Coming Up With Ideas
Ever felt your head was as empty as a balloon?
Every writer gets stuck for ideas, but how do you get unstuck? And once you have the seed of a story in your head, how do you make it grow? The Writers’ Guide has some answers.
In this article we’ll look at:
Three steps to a great idea
Coming up with a story
Developing an idea
Using real life
Using other people’s ideas
When we think of the word ‘idea’ we imagine a sudden flash of inspiration that comes from nowhere — the lightbulb that appears above our head. Perhaps the best known example of an inspiration of this sort involved the Greek philosopher Archimedes.
Archimedes was given a problem to solve by a local king: he had to figure out a way of determining whether a crown was made out of pure gold or a mixture of gold and silver. The task seemed impossible and, after thinking about it all day, Archimedes gave up and went to the public baths to relax. As he got into the bath he saw water slopping over the sides and the solution came to him in a flash. Archimedes was so excited he leapt out of the bath and ran naked through the streets shouting ‘Eureka!’ (‘I’ve found it’) So he had a flash in more ways than one…*
Because we associate these flashes of brilliance with genius, we tend to think that only a genius can have one. Not true, anyone can have a Eureka moment, but it needs work.
*If you’re wondering what the solution was, it was a matter of density. Archimedes figured out that if he created a pure gold ingot the same weight as the crown, then both the ingot and crown must displace the same amount of water if the crown was also made of pure gold. But they didn’t, the crown displaced more water, meaning the crown was adulterated with a less dense metal, in this case, silver.
Three steps to a great idea
There are three steps necessary to produce a Eureka moment.
Step 1. Research. Identify a subject you want to write about and research it thoroughly. Hit the internet. Read all you can about your subject and follow up any interesting offshoots. You can afford to be quite indiscriminate at this stage, your primary goal is to gather information even if it’s only vaguely relevant. Collect as much raw material as you can.
Step 2. Think. Now you’ve collected your material go back over it and absorb as much information as possible. If a story idea comes to you write it down, but keep on thinking. Pump data into your brain till you can’t take any more.
Step 3. Take a break. If you’ve done Steps 1 and 2 properly you’ll soon be exhausted and pretty much sick and tired of the whole business. Now take a break and do something else. Do anything but think. Have a bath like Archimedes, take a walk, watch the television. Do anything you find relaxing. It’s while you’re resting that the Eureka moments will (hopefully) strike.
How does it work?
Speaking simply your mind comprises two parts: the conscious (controlling your mind when you’re alert) and the subconscious (which takes over when you’re at rest). The subconscious is the source of our Eureka moments. At best it’s like having a genius living in your head feeding your conscious mind with brilliant ideas. The trouble is this genius can be hard to work with. Most of the time it does its own thing, and if your conscious mind is too active it will drown out whatever the subconscious is trying to tell you. To get your subconscious working for you, saturate your mind with information. If your conscious mind is totally absorbed in a problem then the subconscious will eventually start to take notice as well. When your conscious mind is exhausted — switch off and relax. It’s now that the subconscious can assert itself and start leaking ideas.
In his book 59 Seconds the psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman suggests it might be enough to distract the conscious rather than flog it to exhaustion. Wiseman cites research showing that people often come up with more creative ideas after doing puzzles and mental exercises. These puzzles occupy the conscious mind and allows the subconscious to assert itself.
Some people connect consciousness (being in the ‘here and now’) with the left hemisphere of the brain, and the subconscious (the ‘fanciful dreamer’) with the right. To put it simply the left brain deals in details while the right brain takes a wider view, often finding unexpected connections between the disparate information it receives. It’s these unexpected connections that will help lead you to an intriguing and original (or, at least, unusual) story idea
Coming up with story ideas
Let’s use the above technique to generate a story idea. First ask yourself what subjects you find interesting and exciting. If you were watching a movie or reading a novel what sort of story would you enjoy? There’s no point writing something you wouldn’t like yourself, so think about the topics that entertain and fascinate you. If you still can’t come up with anything, try looking around you. Who are you? What do you do? Where do you live? There must be something out there to start you off...
