Where Do Writer Get Their Ideas
March 8, 2018 3:31pm CST
Any and every writer gets this question at some stage. If you go to an author’s signing session, book reading, etc. where there is a Q & A session, someone will invariably ask where the inspiration comes from. Some writers dislike the question, either having heard it so often, or because they are afraid of giving away some secret formulaic trick of the trade. Some writers genuinely don’t know the answer themselves. They just put pen to paper and words come. They haven’t really considered where the ideas originated. The simple answer is that ideas come from everywhere and everyone has ideas, whether or not they write. It was an idea to write down my answer to this question now. It is an idea when you choose whether to drink tea or coffee, or pick a particular bar to go to for a drink of an evening. Every choice and decision we make in life (all of us) is an idea. Every decision we don’t take is also an idea. A writer thinks about these choices, decisions, thoughts and ideas. He considers how someone came to a certain decision, i.e., to move to China, to kill his wife, to undertake a quest, or just get drunk. The writer also considers the consequences of the action based on a given idea; i.e. the man moving to China enjoys himself; the murderer has to evade capture by the police, the coffee tastes vile…. A story, poem or any other work of literature, be it good or bad, is not a single idea, but a whole series of ideas knitted together. There may be a series of ideas within a larger framework idea. The writer may have an overall plan to write about giant robots taking over the World. This will inevitably need other, mostly smaller ideas to make it work. Why do the robots want to do that? Who or what made the robots? How do the people react to the robot threatening them? Do people panic, fight back, Will the robots succeed, or will someone defeat them? Who will live or die in the war against the robots? Etc. The writer doesn’t so much get inspirational ideas, but learns how to knit together the basic building blocks of a story, words and ideas, to make something interesting (or not as the case may be). It is rather like having a Lego set. You can make a great castle, or a heap of bricks. A writer’s building blocks are his vocabulary, and the words in the dictionary. That sounds basic, but that is all there is to it. A major factor in any writer’s life is his actual experience of living. The main bottom line lesson taught in creative writing books, articles and workshops is ‘Write about what you know’. Drawing on personal experience of loves gained and lost, career experiences, good and bad, beliefs and knowledge, is a major element in how a writer will use his ideas and in what context. It is not necessary to write simply an autobiography. Ideas can draw our experiences in all sorts of different directions. As no one has experienced a trip to Mars, or a giant robot invasion, or vampires, we might ask how such things can be written about by experience…. The answer is that a writer talking about a pioneer astronaut landing on a distant planet will have experience of going to a new job, or into some other new venture. We have all done something that was unknown to us. What was your first trip abroad like? How did you feel when you first saw the Sea? Were you afraid of flying? How did other passengers on a journey you undertook behave? That can apply to the flight your astronaut takes. Is he afraid of the rockets as you or another passenger was of the plane potentially crashing? Were the people he met in the new country or planet visited friendly or not? Experience, or fears about a bad experience of the people visited being pleasant or unpleasant become the root experience behind even the adventurous impossible events in a story. My experiences have been varied in life. My biggest life changing events were the death of my father, and my four and a half years involvement in a celibate religious cult. In recovering from that double blow, I went back to college, and got myself a degree in literature and philosophy, but I became too questioning and cynical. I was still largely alienated from the ordinary working class kind of life I would appreciate. Employers consider me too independently minded, and people find me rather intense and sullen minded. Inevitably, my stories and poems reflect a sense of loss, alienation, eccentricity and bitter cynicism. Fortunately, I have always had a sense of how funny it can all sound, so my creative work is hopefully infused with a healthy degree of humour and absurdity. The strange thing is that I rarely take my life experiences head on. I have very few fiction pieces about religious cults gone badly. The sense of alienation and loss; of someone holding on to beliefs and normality in a world where everything has changed is drawn from my cult experiences though. It just takes the effect of having a character finding that the world has changed, and he has to come to terms with it. I have always tried to