Where do story ideas come from?
The short answer is: anywhere. Neil Gaiman, on this oft-asked question, writes that he tells people, “I make them up…Out of my head.” But neither of these answers are immediately helpful if your inspiration has dried up or you are a beginning writer who just doesn’t know yet what to write about.
The problem is that when you’re inexperienced (or discouraged) at writing fiction, you may not trust that a glimmer of an image, the sound of a phrase, or the smell that wooshes you back in time, are enough to begin to build a story.
At some point, usually after you’ve written a huge number of words, you discover that the simplest thing can start you on the path. I wrote a children’s novel based on two words– “the stretch.” These words settled into my mind one night before falling asleep, and…I liked them. Along with the words came an image of a lonely rural road and two ramshackle houses separated by a tall stand of trees. I kept them in my head for months before doing the writing. It was enough.
Recently, I had a lead on a market with a fast-approaching deadline, but I didn’t have a story that fit or even one in process. I needed a story idea immediately, but knew that trying hard to think up an idea usually doesn’t work. Instead of forcing it, I kept the intention of a story idea in my consciousness while letting my mind roam over possibilities. Everything I heard, talked about, smelled, ate, read, envisioned went into a thick, simmering, mental stew. I rejected nothing at this stage. Within 24 hours, one thing bobbed to the surface: a flickering image of a woman. I felt some connection to her so I attempted to broaden the view in order to see where she was. Soon I could picture her–a confident but bored woman stuck in a futuristic transport hub.
Because it was the most vivid of all the possibilities and because this process has worked for me in the past, I trusted it. (To be honest, it was probably the deadline more than anything else. Deadlines are the best!) It may not seem like much to go on, but I not only had a protagonist but also a setting. That’s a lot for a beginning.
Sometimes it’s a main character who arrives first but it can be even less than that. Last week, a character name showed up in my head. Now I have an image of him, know some of his traits, have a possible setting and the beginning of a plot. An idea can be a question, a situation, a thought that twists the mundane or a feeling that persists, a headline that gives you a headache or a convergence of perceptions (smell and touch, sight and sound).
But here are the important things about story ideas. First you have to trust them. If you don’t, ideas wither. Second, you have to write the story. This, as you know, is the hard part. An idea is a tiny beginning followed by hundreds of decisions. It’s like deciding to walk across Canada starting in PEI. Okay, starting in PEI is a great idea but then you have to decide whether you want to leave the island on a ferry or stroll across the Confederation Bridge. Once on the mainland of Nova Scotia (or New Brunswick) you have to decide whether you want to go through Cape Breton (yes, yes, go this way!) and on to Newfoundland or if you want to go through Quebec first. Each step of the way involves decision-making.
Trust your ideas. Then as you write, trust your decisions. Do this until your story is finished. Then, pay attention, because the more you write, the faster the ideas will come.