Perhaps you live on the coast. There must be some sort of story involving the sea that you’d enjoy writing about, and living so close to the ocean you’d be able to include many of your own observations and experiences in the text. In this case you’d write down a list of all the sea-related topics you could think of: people who work on the sea; things that live in the sea; famous sea-battles; personalities connected with the sea… Write down as many as you can. Try setting yourself a goal of 30 topics.
Step 1. You’ve written your list and two topics strike you as being particularly interesting: submarines and smuggling. There must be a good story lurking in one of those areas. Do your research and bone up on those two subjects. Jot down any interesting facts and figures you come across. Don’t discard anything at this point, you don’t know what your story’s going to be about so anything might be useful.
Step 2. Mull over everything you’ve written and start coming up with ideas. Write down anything that occurs to you no-matter how bizarre it seems. Keep thinking about your topics until you’re dizzy — then stop.
Step 3. Put away your notes and do something else. Obviously you’re not going to come up with much if you spent only five minutes on Steps 1 and 2, but if you’ve done the job properly you should find your head is buzzing.
Let’s say you’ve come across two interesting facts. First, that the first working (oar-powered) submarine was demonstrated in the River Thames in 1624. Second, that tea from the Continent was a valuable smuggling cargo in the mid 17th-century. Since both these time periods coincide why not combine the two? How about a story about a smuggler who uses a submarine to ship illicit cargoes?
Your last step is to do more research on this period and see if other storylines suggest themselves. During the 17th-century England was often at war with the Dutch, and coincidentally the inventor of the submarine was a Dutchman called Cornelius Drebbel. Perhaps our tea-smuggling submariner discovers a Dutch plot to invade England with the help of submersibles. It’s a little far-fetched, but so what? It looks like we have the makings of a rollocking sea adventure in our hands. Something like a cross between Pirates of the Caribbean and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
To flesh out your plot, try a little brainstorming. Group brainstorming has been found to be fairly ineffective, but solo sessions can often be useful. In a brainstorming session you unleash your imagination to go wherever it wants and any idea, no-matter how weird or ridiculous it sounds, is written down. It’s only later that you go through your list and make judgements about which ideas are practical. However, trying to think up ideas from scratch is often not productive so do some research before you start a brainstorming session. Prime your mind with facts. Think of your imagination as a barbecue — research is the charcoal and brainstorming is the match that will light it up.
Developing your idea
The best way to develop an idea is to ask questions. There are six important ones and they feature in Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Elephant’s Child:
I keep six honest serving men
(they taught me all they knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who…
Applying these questions to our smuggling submariner we might ask ourselves:
What is he doing? (Smuggling contraband cargo.)
Why is he doing it? (He needs the money.)
When is he doing it? (In the mid 17th-century.)
How is he doing it? (Using a primitive submarine.)
Where is he doing it? (On the east coast of England.)
Who is he? (An impoverished land-owner/squire.)
In the above the first four answers will probably apply to any version of this story, while the second two are more specific. But these answers have already helped us visualise the bare bones of a story, and these six simple questions barely scratch the surface, there are plenty of others: Why is the squire poor? How did he find out how to build a submarine? Who helps him in his smuggling (he can’t do it alone)? Does he just smuggle tea? Who does he sell it to? How long has he being doing it? Is the squire a hero, a villain, or a bit of both...?
The questions are endless, but answering the key ones will help transform your bare bones outline into a fully-fleshed tale.
Stephen King's best-selling ideas
Here’s how Stephen King got the ideas for some of his best-sellers. In each case they were the result of asking questions:
After graduating King got a job in a launderette. One of his co-workers was a woman who kept quoting Bible verses and King wondered what her family must be like. This led to his first book Carrie about a deeply religious mother and her troubled psychic daughter.
Traditional vampires are found in gothic European locations, but King asked himself what would happen if a vampire came to modern America. The result was his second book Salem’s Lot about a vampire who buys a house in a small town.
