There isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t had someone corner them at an awkward party and ask them where they get their ideas. While many of us resist (often futilely) the temptation to supply a snide retort about how we mail-order them from somewhere upstate, we really should be flattered, not scanning the room for the nearest window to leap from. I mean, every so often, the person is asking because our material has captured their imagination enough for them to want to know how we did it. And that’s pretty cool!
But wait… where exactly do ideas come from?
From everywhere! That’s where. Yes. Everywhere.
But before we get into all that, let’s tackle something you’ll often hear from writers – that ideas are worthless. Don’t misunderstand what they’re saying. They don’t mean that all ideas have no merit, just that undeveloped ideas are not very valuable by themselves.
So, heads up to all you non-writers out there – before you approach your writer-friend with your HUGE BESTEST IDEA EVER about the boy/girl from a sleepy town in (enter wherever you grew up here) who finds out they’re really a vampire/secret agent/wizard/submarine captain/Greek god (you know the idea I mean…), and it’s worth $$$ MILLIONS $$$!!, and the ever-so-small task you need this writer-friend of yours to perform is…well… TO WRITE IT… just remember this:
In fact, repeat after me…
All good writers have more ideas than they will ever, ever be able to write before they die.
Everyone, writers and non-writers alike, has ideas. A few even have decent ones. Lack of ideas isn’t the problem for writers, it’s the lack of time to write them.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way… while I still contend that ideas truly can come from anywhere, let’s narrow the field a bit and look at a handful of unorthodox places I’ve personally found inspiration that’s ultimately resulted in material I’ve written.
IDEA SOURCE #1 – MUSIC
Here’s an exercise I try to do every once in a while – I listen to a song I’m currently obsessed with and let my imagination run wild! I’m talking wild like running naked through the woods, yodeling, and mashing foraged berries on my chest WILD!
Ok, substantially less wild than that, but still…
As I listen to the song, I picture a story like a movie playing in my head. I instill the lyrics with subtextual meaning and allow the mood created by the melodies to paint the landscape of another world. It’s possible for an entire story, front to back, fully populated, to emerge from a single song, but you can also try it with an album or playlist and see what happens.
And don’t be confined to the artistic intentions of the musicians either. (actually, it’s best if you steer clear of their intent altogether)
IDEA SOURCE #2 – DREAMS
(*NOTE – admittedly, being inspired by dreams isn’t too unorthodox, but the way I suggest utilizing them might be)
Everyone’s had the experience of thinking they’ve had a revelation in a dream, but the moment the cobwebs of sleep are flushed out with a little caffeine, we inevitably realize: damn, that’s one stupid ass idea!
The problems with trying to turn dreams directly into stories could fill a standalone essay, but suffice it to say that the visions that visit us during the night aren’t concerned with plot or continuity. When we try to lift events out whole cloth, we find they only made sense during our dazed dream-state.
So then, what am I proposing? Well, I’ve used ideas from dreams in two ways. The first is simply lifting a single event or location that occurred in a dream and then free-writing to expand on it, letting go of the rest of the jumbled mess the subconscious had layered in. One of my favorite projects started this way – a raging blizzard, blood on a snow-covered cliff, and a burning city on a distant horizon…
The other way I’ve used a dream to jumpstart a story is by capturing the absurdist tone of the setting and/or characters. The events themselves aren’t as important as the wacky people and places your mind has conjured from… wherever it is that comes from. While I admit this technique tends to produce silly or crazy Terry Gilliam-like results, the direction you take it from there is up to you. A dream with truly odd characters is how I first started the only full-on comedy script I’ve ever developed and written.
IDEA SOURCE #3 – THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
This is that moment when you’re reading a book or watching a movie and you go WHAT?! That’s not where I would have gone with this! When a non-writer experiences this during a story they’d otherwise been enjoying, it’s a pretty big bummer, but for a writer this is an opportunity. The place you thought the story should have gone could be a clue to a new idea of your very own.
None of these techniques are a license to copy or steal, but simply to be inspired by the genius of others, and anyone who says they create in a vacuum is a fool, a liar, or both. Inspiration is a gift. Plagiarism is theft.
You own where your imagination has taken you, not what brought you there.