be myself, so I find stories about someone retaining identity and independence in changing circumstances a major recurring theme in my stories. Dreams and aspirations are important roots for ideas too. What we want will end in attainment or frustration of goals. (Utopian optimistic outlook happy endings) or disappointment (Dystopian, pessimistic unhappy endings) Our phobias and fetishes are recurrent ideas in life, and therefore in the writing craft too. My fear of drowning in quicksand originated in watching a quicksand scene in the film Ice Cold In Alex. I was so frightened by it that I had to leave the room until the scene was over. The idea of being swallowed by the ground, and never seen or found again was a powerful fear for me. It reflected not only the sudden and total extinction that comes with any death, but every aspect of being trapped in a situation where I would be totally dependent on others for my rescue. Quicksand as an image, metaphor and central theme for my stories often therefore recurs. I have never directly experienced quicksand. It is part of my mental make up though, so it becomes a legitimate root for lots of ideas. Ideas begat ideas. Have one idea, and you need other ideas to make it work. A story needs a beginning, middle and an end – factors forgotten by many storytellers and poets, but I see them as a bedrock foundation for all my writings, even my poetry. A single idea cannot be all three of these. When, to return to my earlier example, do the giant robots attack? Is that the opening to the story? Perhaps it is the middle part, after we have seen life before the attack, and how someone or something made the robots and turned them against us… perhaps part three is the counter-attack, or how people survive after the robots have gone…. Some writers have a very linear idea pattern. They will create the beginning of a story and follow everything through logically to a conclusion, writing their ideas in chronological order. Others, like myself have a more-fragmented approach. I may well start off my story creation in the middle or at the end. I then have to reach back to the circumstances that made the central idea come about, and forward to its conclusion and consequences. In some ways, my approach in longer stories is quite similar to film making techniques. A film is rarely shot in the order that you see it on screen. Different actors are only available at certain times. It makes sense to film all the scenes using a single location, together, even though movement to other locations may separate those scenes during the story. I tend to write that way – I will write a character’s lines for something said or done which will have important consequences later. I may then go directly to writing about those consequences, and return to the earlier events that don’t directly involve that particular issue or idea later. I often find myself working on chapter three and twelve of a story before I have even begun chapters one, two and four to ten, and twelve plus…. Writer’s Block – Writer’s Blaze Some writers struggle for ideas. This is the dreaded ‘Writer’s Block’ condition. This is where you sit with pen in hand and your mind turns into a desert. I have to say that I rarely get that now. I have the problem that my mind never shuts up giving me ideas. I write anything and everything down that occurs to me. I always have note pads and pens around. I am amazed in fact when I go to writing workshops and people who come to write don’t have their own pens with them. It’s like turning up at a knife-fight and having to borrow a spare one off the chap you are hoping to stab before he gets you. A plumber worth hiring won’t ask you to lend him a spanner because he left his at home. Writers should never not carry some means to write. Paper I run out of frequently despite spending a fortune on pads and notebooks. I end up writing on beer mats and any scraps I can get hold of. I always have pads close to my bedside, and often even go on my word processor in the early hours of the morning to empty my head into some kind of idea receptacle. When I can, I carry my laptop around too of course. Writer’s Block is having too few ideas. Writer’s Blaze is the opposite. You have more ideas than you can keep up with. It sounds like a great thing to none writers, but to its sufferers it is as bad a curse as any kind of block. I have so many ideas that I find I am tempted to move on to new projects before I have really finished off the last one. It’s like when a child tips his entire toy chest out - and plays, with a car in one hand, and a dinosaur in the other. Then he spots a jigsaw; dumps the car and half does the puzzle before opening a book, quickly losing interest in that and throws his building bricks around. It takes discipline and sacrifice to quash the other big ideas to concentrate on those you already have focussed on. Block can be beaten by a series of exercises. 