After his car broke down King had to walk across a covered bridge to get help. As he walked over the wooden boards he wondered what would happen if there was a troll living underneath the bridge and his footsteps woke it up. The idea led to the novel It about an evil entity living in a town’s water supply.
King asked himself what would happen if the odometer in his car ran backwards instead of forwards. Would it get younger somehow? What else might happen as a consequence? The result was Christine about an old car that takes on a life of its own.
A cat belonging to King’s daughter was run over and killed. He wondered what would happen if he buried the cat and it came back to life. Would it be the same animal, or different somehow? This inspired Pet Semetary about an Indian burial ground where the dead are resurrected.
Using real life
This isn’t cheating, many people have used real-life stories for inspiration and many fictitious characters are based on real people. The following are examples of famous literary characters borrowed from real life:
A Scottish seaman called Alexander Selkirk was marooned on a Pacific island in 1704. Daniel Defoe read about Selkirk’s adventure and used him as the basis for the character Robinson Crusoe.
Robert Louis Stevenson based his Dr Jekyle/Mr Hyde character on the Edinburgh businessman, William Brodie. By day Brodie was a respected member of the community; by night he led a gang of armed thieves. Brodie was a historical figure to Stevenson, he wrote his book in 1886 almost a century after Brodie was caught and hanged.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin after meeting the Methodist Preacher and escaped slave Josiah Henson. The novel is loosely based on his life story.
Sherlock Holmes was based on the surgeon Joseph Bell. Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was a student of Bell’s and was impressed by the analytical way in which he solved puzzles.
The killers in the movies Psycho and Silence of the Lambs were both partly based on the real-life 1950s American murderer, grave-robber and ghoul Ed Gein.
Using other people's ideas
Some people borrow ideas from other writers. Shakespeare is someone whose plots are often reused. West-Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Ten Things I Hate About You is a modern version of Taming of the Shrew and Joe MacBeth was a 1950s gangster version of, you guessed it, Macbeth.
But Shakespeare did a fair amount of borrowing himself. Macbeth is almost entirely based on a series of historical tales about the real-life Macbeth who was king of Scotland for a short time in the 11th-century. Virtually every part of Macbeth’s story as we know it today existed before Shakespeare’s version was written. All Shakespeare did was to dramatise an existing story. In the same way the story of Romeo and Juliet was already a well-known tragedy by the time Shakespeare came to write his own version.
There’s nothing wrong in borrowing ideas from other peoples’ work, or basing your stories on true-life situations, but you must beware of potential issues with copyright and libel:
Copyright. A writer’s work remains in copyright for 70 years after their death. If your creation is too similar to a copyrighted work you might be accused of plagiarism.
Libel. If you base a story on a true-life incident but change it in a way that’s uncomplimentary to the people involved you might be accused of libel (though you can’t libel the dead). In this case you’d have to alter your story to disguise its origin, or make sure that everything you write is verifiably true.
For more on copyright and libel see Writers and the law.
Performance rights and adaptations
Buying the performance rights to a novel means you can write and sell a script (for a movie, stage play, television drama etc.) based on that work. However, rights can be expensive so many people buy an option on a story first. Options are short-term contracts that give you control over the performance rights for a limited time. As a rule of thumb an option will sell for 10% of the price of the rights. If you manage to sell your script within the option period you can then buy the rights in full knowing you’ve made a sound investment.
A cheaper way to do it is to write an adaptation without buying an option. If you come across a long-forgotten gem you’d like to adapt find out who owns the performance rights (often retained by the author) and ask if you can use their work as the basis of a script. Most authors will be pleased that someone is interested in their creation, but are likely to want some control over the final draft. This kind of agreement means you can write an adaptation without spending money up front, but there are obvious risks. For example, if you don’t have a formal contract with the writer there’s nothing to stop someone else stepping in and buying the rights from under your nose. See Writers and the law for more on options and rights.
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