Writers are often asked “Where do you get your ideas?”
(I’m speaking broadly. Nobody ever asks me how I come up with my ideas. That’s the sort of thing people tend to ask someone like Neil Gaiman who, as it turns out, has a pretty good answer).
Today I put some free writing time to good use by planning a few new short stories. That got me thinking about the question at hand, so I decided to lay out some of the ways I go about getting started.
My most basic story-generating technique is just to write a line of dialogue or a short sentence about a character taking some action. “This is the worst cult I’ve ever been in!” or On his ninth birthday, Sam’s mum took him to the clinic to get him tested for lycanthropy. Occasionally when I do this I have some sort of plot idea to go with the line, Most often I don’t. I just take the line, add another line, and keep typing until characters, settings and plots emerge; from there I think about possible endings and start to work towards the one I like best. I don’t really get stuck with this method because the next line bubbles up from the subconscious mire.
This is a pretty haphazard writing technique. I use it a lot as a warmup exercise; as a story writing method, it’s about as reliable as hitting a hill with a pick and hoping to strike gold. That said, it can lead to interesting material that can easily be turned into a story later, with judicious editing (if not complete rewrites).
Objects and images
This is the big one for me. I love turning curiosities into a narrative: one way is to imagine commonplace objects in an unexpected context (“Why are there fire extinguishers in the fridge?”) and extrapolate from there.
Another is to seek out vivid imagery on the internet. Doing random searches on Pinterest is a great source of inspiration; I have several boards of strange photos and art that could serve as setting details, character portraits or improbable situations in need of narrative explanation.
Writers notoriously turn everything into story. Say something weird or incongruous in a writer’s presence, chances are it’s going straight into their back-brain storage unit for later use as dialogue or character building.
More to the point, it’s important for writers to hear how real people talk. The myriad differences in grammar, in tone, in word choice and use of slang are all valuable for all writers to create distinct characters – otherwise you run the risk of all your characters sounding like the same person. In my case, my default characters are sarcastic cynics in love with swearing and adverbs. Ahem.
I don’t tend to do this much – I’m much more inclined to try to shut other people’s conversation out than to eavesdrop – but sometimes a snippet of overheard chitchat is too rich or bizarre to ignore. And the stranger the better – a lot of what people say in casual conversation with friends is deliciously incoherent when taken out of context or partially misheard!
This technique, on the other hand, is a particular joy of mine. Any time I need to recharge my writer batteries, the most reliable method in my arsenal is to take a notebook and pen somewhere with heavy passing foot traffic. Picking people at random, I write a quick description (face, hair, outfit, any distinctive features) and then answer questions from a list of general prompts: “Who is that guy?” “Who hates him and why?” “What is his job in the shadowy government agency/space station/fantasy village marketplace/shopping mall?” “What does he want more than anything?”
Sometimes whole stories can come from a few minutes’ noodling about the possibilities of a passer-by you paid attention to for less than three seconds.
Obviously, that timing is important – the trick with this is to not stare at people like a weirdo. You need to extrapolate huge amounts of information from the briefest of glances.
I use information in the loosest sense, of course – what you’re doing is plumbing the depths of your own unconscious assumptions, biases and experience of personality and human behaviour. Ideally doing this will also help you to become aware of some of your own prejudices.
At worst, doing this exercise at your favourite cafe may result in your story’s villains all resembling thinly-disguised hipster baristas.
I’m not much of a scientist and by extension not particularly a science fiction writer. What I lack in academic discipline – which is almost everything – I make up for in curiosity and a boundless ability to leap to implausible conclusions. These may not be especially useful traits when it comes to establishing credibility in research conferences or internet debates, but the provide fertile grounds for story generation.
I follow any number of popular science and technology commentators, trawling for the newest shiny breakthroughs. I’m very fond of translating my flimsy grasp of scientific discoveries and technological advances into mystical thinking, crackpot fringe theories or futuristic technologies functionally indistinguishable from magic.
I’m a bit like the internet in that respect.
(This isn’t always true, mind you. On the occasions when I am moved to write actual science fiction, I do undertake whatever research is necessary. As long as there’s no maths required, I can usually at least colour inside the lines. I just don’t do it much because I am an indifferent researcher at best).
Bananas high concept
Finally, there’s the thing that probably most people imagine when they ask speculative authors – again, not me – about their ideas: the crazy high concept. That is, that succinctly stated premise that tells you more or less everything you need to know about the story, irrespective of characters: “What if the live dinosaurs in a theme park get loose?” or “What if a guy lives his whole life in a reality TV show” or “What if a tornado sucks a bunch of sharks out of the ocean and drops them on obnoxious C-grade actors?” (High concept and low-brow are not mutually exclusive terms)
I have a couple of stories like this – “What if everyone constantly hears their own film score incidental music?” and “What would ghost hunting TV be like if ghosts and monsters were real?” – but coming up with high concept ideas is not my usual creative mode.
If there’s a way to plan for these weird gems of ideas, I don’t know it. Where do they come from? Cartoon lightbulbs appearing above your head? Unannounced muse arrivals? Chemical misfires in the brain? Or mind-control lasers from secret Illuminati satellites?
Probably that last one.