I’m about to do something very foolish. Before I tackle the question of where ideas come from, I’m going to provide a funny, insightful, seemingly-off-the-cuff video of the master Neil Gaiman saying that the question has no answer.
Then afterwards, I’m going to try to answer anyway. I’ll give you three ways to generate ideas, and one special tip.
Method 1: What If?
At 2:40, Gaiman describes the moment of inspiration as “it’s that moment where you’re sitting, thinking, what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?”
We can actually break down what he’s just said, along with the moment before it. He started with something that’s well established, and then took it in a new direction. “What if?”
You can start from lore and clichés as knowledge, or something about our world. This question is most often used in science fiction, but it can work for any genre.
We’ve heard about fountains of immortality. What if there was one on your property, and a family came back to use it again? (Tuck Everlasting.) We know about faerie godmother gifts. What if a faerie godmother’s gift was obedience? (Ella Enchanted.) Siblings are often difficult. What if a boy’s parents adopted a chimp and tried to teach it sign language? (Half-Brother.) Cemeteries are cool and filled with ghosts. What if a boy was raised by those ghosts in the cemetery? (The Graveyard Book.)
It’s that wonderful moment of looking at something from a new angle. Then, to build a story, the obvious question: “What would happen next?”
Method 2: Images
Gaiman soon realizes his werewolf chair story has to be winter, so that you can see chair tracks in the snow. This leap is caused by visualization, an image.
In my post on simplexity, I gave another example of building stories from images: Aimee Bender’s short story “The Healer”. From the image of a girl with a hand made of fire, and another with a hand made of ice, the whole story springs. The leading question is not “What happens next?” but rather, “Who are these people? What do they care about? Why is this happening?”
After you’ve got those handled, you can get into “What happens next?” Chances are you’ll have to walk your way through all of these questions before you’re ready to start actually writing the story.
Many writers get these images in dreams, but there are many possibilities. It could be something that haunts you, or another case of “What if?” that leads to it. Or something you’ve seen in art that you would like to take in a different direction.
A few kids’ books that could have started from images: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Dicamillo, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd.
Method 3: Theme
The last way I’m going to talk about isn’t mentioned in the video, but it’s exemplified in Gaiman’s newest kids’ book: Fortunately, The Milk.
In Gaiman’s earlier book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, (Definitely a “What if?” book) he came to feel that he was teaching the world that “fathers were oblivious, newspaper-reading occasionally carrot-eating lumps of distraction.” Fortunately, The Milk is his way to make up for that, by giving us a novel that has a father on a wild adventure.
Which means, the idea for the book came from a theme he wanted to portray.
As kids’ writers, we’re often told not to do this. “Don’t build your book around a lesson,” they say, even though it worked out great for books like Animal Farm by George Orwell or The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.
When kids’ books are built around a strong theme well, they often wind up as classics: Feed by M. T. Anderson; The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, etc.
Apparently The Wizard of Oz is about using the gold standard vs. the silver.
Special Tip: Don’t Stop
This is the most important trick. It takes time to find an idea worth writing a whole novel about. There are writers who believe first thought equals best thought (ex. Stephen King) but not many. Most agree you’re likely to find your best ideas if you write a list of thirty things, then go back to find your favourite.
There’s a Vonnegut quote (I thought it was in A Man Without A Country, but I can’t find it tonight) where a friend tells him that he has an idea for a novel. Vonnegut responds that’s too bad, because his friend is funny. One idea is enough for a serious novel, but a funny novel takes hundreds of ideas.
I’m not sure if that comparison is accurate. What I do know is that every novel I’ve tried to write has taken hundreds of ideas. (Eep! Maybe that means I’m funny!)
That’s actually why I find answering the “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” question difficult. It’s not because I don’t know how to get ideas. It’s that the ideas in my novel aren’t just one idea. They are a bunch of different ideas that got jammed together and then had the sides filed off because they weren’t fitting together well.
If it ends up looking like one idea, then yay. I did my job.
The trickier part of this question is really about recognizing a good idea, and knowing how to turn a so-so idea into a good one. Sounds like an idea for next week!