Where do ideas really come from?

…or how to turn your mind into an idea garden.

Aspiring writers and readers alike are curious about how published writers come up with such great ideas for novels, and it is a common cliché that writers are often asked where their ideas come from.  The writer then proceeds to give a clever retort designed to get a laugh or a thoughtful reply that has little meaning to any but the writer.  The reader takes the answer at face value and infers that the writer knows what he or she is doing and that this method of generating ideas is merely a reflection of that eccentric trait that all writers somehow possess.  But do writers really have some secret password to unlock the encrypted file of unlimited brilliant ideas?  And if such a password exists, how does an aspiring writer obtain it?  Who is the gatekeeper of this hidden knowledge and what does it cost?  Because once possessed, shouldn’t this treasure of information provide a fast track to publication nirvana?

Not likely.

What if there was no such secret password or file or universe of unclaimed ideas?  What if ideas came from somewhere else?  Where would you look?  Let’s start with what happens rarely.

You awake from a particularly vivid dream that remains fresh in your mind’s eye.  You have the wits to turn on a bedside lamp and jot down those memories as they fade away like mist before the sunlight.  You have an image or a scene or a character or a setting scribbled in sleepy handwriting on a notepad.  You go back to sleep and the dream is forgotten.  In the morning, your scribbles resemble a doctor’s prescription and you sigh because you can’t read it.  Now this method of idea generation does happen, Stephenie Meyer describes this very process when she got the idea for the first book in her mega-bestselling Twilight series.

I had the same experience with a short story I wrote and published in a small literary magazine nearly twenty years ago.  It does happen.  But dreams are unreliable and unpredictable and as fleeting as evaporating exhalations on a crisp winter’s day.

It is my perspective that most ideas are not happened upon, stolen, bought, or lucked into.  Ideas are not some arcane bubble of creativity that exists to be tapped into by those with the proper command phrase or key.  www.dictionary.com in its first definition defines idea as: “any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity.”  Let me rewrite the definition for our purposes as follows: “any great novel idea exists in the mind of the writer as a result of mental activity.”

In this definition, I focus on these key words: mental and activity.  If you compare an idea to a seed you find that they are tiny, dry, hard, nearly weightless, and don’t do much sitting in your hand.  In fact, a seed, like an idea, will do nothing if it is just left to sit untended.  You could toss this idea seed in a jar with the rest of your unused ideas and it will never do anything but take up a bit of space.

But if you plant this idea deep in the fertile soil of your mind and then water and nourish it you the idea seed will develop roots that will seek out the moisture of your memories and knowledge and will then begin to grow.  What is the fertile soil of the mind?  The nutrients you possess in the soil of your mind are the sum total of your life experience, learning, observations, impressions, and especially reading.  Like I’ve said previously, if you don’t read you can’t write.  All this data in your mind adds different but essential ingredients to your subconscious reserves of creativity and provide food for the idea seed to not only germinate, but to sprout.

After a short time, this process will provide you with an idea seedling.  This seedling is fragile and delicate and could wither and die without further sustenance.  That sustenance comes from passive light and food.  Compare the light to your active and inactive thinking and pondering about the idea, providing illumination by giving the idea seedling regular if not daily attention.  At this point, you begin to add food or fertilizer to enrich the soil with the specific needs of this idea seedling to help it grow into the desired fruit bearing tree.  Different ideas have different needs just as do actual seeds.  The fertilizer or additional nutrients comes from new and focused research related to your idea seedling.  Visit the library, browse the bookstore, borrow from friends, or surf the web looking for more information to expand your idea and help your seedling grow larger and stronger with the goal of achieving full bloom.

Once the idea grows sufficiently, you will notice that it begins to become self-sustaining and needs less and less external water and nutrients.  The roots of the idea have sunk deep in the soil of your mind and are absorbing what is needed to grow and develop.  At this point, there is risk of neglect as idea tree begins to bear fruit.

Now is time to harvest.  If this is not done, many ripened fruit will fall and rot on the ground, lost for use.  Call these ideas for dialog, or a plot twist, or a unique description, or a way to express theme.  This is where a writer should be working daily to reap the harvest of the fully formed idea tree.  Harvesting the fruit of new ideas keeps the whole idea tree healthy and promotes additional growth.  This should be sustained for the life of the project.  Unlike a real tree, the growing and harvesting season can be extended until the idea tree has been converted into a finished novel.

