How writers generate ideas

One of the most common questions I’m asked whenever I give a talk is “How do you generate ideas?”

The honest answer is: I don’t.

Oh, I’ve tried. Believe me, I have. I’ve sat at the computer all morning and willed myself to generate an idea. Sometimes, after a few hours of mental torture, if a deadline is looming, I’ve managed to squeeze out something, just one idea at least. The trouble is, I know even as I’m typing it out that it’s not very good.

The best ideas, you see, come in a completely different way. Here’s an example.

Since we moved to Barbados, Genie and I have got up at 5:30 every morning some mornings and gone for a walk. It’s beautiful here in the early morning, still cool and dewy from the night before. If we leave it much later, the sun gets too high in the sky and makes any kind of physical exertion almost impossible.

This morning, as we were passing a small wooden house, I heard a list of names being read out on the radio, and asked Genie what it was. “Death notices,” she said. It’s something they do on the radio every morning, apparently – list all the people who died the day before. A little different from the pop songs and traffic reports I’m used to in London.

A little further along, we took a path across open country, and it occurred to me that if anything happened, we were a long way from any other people and didn’t have a mobile phone or anything. I pictured Genie hurting herself and me having to run and shout for help.

flowerBoth of these little incidents are potential stories.

I can picture someone listening to those death notices every morning for years, then one day hearing the name of someone he knew years ago. It would be the lead-in to a story about the thing that broke them apart, maybe a secret that he’s lived with for a long time and can finally let go of now that the person’s died.

I can imagine a story about a soft-spoken man and how his life changed when something happened that finally forced him to shout. How it felt when the words, usually soft and constrained, burst out of his mouth, and how he was never soft-spoken again after that.

You’ll notice that both of these ideas are half-formed. They may not even be any good – it’s too early to know. But in any case, I scribbled them down on a piece of paper, and when we got home I transferred them to an ideas file I keep on my computer.

(Yes, I know there’s a more 21st-century way of doing this, involving smart phones and apps and syncing with clouds, but these days I’m becoming increasingly aware of how deeply I was shaped by the 20th century. Give me a choice between a ‘killer app’ and a pencil, and nine times out of ten I’ll choose the pencil.)

Anyway, that’s where most of my ideas have come from. If you read enough author interviews, you’ll see similar stories. Here’s one example from Tracy Chevalier:

Usually it’s something visual that sparks an idea. For The Virgin Blue it was a color; for Girl with a Pearl Earring a painting; for Falling Angels a cemetery and its atmosphere; for The Lady and the Unicorn a set of medieval tapestries. When something strikes me it’s like a spark in my head that ignites, and I know immediately that there’s something there that can make a novel.

So writers don’t generate ideas. The ideas are there already, all around us. I don’t even believe that writers are more observant than other people. I think everyone notices these free-floating potential story ideas all the time, but most people just think a thought or make a quick remark and then move on with their lives. What makes writers different is that they record the ideas, think them through fully (some may say obsess over them), and then devote an irrational amount of time to developing the ideas into something complete.

So if you want to write and are stuck for ideas, here’s my advice: don’t stare at the blinking cursor for four hours, gulping coffee and cursing your lack of creativity. Shut the computer down, put your boots on, and go for a walk. Just don’t forget to take your pencil with you.

Update: this post has been featured on the Third Sunday Blog Carnival, and inΒ The ultimate guide to generating and cultivating story ideas.

23 thoughts on “How writers generate ideas

  1. That’s a funny way of asking for how you come up with ideas for stories. It makes me think of a machine that huffs and puffs and makes a lot of noise and then…magic! An idea pops out on demand. I wish! πŸ™‚
    Personally I never had problems with ideas – it’s the turning into stories that I find more difficult. Sometimes I get stuck and don’t know how to go from there. Do you plan the whole story from the beginning, or do you make it up as you go along?

    1. LOL Delia, that’s a funny image. Maybe I could make a fortune by inventing the magical idea-generating machine, only Β£24.99, batteries not included πŸ™‚

      I always plan, but not in detail. With the two examples given, I’d have to think about them for a while before I started writing, to see where they would go and indeed if they’d go anywhere – a lot of ideas get discarded at this stage. Before I write I’ll usually have a rough outline, some notes scribbled on a sheet of paper, but nothing too formal – I find that if I overplan, it kills the story because subconsciously I feel as if I’ve already told it, if that makes sense.

      You asked a good question and it needs a fuller answer, so I’ll do a post on it at some stage… Thanks for the idea πŸ˜‰

    1. Cool! I can picture you putting your boots on right now! Let me know how it goes…

  2. That is very true. I don’t write fiction, but it’s the same with a lot of writing. I’ll have maybe two or three ideas over a few months when sat at my desk, compared with ten or more if I’m out. Sometimes they don’t even correspond to the place you are at, it just happens that you’re more “open” to ideas in a different environment.

    Regarding the usage of them, it’s one of those things that is awe-inspiring, how some can create whole stories out of ideas that others can only write a little about. And it’s nice that while it of course is a mark of a very good writer from a good writer, personality itself means that there will always be an idea that you can make more of than another. I guess that’s where style and voice come inn.

    1. Hi Charlie, Thanks for the thoughtful comment! Some good points there. You’re right that the ideas are not always connected to the place – sometimes it’s just about thinking in a different way. The well-known ‘Eureka’ moment in the bath can be explained in the same way – poor old Archimedes had probably been staring at his papyrus all day, but didn’t get his breakthrough until he let his brain relax and start to make unexpected connections. There’s a huge difference between logical, rational thought and creativity – something I plan to explore more in later posts.

