Story ideas are elusive things to define. I think the most repeated question writers must encounter is: “Where do your ideas come from?” And even though this question has become a cliché and the bane of writers during interviews, every time I come across an amazing idea/concept/character, I can’t help but stop, lower my book and wonder, “How the hell did they come up with that?”
In interviews, the writers always seem to struggle to come up with an answer that satisfies them. I think the reason for this is that writers want to create an answer that is clever and apt; but there is no clever and apt answer. The question would probably have to be delivered on a case-by-case basis for the writer to provide an accurate answer.
Q: “In scene x with character y, how did you come up with the idea for character x to say dialogue z?”
A: “I read it on a cereal box.”
As you can see this process would be rather tedious and make for a long-winded interview.
But despite the logical answer most writers eventually give, “Lots of places,” the desire to know, to understand the fountain of greatness and where it springs from, is still there. As an aspiring writer, I can’t help but hunger to understand the workings of their minds and follow the track their synapses took to come to the amazing conclusion that is their piece of writing. The reasoning is a simple one: If I can understand it, I can replicate it.
Recently I’ve been looking over some of my old writing and found myself asking the question of where the ideas came from to myself. Time has fogged my memory enough that the exact moment of inspiration has faded leaving me in a dementia-like fugue about how I came to put those exact words to paper. But my weak long-term memory gives me the opportunity to answer the question of where ideas come from to myself:
Ideas come from lots of places. (Wait, there’s more). So many times it is a random string of events that results in an idea. It could start with the briefest glimpse I get of a man and a child on the footpath as I’m driving down the road. Maybe the boy is picking something off the pavement and the man is bending down to see what he’s found. And maybe as I’m driving past I’m not thinking about writing or stories, I’m thinking about the dessert I’m going to eat that night, but that fleeting images snags something in my head. The image sticks and dessert slips from my brain and I find myself wondering what the boy might have found. Idea.
The next stage to the answer is that ideas are usually more than one idea, they’re a mutated amalgamation of ideas. Maybe earlier that day I was shopping for dessert when I came across a metallic frog that when you click its belly it sounds like it’s croaking. (This item actually exists, my dad has it, but for the purposes of the example let’s say I found it at the shops). I remember this curious item and suddenly I know in my story what it is the boy has found. He brushes off the dirt to reveal a tarnished and beat-up metallic frog that croaks when you push its belly. Idea.
Now this is just the frame of a story, a starting place, but through this string of memories, moments, and images, a story idea is cobbled together. Questions come from this beginning: “What does the boy do with the metal frog?”, “What does the man do with it?”, “Will the frog become an animated spirit, whispering to the boy in the night, speaking of greatness in a croaky voice?” The answers to these questions are part of the story idea process.
And maybe at this point I want to insert a moral or meaning to the story. Maybe I know an elderly man who collects wombat paraphernalia, only now in my story the old man has a frog paraphernalia collection. And maybe the metallic frog was the first item he ever received, and suddenly the story’s about ownership and lost things. Idea.
The beauty of this demonstration is that anything can be story. Or maybe it should be everything is story. Every conversation, every freeze-frame image, every unique quirk, every memory, or smell, or taste can go into a story. These details are what make a story feel real and special and makes readers like me stop and wonder how they came up with something so original and perfect.
One of the things I enjoy most about writing is there is no such thing as wrong. Anything that is sticking to the roof of your brain can be jotted down, explored, and fed with creativity until it becomes something bigger that the original image of a boy and a man finding something on the pavement. It becomes plot, and interesting characters, and mythology, and a mini-reality put to paper.
Where do stories ideas come from?
Where don’t they come from.