie. I've never picked one up from the night before, though. That is really cool! :)

  6. Hey Meg! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! Your "weakness" method is a really good idea. I ALSO used to write heroes that reacted more than they acted. I'm going to try to use your method with my current WIP, when my hero has to make a decision. "What's the LEAST passive decision she could make?" THANKS! <3

  7. Hi Julie! I've been meaning to read this since you posted it on Twitter and your LJ, so here I am. Better late than never. :P

    Anyway, I practice some of these tips already, especially number 1, 4 and 5.

    TV and 1 seem to work well for me, because I watch something and think "what if instead of this there was this and that?" and then run to jot it down.

    4 is something I've always had: the need to read and absorb as much information as I can. That's why I'm a fan of the Yahoo! front page, it allows me to find even more sites with info, trivia, developments and discoveries. Same with the BBC site. And I've gotten some pretty good ideas out of this!

    And then there's 5. I've always loved analyzing people and breaking down their patterns, reasons and personalities almost as if I was a psychologist. Almost, I'm not as scary. :P This helped me to never have the same character twice, each of them is their own entity--like a person.

    I really liked this post! Looking forward to more. :D

  8. @armithgreenleaf Yay! It's so great to have you here! I smiled when I read what you said about #1, since you mentioned TV! I almost said something about TV; I get ideas from shows like GHOSTHUNTERS, but I hated to say, "Hey writers! Go watch some TV!" LOL! Also, I'm glad you use #5. I also consider myself a "psychology hobbyist" (my apologies to all REAL psychologists out there!) and I've always been fascinated most by the people who are the least like me. Thanks for the comment! <3