1/. Take a dictionary. Open it at random and pick a word. Write down free association ideas based on that word. You can do this against the clock, i.e., for fifteen minutes, or for an unlimited time period (try both against the clock and without the clock for different words0. Just see what you come up with. 2/. Read a paragraph from a book; pick one at random, preferably a book you are not familiar with. Now carry on the story you just read. See what you would have the character(s) done from the point in time where you stopped reading about them. 3/. Pick a colour, a person, a place (room, country, a car interior, etc), Pick a mood, Sad, happy, loving, angry, etc.), a smell, something seen, heard, touched – now put them together in a coherent story framework – your block has gone… Hopefully. Even a writer in blaze has periods of no-creative flourish. That is healthy. We need a break, and sleep. There are professional writers who set a specific time regime on their writing; i.e. working a nine to five shift in employment office type conditions. Others go for days or weeks without writing a word, and then go into a frenzy of creative activity as the flood takes them. Ideas come in bursts and clusters for many rather than in a steady controllable regulated flow. There are times when you don’t want ideas that can be used in a story to introduce themselves to you. If you are socialising, or dating a romantic partner, the story ideas tend to keep at bay. I have occasionally met writers who will cut off conversation to jot down some idea that has come to them and expect everyone to see them scribble it down before they rejoin the social communication activity. I find that kind of behaviour false and contrived. I may well write things down on beer mats in pubs before my friends arrive, but once someone joins me; the muse is firmly locked away. Control your ideas. Don’t let them control you, and don’t pretend to have some major symphony in your head so everyone thinks you area genius – they’ll just think you’re a pretentious twerp. Sometimes, people come to me with their ideas and heap them on me as potential stories I could work on, as if I didn’t have any ideas of my own. I am grateful for the suggestions given, though they are often vague and clichéd – for example, someone suggested that I wrote about someone smuggling atomic bombs around. I found myself thinking of the movies in which the idea had been used already; i.e. Octopussy and The Fourth Protocol, or the TV series 24. I usually just smile politely and file the idea away in case one day it might come in useful. My ideas are more likely to come from real life. I was on a camping trip recently where a lad got into a relationship with a girl on the campsite and spent the night with her in her tent. When everyone suggested that they must have made love, he denied it flatly, but as he wondered off someone shouted to him that in putting his trousers back on in the confines of her tent, he had put them on back to front. I penned up that story as soon as I got home from the camping trip. In conclusion, my ideas come from the same place as your ideas come from. Arthur Chappell
13 people like this
• United States
What an immense gift I found this writing to be of yours Arthur. Thanks so very much. It grounds my swirling mind. I had never heard of writes blaze, but I would compare it to my mania at times. I am sorry to read of the loss of your Father as well that had such an effect on you. Carry on writing, you have a very good gift.
• Midland, Michigan
Wow, I think you actually wrote something longer than anything I've written here or at bubblews. Impressive. Actually, a friend of mine on another site wrote recently about how she's written her autobiography down and isn't sure how to present it. Whether to share it as it happened or be somewhat creative about it. I plan on sending her the link to this piece. Very informative in more ways than expected upon first glance.
• New Delhi, India
Great piece.One question i often ask ;since you are through that phase you must have opinion about it:How much the personality of an author influence his state of art.Do you as Author often try not let it influence your writing or sometime suddenly get conscious that you are now interfering in the evolution of characters. Actually my question is inspired from one of TS Eliot quotes:"There is always a separation between the man who suffers and the artist who creates ;greater the separation greater the artist".What is your opinion ?
• Preston, England
@suripunj Any writer, artist or singer puts him /her self into the work - art is highly subjective, even when we try not o put ourselves into the work, but the viewer / reader / listener may see something other than the creator of the work intended
• Bunbury, Australia
Food for thought and it is indeed interesting where ideas come from. At our writing group we sometimes spend ten minutes writing. Sometimes we each contribute a word and we try to incorporate those into our story or we might be asked to write about a particular object that someone has brought along. What is interesting is how different all our stories will be.