      I like your point about personality too. If you gave that ‘death notice’ idea to Salman Rushdie, Cormac McCarthy and Zadie Smith, you’d end up with three completely different stories. And some writers would hate the idea and some would love it, and others would have taken the same walk as me but picked out something totally different as the potential story idea. Style and voice are big components, but also I’d say the writer’s outlook on life, the theme that runs through a lot of his/her work – that becomes the lens through which the idea is refracted. As you may have gathered from my two death-tinged ideas, my world-view is not the cheeriest…

  3. Nice post Andrew – I would argue writers are more observant than non-writers in the sense that they see the potential for drama when they observe something, turning a found thing (like an image or a sound which anyone might notice) into a situation. So rather than just hearing those
    names, you immediately started to see the possibilities for grievances, betrayal, complications…

    For me, one of the great things about walking is the clarity it provides, the ability to clear my head in a way that’s not possible when I’m sitting at my desk looking at a screen. And once my head is clear it means there more room for new ideas and solutions to stream in.

    1. I like your point about a clear head! To me it’s absolutely vital, and very telling in terms of understanding where creativity comes from. I used to think it was bad when my mind was blank because I would have nothing to put in the story. Now I understand that the ideas do indeed “stream in”. Where from is another, very interesting question…

  4. I’ll let you into a secret, which is that I’m currently writing a novel (something I haven’t done since my mid-20s when I gave up because I was rubbish; so it may not be the best idea I’ve ever had!). What’s intriguing to me is the fact that you can’t put people you know into novels because you know them too well. It’s the person you knew only a little bit. Or saw a couple of times, and those times made a small but definite impact. Then you can fantasize about them and build them up into something (probably a million miles away from their true character). So yes, fiction is oddly tangential and indirect in its relation to life. I hope you write those stories, btw, they sound great!

    1. Ah, that’s great! Thanks for letting me in on the secret. I disagree that it’s not the best idea – I think it’s an excellent idea! I wrote a novel that was rubbish before I wrote the one that got published as my “first” novel. I think most published authors can tell you the same story. Novel writing is a skill, and it’s unlikely you’d get it right first time. Now that you’ve lived a little longer, seen more, read a lot more and thought and analysed your reading so much on your blog and elsewhere, you’ll stand a much better chance.

      It’s true that you can’t put people you know well into novels. The reality gets in the way of building a fictional life for them. But I do sometimes use traits of people I know or have known very well. A little bit of this person, a pinch of that one, a smidgeon of another, and suddenly I’ve got a whole new character who doesn’t really resemble any of the original ingredients. That said, just inventing a new life for a person I see on the bus is a favourite pastime of mine, and is fun as well as productive πŸ™‚

  5. Beautiful post, Andrew! I think this is probably my most favourite post of yours till now πŸ™‚ It is wonderful advice to aspiring writers. That story of a soft-spoken man – I have seen it happen actually.

    1. Ah, thanks a lot Vishy! It’s interesting that you’ve seen that happen – what was the situation? Would love to hear more…

      1. There was this guy at work who was very nice, smiled all the time and was friendly with everyone. People used to ask him for favours and he used to put his work aside and help them out. Some people used to take advantage of him also and delegate work to this guy’s team members without his knowledge or ‘steal’ his team members. One day he exploded against one of the people who was doing that – it look like the pent-up emotions of a long time were released that day – and the person on the receiving side was quite shocked. People became wary of him after this incident – because they weren’t sure whether on any kind of work transaction they were crossing a line or not with him.

        1. I love that story! Well, I feel sorry for the guy who was taken advantage of and kept his emotions so pent-up that they were suddenly released like that. It must have been hard for him, and especially so when people became wary of him afterwards. It’s a touching story. Please don’t sue me if it turns up in my fiction in some form one day, OK? πŸ™‚

  6. Great post, Andrew. But people are SO sceptical if you go for a lovely bath or a nice long walk and tell them you are ‘working’!

    I’ ve had some great ideas by mis-hearing things too, it’s your mind trying to link disparate things – trying to make sense of the world by finding its own logic – that I find quite creative.

    1. I know, I can’t imagine why πŸ™‚

      Ah, that’s a fascinating point about mis-hearing things! I know I’ve done that too, although I can’t think of any specific examples off the top of my head. Would love to hear an example of what you misheard and what idea it led to!

  7. I really enjoyed reading this post, which I stumbled on during some research. I love discovering new ideas and those ‘eureka’ moments when something clicks allowing you to develop the story even further.

    My latest project is very different and I’m trying not to allow my ideas to dominate too much, which is quite hard. I have three young children (7, 5 and 3) and I’m very lucky because they all love books. As a winter project we have decided to write our own book, just for personal use, my only rule is all the ideas must come from them. They are doing their own artwork for it whether that is in the form of drawing, photo’s or using items we find whilst out walking our dog. They have created some very challenging characters and some very random situations but it’s fun and so nice to see when they get so excited when a ‘eureka’ moment hits them.

    1. Hey Nicki,

      Well, I’m glad you stumbled on me! Your project sounds great. It must be hard not to allow your ideas to dominate. Children’s imaginations can be quite different from those of adults, more random and anarchic and playful, and I can picture myself in the same situation struggling not to impose adult order and sense on things. Good for you for engaging in such a creative project – you sound like a wonderful parent, and I’m sure your kids will thank you for it!

Comments are closed.