How Do Writers Get Ideas? 7 Fun Ways

How Do Writers Get Ideas? 7 Fun Ways

I recently spoke at my husband’s school about being a writer as part of their program to promote reading. They wanted me to address the grade five and six classes about ways that writers can generate ideas. I was thrilled. In all our conversations about how, when, where and what to write, we tend to skip this portion of the conversation and simply assume a person has decided what they want to write about. But I think every writer has experienced an idea dry spell. And it’s difficult to put any of your writing knowledge into practice if you don’t have an idea.

These are the methods I shared with the kids.

We learned this method of idea generation in school, and it’s still a great way to get the brain working. Simply put your pen to paper and write the first words that pop into your head. Let the ideas and concepts flow until they start to form a chain of their own. The best thing about brainstorming is that you can tailor it to your needs. If you already have an idea for the genre or time period in which you want to write, focus your brainstorming on topics related to that. If you have a vague scenario, you can write down all the topics that relate to it and choose the ones you want to include in your story. And if you lose the thread of a project you can return to this method to regain your momentum.

Personally, I enjoy brainstorming sessions with other writers. Sometimes I bounce my ideas off of friends, and their questions help me refine them. Sometimes I act as the sounding board for others and the feedback I provide helps me direct my thoughts and research the next time I need a brainstorm.

Ask Yourself ‘What If?’
We’re all experts at asking ourselves what if? Mostly in the wee hours of night when we’re trying to sleep. Rather than block the endless dance of what-ifs, it’s easier to redirect them. The potential for using this question is endless. What if a minor detail in your life changed? How might it affect you and the people around you? What if you lived in a world of magic? Or if aliens descended? What if you could visit an alternate dimension or time travel?

I’ve even found that turning the tables on my what-ifs and making them fun helps me fall asleep more easily. Who knew?

Fill In the Blanks
Everyone has a favorite story, be it movie, book, TV or webseries. And we all have questions about those stories that the creators never answer. This is a fancy extension of the what-if method, but it’s handy because you’re usually starting with a set of rules to work with. Now, of course, I’m not suggesting anyone steal another person’s story and run away with it. But as writers, we have a tendency to want to play in the worlds created by others. Many of get our start writing fanfiction (mine were Sailor Moon stories), and many of us still turn to fanfiction for our fun, personal, let go and relax writing.

And just because a story starts as fanfiction doesn’t mean it can’t grow into a world of its own. I’ve had plenty of stories start out as fan projects, grow bigger than I originally intended and then I go back and build new worlds for them to inhabit. The point isn’t so much to decide where your story is going to dwell as it is to light the spark, to get the muse juices flowing. Once you do that, you can see where it takes you.

How Would I Have Done It?
They say that nothing’s new under the sun. Yet originality is one of the most important aspects in writing. How do we make our stories original if everything’s already been done? One of my favorite quotes about originality is this; Originality is the art of hiding your source. And another; Original minds are not distinguished by being the first to see a new thing, but by seeing the old, familiar thing which is overlooked as new.

In other words, re-imagining old or classic stories is a great way to come up with a fresh, new idea. Neil Gaiman often says on his Tumblr that everyone has a story to tell, a story that only they can tell. So tell your stories your own special way. Put a new spin on something old. Imagine it differently and let us see it with new eyes.

This was, by far, the favorite portion of my presentation. Everyone has their own dream story, after all. Of the novels that I have written so far, half have come from dreams. The remaining three have been sequels to the novels which grew out of those dream ideas. Dreams are an amazing source of inspiration and it would be a shame not to harness them. I keep a folder of strange and interesting dream ideas, anything that I think might eventually fit into a story. Often they’re bizarre little snippets, but when my brain goes to work on them, they take flight.

As an example, Dreamers Do Lie, my current WIP, was inspired by a dream of a burning ship. A man and a demon fought on the ship’s deck while I watched, desperate to stop them. For some reason, I knew that the ship was supposed to be on fire, which was why none of us were trying to escape. And from this grew an entire two-part novel series about a woman’s journey through Hell to get back home.

But, I hear you, like the students, protesting, I so rarely (or never) remember my dreams! Well, there’s a way to fix that. Writing about your dreams can encourage your brain to hold on to them. Many people recommend keeping a notebook right beside your bed and writing about your dreams the moment you wake up, before you lose them. As an insomniac, I can’t make that recommendation because I know how difficult it can be to get back to sleep after waking your brain enough to do something like write. But I do recommend writing down your dreams in the morning.

Writing Prompts
If you can’t come up with an idea that seems interesting, use a prompt. I use writing prompts every week for fun. (You can read some of them right here.) I also use these prompts to practice writing techniques that I haven’t quite mastered but might want to use in upcoming projects. I’ve known people who used prompts to warm up every time they sat down to write. The best thing about writing prompts is that they can be just about anything; a phrase, a suggestion, a quote, a song, a picture. Anything that inspires you can work as a prompt.

Write Anyway
In the end, if you can’t come up with an idea, you have another option; write anyway. I found this story on Tumblr and shared it with the students. Desperate to write, E.L. Doctorow faced the wall of his study and wrote about the wall. He then went on to describe the house it was attached to. A house built in 1906. By the time he finished describing the house, he’d grown interested in the era and decided to set his story there. This work later became Ragtime, which was named eighty-sixth on the list of one hundred best novels of the 20th century. In 1998 it was adapted as a musical for Broadway.

It just goes to prove that every writing method is valid. Light the fire and let it lead the way. What’s your favorite way to generate ideas?

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