Original Ideas: The Thing Nobody Can Make For You

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Every writer has been there. Every. Single. One. It doesn’t matter if you’re as prolific as Stephen King or as agonizingly slow as George R.R. Martin (still waiting on Book Six, you know). It is going to happen to you eventually, and, if you love writing, you’ll be desperate to fix it. So you go ahead and read some dandy articles on Top Six Story Idea Generators and you follow the advice you’re given.

And, of course, it doesn’t friggin’ work.

As the title of this article suggests, nobody can come up with an idea for you. Because every single writer that has ever lived– excluding ghostwriters and strict adherents to formulae– has no clue where most of their ideas come from in the first place. We don’t know.

But it’s the question everyone insists on asking any writer who has had more than two or three books published. Because people want a quick fix. They want to know the steps they need to take to come up with something original, something fresh, something good. They want to be assured that fiction writers are just like them, that they don’t have this extra sense that puts them in contact with the pulse of the universe.

We don’t have that either.

There have been volumes, thick, weighty tomes dedicated to the process of manufacturing inspiration. They’re worthless. Because you can’t just force yourself to be inspired by something. It’s a freakin’ binary state; you either are, or you aren’t. And no amount of consciousness-elevating pharmaceuticals, trips to Brazil or visits backstage of a rock show are going to force it.

They can help, sure. (Not the drugs part, though. I don’t do them, but from what I’ve read they can just make things worse). Life experiences can definitely bring something extra to your writing. But you know what? Good writers don’t always need them.

For instance, I have no freakin’ clue what an alpha male like Rudy from The Fall of Fort Courage would be like in real life. I’ve spent the past two and a half decades avoiding people like him, because they annoy the crap out of me. So you know what I had to do?

I had to use my imagination.

J.K. Rowling was never a teenage boy, either. But she wrote Harry Potter pretty darn convincingly.

The one mantra I hear over and over is that writers should write what they know. Well, Lovecraft likely had no idea what it would be like to meet an Eldritch Abomination, Stephen King probably was never attacked by a sentient Genius Loci hotel, J.R.R. Tolkien probably never met a real elf in his life, Frank Herbert didn’t spend his childhood maturing into a messianic figure with bizarre mind-powers, R.A. Salvatore very likely wouldn’t last longer than a few seconds in a fight with an orc, and Terry Brooks was never chosen to save the known world from demons breaking through an ancient barrier personified by a sentient tree.

If you only wrote what you knew, you’d be writing an autobiography. And maybe that would be really interesting! I don’t know if you climbed Kilimanjaro without oxygen at the age of fourteen, or traipsed through the heart of Afghanistan wearing an American flag.

Maybe that’s not what they mean when they tell us to write what we know. Maybe they’re trying to make a metaphorical statement that the heart of every story should be based on something we actually have experience with, like love and loss. Maybe you were really climbing Kilimanjaro because you wanted to impress the girl who lived two houses down from you. Maybe you backpacked across Afghanistan festooned with the Stars and Stripes because your brother was killed on a humanitarian mission with Doctors Without Borders.

Or maybe I’m right and that’s a load of shit.

John Schlesinger once said that Dustin Hoffman, a known method actor, would run for an extended period of time so that he would actually be sweaty and out of breath for a running scene.

My question is this: where is the acting in that?

Actors are playing roles in which they aren’t what they actually are. They’re pretending to be something else. Kevin Spacey pretends to be a serial killer in Se7en. I really doubt that he went and murdered a bunch of people to get a feel for the role.

Acting is their freaking job. And making yourself run until you’re genuinely out of breath isn’t acting. Sorry!

Writers have a job too. Ours isn’t the onus to change the world. If you think that you’re going to write something important that is going to make people see feminism in a whole new light and forever affect gender relations in the United States, I suggest you get over yourself for a minute. Do you want to know what your job is?

To keep your readers’ attention and entertain them.

That’s it. That’s your job description as a fiction writer. Your lengthy novel rife with purple prose that is a thinly-veiled allegory for the Civil Rights Movement isn’t going to please anyone unless it’s also compelling as a story.

You really need to know your audience. If you’re writing for the general public, then you’re probably going to write something that’s worth reading. If not, the only people you’re writing for are going to be English professors who couldn’t get their own work published because they wrote what you wrote.

Here is where we find the first and only rule of a good story idea:

It would make a good story.

