Ideas don’t come from nowhere. There is no mythical Muse that comes and blesses the worthy with fully formed ideas. It’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of practice.
If we want to be taken seriously, we need to take our ideas seriously, and generate ideas for stories that are complete and appropriate. While some ideas come to us complete, they aren’t always appropriate. And some are appropriate, but not complete.
This is where most people end their journey. If we don’t have stories that people want to consume, or create in the case of screenplays, we have nothing. So coming up with ideas, especially when we’re working outside of comfortable genres, is a good skill to develop.
Go below the fold to read about a couple things to try when you’re stuck coming up with ideas.
The best ideas seem to come from us out of nowhere. In the shower, on your commute, at your desk while you’re trying to focus on your day job.
But in the long run, this isn’t practical. Just as you have to learn how to write when you’re just not feeling it, you have to be able to come up with ideas when it doesn’t seem like you have anything left.
When I need to come up with ideas and I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel, these are the techniques I use to come up with something.
Examine Stories You Like to Consume
The first place to look for ideas is to examine the stories you like to consume. This could be television, novels, movies, or games. Pick a piece that you like that is close to the style of what you need to produce.
Really dig into it. What about this story appeals to you? Why do you find the characters compelling? What happens in the plot that keeps you entertained?
Your familiarity with the work means you can step outside the story. You aren’t looking at this for entertainment, you’re looking to rip it apart and really figure out what makes this machine fit together. Why is this plot twist here? Why is this bit of exposition here? Would it work a different way?
Once you start thinking in terms of structure and form, ask yourself the most important question: How would you write this story?
What would you change? What characters would you introduce? How would you mold this story to fit your own personal style?
This is where your own creative juices start flowing. Pay attention to what is floating up from your subconscious. There’s a new idea there, if you listen for it.
Stream of Consciousness
Stream of consciousness writing is pretty much the opposite of examination. It’s a waterfall of vomited words and thoughts to get to the stuff that’s hiding behind your surface thoughts.
If you’ve ever read the book The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, you’re familiar with the concept of Morning Pages. Morning pages are designed to get all the junk rolling around in your brain out of your head and onto the page where you can process it and see the things that might be holding you back.
So, to do this exercise, take some paper and sit in a quiet place with no distractions. Take a second to plant the seed and tell yourself that you are looking for any kind of idea. Think about your favorite movies, books, or music.Think about the kind of idea that you want to generate.
Set a timer for five minutes and write every stupid thing in your head. Don’t censor yourself, don’t worry about what other people might think, just fill all available space on the page, from the top to the bottom edge. When the timer goes off, go back and read what you wrote.
You’ll find the first couple of pages are garbage, and that’s okay. These are the “surface thoughts,” the insecurities and nagging thoughts that never shut up.
But after you make it through the obvious stuff that usually clutters up your conscious mind, you might be surprised by what you find. Once you get the obvious things out-of-the-way and start paying attention to things you couldn’t see when you were worried about your surface thoughts.
The Idea Jar
This last tip is a little labor intensive, but it’s something you can use over and over.
Take a jar and a stack of little slips of paper. Separate your stacks into three piles. Your piles are going to be genre, characters, and conflict.
For every slip of paper in your genre pile you’re going to put one genre on it (sci-fi, horror, comedy, romance, noir, etc.) then throw it in the jar. For the characters you’re going to put a type of person or a profession (single father, lawyer, drug dealer, gangster, etc.).
For the conflict, think of verbs. Your protagonist must find, win, defeat, save, rescue, seduce… Put as many down as you can think of. All of those verbs are associated with a subject. They don’t work on their own. Find the treasure. Win the game. Save the puppy. Rescue the kids. Seduce the bartender. You aren’t going to put the subject on the slip though. The connection is going to come when you put everything together.
Dump all of your slips into the jar and shake it up. Start pulling out slips of paper. Lay them out on the table as you go, loosely organizing them, using the formula (Genre) + (Protagonist) + (Antagonist) + (Conflict).
When you have a few scenarios, look over what you have. How could you make these random pieces fit together? How would your protagonist and antagonist meet? What problems would these characters have with each other?
Don’t think of this as a bible. This exercise isn’t about putting out a blueprint for your story. Instead, thinking about these hinting questions might knock something loose in your own brain. It takes the pressure off you and frees up your brain to come up with its own ideas.
I hope these tips help you in developing ideas. The beauty of these techniques is that they can work no matter what format you’re writing in. Prose, screenwriting, comics… You need generate ideas before you put a single word down on paper.
In the next post, I’m going to talk about evaluating your ideas and narrowing them down to work with the format your writing in.
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