Okay, so I took the metaphor a long way and some may think this is just a pile of stinky compost (sorry, couldn’t help it.  I’m an occasional vegetable gardener and the metaphor takes a life of its own).  However, this is the exact process I used with my current fantasy novel project.  I’ll give you the short version of how it happened.

One of my new favorite fantasy authors wrote a trilogy with a particularly unique magic system.  My mind was like a parched, hardpan desert floor and the water was life-giving for new ideas of my own.  I developed a “seed” idea for a different, equally unique magic system and let that idea percolate.

At this point, it was just an idea for a magic system.  Well, I combined it with an idea I had been co-developing for a short film script until it formed itself into characters, setting, magic, plot, and the hint of a theme.  I then began formal research that lasted approximate five months.  This was my “growing” season.  By that time, the idea tree had grown into a fully developed world, characters, history, culture, geography, maps, economy, magic system, political structure and much more.  It became time to harvest, once I noticed how burdened with fruit the limbs had become.  I began writing the first draft in December 2009 and my growing season is still producing harvestable fruit with the maintenance activities I perform with constant focused thought and occasional new research to fine tune my understanding of the world I’ve created.

So, what does this concept of idea farming have to do with where ideas come from?  Ideas don’t really need to come from anywhere because ideas are everywhere like seeds are everywhere.  There is no limit to ideas.  But these ideas will do nothing unless the writer invests time and energy to see if it will grow and ultimately bear the fruit of a story or novel.  The better the writer gets at this process, the bigger and healthier the idea tree and the more appealing the fruit becomes, in whatever format it is delivered, to an audience.  And over time, the writer will find it easier to plant, nurture and harvest from ideas seeds in the future.

So we writers should focus not on where ideas come from but on the most effective way to grow ideas into the story or novel we envision.  An idea seed is just the potential for a great novel; it will take significant labor to realize that potential.

Until next week…


12 responses to “Where do ideas really come from?

  • Jared

    Once I have a basic idea I like to make lists of other ideas. To use your analogy above, these lists of other ideas or sub-ideas are like the water, sun or soil for the original seed or even the roots.

    These lists of ideas are in no particular order just ideas that pop into mind or generated by asking questions like: “Hmmm what do I want to have happen in this story?” I then generate a list of all the possibilities that I can come up with. Some ideas are lame and some really inspiring. I usually like to start with: “What is the setting or genre?” This usually comes with the original idea or “seed”. Next I focus on what kinds of characters might be in this story. “Who is the protagonist?” “Who is the antagonist?” “Are they heroes and villains?” or “Are they just a shopper and a cashier at the grocery store?” Heh…You could probably make a really interesting short film about a shopper’s clash with the cashier….

    I will then make a list for each character. These lists are also driven by questions about the character just like if you are trying to get to know someone. You generally at some point ask a question or two. “What is your name?” “How old are you?” “What is your family like?” “Where did you come from?” “How did you end up here?” “What do you do for work?” And so on and so on. The more questions you ask someone the more you learn about them. Of course creating a character who won’t get offended if you ask them their age can be less hazardous.  I think every interesting character has strengths and weaknesses and the flaws and personal fears more than anything allow people to identify with the character. The whole point to this is to explore, create and define who each person is in the story. I find that a well developed character is absolutely critical to writing the story because once you know who the person is what they do or how they react in a given situation becomes infinitely more obvious and thus the writing comes naturally. For example if you know Billy has a crippling fear of dogs and he sees Jamie walking her pit-bull down the street you can quite easily determine what Billy may do in that situation. You still have many options but his actions are driven by who he is. He may walk to the other side of the street. He may quickly duck back into his house. He may even try to face his fears with great struggle and try to keep walking toward Jamie. It could be that he has a crush on Jamie and just wants to get to know her. Unlike other boys his age he is not afraid of talking to girls however he is deathly afraid of dogs and she always has that darned pit-bull by her side.

