I’ve heard it said that great ideas are easy to come by—it’s the writing that’s the hard part. I don’t buy it!
On the contrary, I think that when you have a strong enough idea, the writing flourishes naturally from your starting point. Just watch it grow and see how big it gets. So how do we come by those ideas?
Man, I wish I knew. I’m no more of an idea factory than anyone else. What I can say is, I’m always trying new methods. Some work, some don’t, but here are a few of my favorite idea generators.
Keep a Notebook
My mom encouraged me to do this, and I’m glad she did. Writer or not, everyone has a hundred ideas every day—it’s just that we remember very few of them. That’s where the notebook comes in.
This thing should be the Robin to your Batman, so make sure it’s small enough to fit in your pocket. Whenever you have an idea, any idea, jot it down. It’s perfect for those thoughts that just need to gestate a little bit, or perhaps an overheard conversation that would make a great scene of dialogue, or maybe a solution to that complex conflict between your central characters.
If you’re interested, Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook“ explores this topic with much more eloquence than I can. Check it out!
Focus on the Fun Ideas
This one seems like a no-brainer, but a lot of writers (including myself) seem to forget it.
I remember working on a manuscript for far longer than I should have, forcing my way through and groaning whenever it was time to write. Truth was, the initial idea turned out to be far more interesting than the piece itself.
Two months in, I realized I wasn’t having fun anymore. So I put the manuscript away, all 40,000 words of it.
I didn’t throw it away (more on that later), but I didn’t force it any further, either. Not every piece necessarily needs to be fun, but fun should be an essential part of your writing process. After all, if you don’t have fun while writing a piece, no one’s going to have fun while reading it.
Don’t Abandon Anything
Even if you think you’ve just written the literary equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space, keep it! Every idea is like a seed: some never grow, some grow into shrubs and die in their first winter, but some build upon themselves and grow tall. Pretty soon, you’ll have yourself one mighty fine-looking tree.
George R.R. Martin encourages young writers to never throw away anything, and here’s a good example why. In his introduction for Dreamsongs, Volume I, Martin describes one of his first forays into the epic fantasy genre. (Remember—this was a long time before A Song of Ice and Fire.)
“Dark Gods of Kor-Yuban” I called it, and yes, my version of Mordor sounds like a brand of coffee. My heroes were the usual pair of mismatched adventurers, the melancholy exile prince R’hllor of Raugg and his boisterous, swaggering companion, Argilac the Arrogant.
In the sequel, my exile prince finds himself in the Dothrak Empire, where he joins Barron of the Bloody Blade to fight the winged demons who slew his grandsire, King Barristan the Bold.
If you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire, then you probably recognize the names R’hllor, Argilac the Arrogant, Barristan the Bold, and the Dothrak Empire.
Do as George says and never throw anything away!
So what does it take to make a great story idea? It takes hard work, deep thought, and perseverance. Ideas don’t always just come to us—sometimes, we need to go find them.