Where Do My Ideas Come From?

At some point, everyone who writes gets asked this question:

Where do you get your ideas?

Stephen King talks a lot about where his ideas come from, I think mostly because some of his ideas are so horrifying/strange that people really want to know. Nick Hornby, who writes books that are less strange than King*, probably doesn't get this question quite as much. But no matter what type of writer you are, I think this is a common question: people who don't make up stories always wonder how people who do make up stories do it.

I can't speak for anyone else, of course, but what happens to me sounds pretty similar to what happens to King or anyone else, so I wanted to provide an example of how an idea came to me, recently.**

I read a website called One Sentence, which is a place where people try to tell stories in one sentence. Pretty self-explanatory, right? Sometimes the stories are funny, sometimes they are sad, sometimes they are bitter, and sometimes the writers write long sentences with, like, colons and stuff, which is sort of cheating in my opinion.*** Most of the time, they're cute little snippets of people's lives, and they only take a second to read, unlike most of the blogs I subscribe to. It's a nice little break in the work day.

Then the other day, I read this:

You're just the skinny-jeans-guy in my Sci Fi class I idolized last summer and I'm just the too-loud girl you've forgotten, but I still hold my pencils the way you do.

And the minute I read it, I thought "that's a story." Why? Because I know who those characters are. The too-loud girl taking the Sci Fi class (I think her name is Anna, for some reason), and skinny-jeans-guy (Brandon? Ethan? Something vaguely British sounding and hipster that maybe isn't really his real name, which is something basic--like "Mike"--that he hates). And they meet in class, and they talk, he deigns to talk to her, and she thinks that they're becoming friends or something more, but they aren't, something that becomes clear to her after the class ends (the class in which her paper on the merger of the tropes of science fiction and horror in Alien gets a much higher grade than his paper on steampunk and Gaiman) and she sees him in the hallway and says hi and he looks at her like she's the alien, like he doesn't even recognize her. And he sort of doesn't, because he never really saw her in the first place.

That's how I get ideas. I see something and, instantly, I know something about the story. I don't know the whole thing (notice how there's not really, you know, a plot in the Anna story--as I mentioned before--I start with character), but I know that girl and I know how she feels and what she's like. I can see the scene in the classroom where she notices him. I can hear her first attempts at conversation, where she tries to sound confident and smart to impress him and to hide the fact that her heart is trying to beat its way out of her chest. My own heart flutters when I think of her opening her inbox to see the first email he sends her (just a question about whether he missed an assignment when he was out of class one day, but still, he emailed her, he looked up her email address!). And I know exactly how time seems to slow down and speed up at the same time when she sees him in the hall, coming toward her, and says "hi Ethan" maybe a little bit louder than she meant to, and the expression, the horrible confused expression on his face before he says "oh, hi Anna" and keeps walking.

This, of course, was an easy one. The original writer of the one sentence had much of it in there already in her description of the characters. But that's how it happens each time for me. I got an idea for the Totally New Project from a Morrissey concert where I saw a kid and thought "I know him."**** I got the idea for the SENP***** from a line I saw in a movie review. I got the idea for the TRP from a dream I had. And the idea for a project I haven't even titled yet it's so new, from a documentary I saw about the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis.******

I guess the moral is, for writers, ideas come from anything, from everywhere, at any time. If you're the type of person who writes stories, stories seem to know that, and they will come to you.


* Although no less horrifying, some of them. :)

I don't know if I'm going to use this idea or not--it's pretty far down on the possible ideas list--but it's a perfect example of how this happens to me.

In fairness to those writers, I don't contribute to One Sentence, primarily because I'm very influenced by style, and if I start writing in One Sentence-format, writing long form stuff will be very difficult for me. True story: after I wrote a bunch of haiku for a poetry class, I could only think in sentences of five to seven syllables for almost a week. Really. So maybe I would be one of those long sentence people and I shouldn't judge. It still feels like cheating, though.

I didn't really know him. But I knew that he would be the main character of the TNP.

***** Super Exciting New Project. I need better names for these, for real.

No, the idea is not a dramatization of that bridge collapse. My writing is, first and foremost, fictional, and it would feel wrong to me to take that actual event and fictionalize it in some way. I'm sure that a lovely book could be written doing that, but I am not the person to write it.


That is pretty much the same way I come up with stories. Character has to come first, and when it comes you always get this massive chunk and it's so well formed.

Then you go from there, you zoom out, and it all comes clear.

Nice post, man, really dig it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 3:23:00 PM EDT  

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