    Once I have developed the “main characters” I move on to other characters in the story and follow the same process. I then go back to the “what happens in the story” list and generate more ideas. There may be several sub lists like “what do I want IN the story,” a dragon, a castle, a magic sword, a wizard, a mysterious talking creature? There are no rules. I try not to filter these lists at first and just write down any and all ideas. I may jump back and forth from “character development” lists to “what I want to happen” lists and so on and so on. Once I have developed some very long lists I then have a pretty good database of ideas to pull from when I start to write the story. The other lists that are critical are the “what is the main challenge, problem, or crux” list, the “how does it begin?” list and of course “how does it end?” One of my favorite teachers in college was my Writing for Film and Television teach Jim Callner. He has won over 30 awards and is just an incredible person. I loved his classes. He always emphasized that a good story shows how a character changes. The change could be subtle or dramatic. This could be Billy facing his fear of dogs and overcoming it. One of my all time favorite examples of this concept is when Darth Vader (the greatest villain of all time) saves Luke Skywalker from the evil Emperor’s deadly lighting and changes back to the good side. I would contend that scene is one of the best scenes of all time in any movie.

    A “how does the character change list” is a sub-list of the primary character and is one that I believe will give a writer some very powerful options to choose from to create a captivating, intriguing, exciting character-driven story.

    As stated above once you have all your lists created or partially created you then have loads of material to choose from and the writing becomes how you creatively link it all together. What I like about this approach is that you are not confined to a given line of imagination. You can just let it flow and write it all down. I have found that it helps with writers block tremendously. You are not pressured to come up with the absolutely perfect idea and the tendency to be critical and selective about ideas is reduced. Going back to the stated original analogy of the seed you will obviously not use all your ideas from every list. You will use some and cut others and more still will be created or “grown”. This is like the “pruning” process which any gardner or arborist knows is essential to the health of most plants and trees.

    Your main post is about where ideas come from which I think is one of the biggest struggles for any writer. The approach that I’ve outlined is just a way to generate ideas through making lists and writing them down. I have found that taking this approach allows ideas to multiply at times very quickly just like pouring water on a gremlin.

    I don’t profess to be a writer. I just like to create and tell stories. I would not argue that this is the best or only way to write a story it is just the process that I follow and have found be a helpful and fun way to write.

    • Mark

      Read this comment, everyone! Awesome comment, Jared! Folks, I may have found my first guest blogger. While the actual process of writing varies by writer, whether fiction, non-fiction, or film, some core principles hold true. It is rare that a fully formed novel just pops out of your brain into a Word 2007 doc. If that has happened for you, let us know, we’d like to know about it. Mostly it is a “development process” and this is what I was getting at. The really great ideas come during the “growing” phase of your idea seed. A great idea is useless if it doesn’t get developed. That is what separates an aspiring writer from a published writer. The novice hasn’t yet learned how to completely expand an idea into the roots, stem, branches, leaves, flower and fruit that is needed to complete a publishable novel. The published writer has put in the time, effort, learning, and persistence to cultivate one idea into the many connected ideas that are in the fiction books you find on the shelf at your library or bookstore.

      • Jared

        Thanks Mark. I agree with everything you’ve suggested. I think I may have gotten carried away in my explanation but your original post got me going I guess. I’ve always admired writers who go to great lengths to do research and development of their stories with plots and sub plots and well developed characters. I like your analogy of the seed and all that goes into cultivating that seed so it will actually sprout and then grow. After all doing the research and taking time to let your mind wander and explore many possible ideas is part of the fun and makes writing so much more enjoyable and rewarding.

  • Jaz Primo

    That was a nicely worded article that does an excellent job of describing a writer’s creative process. And as a vegetable gardener myself, I also approve of your metaphors. 🙂 Well done, and thanks posting such a helpful article!

    • Mark

      Thanks for stopping by. It is always nice to hear from a fellow writer. Congrats on your first book. Your success gives hope to those of us still pursuing publication

  • Robert Mortensen

    Were you referring to the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson? He’s one of my new favorite authors as well.

  • Kara Taylor

    I really like this and really like your metaphor. I have a great idea I think, and other people have said for a movie script, but I’m afraid I can’t think of more good ideas to make the story, just sort of thinking about it…but If I don’t try to grow it, it will just sit there the same thing, but Mark you really are a writer, just reading your posts definitely sounds like a writer is writing to us. I’m anxious to read about the world you are creating.

  • MJT

    I state again that in my opinion, ideas are like Einstein’s recipe for genius, 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration…


  • Where do ideas really come from – part 2? « Arcane Roads

    […] The original post is not surprisingly, named: Where do ideas really come from?  You may wish to refresh you memory by reading it here. […]

  • Spring clean your mind « Arcane Roads

    […] trashed.  The soil of my mind, after a long hibernation, is now ready for new seeds to be planted, new ideas (click for a previous post on ideas) to take root and grow because I’ve pulled all the weeds […]

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