This probably seems like it should be obvious, but, unfortunately, it is not. Too many times people get caught up in the lesson they’re trying to convey and they forget that stories are stories. Don’t let yourself be distracted by the valuable Aesop that’s hidden in your work. If your idea is something like “people need to see that women aren’t objects,” well, you’ve got some work to do.

Stories that work as lessons do so because their lessons are a side effect of the story. For instance, The Chronicles of Narnia are riddled with Christian allegories, mirroring some of C.S. Lewis’s own road to becoming a Christian. They’re intended to be children’s stories, so, naturally, they are, first and foremost, stories. Talking animals, battles against evil dictators, magic, mayhem, mistakes made by innocents, betrayals and quests into the unknown would each make for good stories on their own, and most of them combine multiple elements. The fact that they teach Christianity doesn’t even need to be considered in their intrinsic value. Hell, fifty years after they were first published they’re getting major Hollywood treatments, and have grossed $1.5 billion between the first three movies. Are you going to tell me that everyone who went to see those movies did so because there was a Christian message? Of course not. They went because they’re fun stories.

So what makes a story idea good? Like I said before, a story idea is good if it will make a good story. You need to focus on entertainment value before you decide to teach or, God forbid, make your story all about representation. Cast diversity is great, but please, for the love of God, make your story about more than a character who is gay. If you want to adequately represent minorities, cool, just make that something other than the focus, or you end up with characters that are unintentionally hilarious stereotypes.

If you’re writing a novel, you also need to make sure that your idea can sustain itself for a lengthy work. Not every idea can be made into a 120,000 word novel, and you need to be okay with that. Sometimes, they just work better as a short story. For instance, Snow is completely unsustainable as a concept for much longer than I wrote. I could probably have stretched it out to hit fifteen or twenty thousand words, but it would’ve been a disservice to a neat idea. I would have had to eventually explain some of the phenomena that took place in the story, and while I know why some of the things happen, it’s spookier if its not shared with the reader. Some things are better left short and sweet rather than long and in-depth.

Sometimes, short stories can be adapted into great two-hour movies. Stephen King is responsible for too many for me to list, but 1408 is a good example. But a movie treatment doesn’t mean that a work can or should be expanded into a novel, and King would probably agree with me. 1408 works as a short story detailing one man’s experience in an evil, possessed hotel room. If it went on for longer than it did, it would wear itself out and leave the reader wondering when it would end.

In short, your idea needs to fit the format. If your story is better told visually rather than in prose, consider graphic novels or screenplays. If your screenplay relies heavily on internal monologue, it probably won’t work too well on screen, and might be better suited to the written word.

You need to be honest with yourself about your idea. Most writers can tell when an idea sucks. I’ve scrapped dozens of pieces over the years after closer examination. Be brutal. Think to yourself who you’re going to write this for, and if that audience is going to think it’s any good or not.

Then ignore what you think the audience will like, and write the freakin’ story you want to write. Do you honestly think that I believe readers are going to crap their pants in excitement over a modern retelling of the first act of Beowulf? Of course I don’t. But I freakin’ love Beowulf, and I had a good idea for how to adapt it, so I did it.

At the end of the day, write for yourself. That doesn’t mean that you don’t take your audience into consideration at all, but you need to trust your instincts. If they’re any good, and if you’re any good, people will respond positively to your concepts if they’re executed well. You still need to be harsh with yourself, because your friends and family are going to be too busy telling you how brilliant you are to actually provide good feedback.

So, how about those ideas? Is this article any better than the thousand others floating around the internet? Probably not. Because, like I said in the beginning, nobody can come up with an idea for you.

At the end of the day, the whole thing comes down to you. Where you get your inspiration from is your business, and nobody has the ability to manufacture it. Here is some general advice that likely isn’t going to help you at all:

1. Go get yourself some life experience.

2. Imagine dramatic retellings of events that you’ve seen.

3. Come up with two separate things, like telepathy and private investigators, and see what happens when you connect them.

4. Take a shower. Seriously, every single one of my ideas came from time spent in the shower.

5. Go to the beach. Exist.

6. Quit writing and do something else. If you can’t come up with new ideas, then you’re a one-hit wonder. That’s fine; nobody cares about Bram Stoker except for Dracula. Just don’t try to keep writing if you don’t have it in you.

Writing is different from most other professions, because writers are subjected to a different kind of scrutiny. Artists are only as good as their last piece, and chefs are only as good as their last meal, but writers are only as good as their next idea. Days after releasing one book, writers are inevitably asked about the next one. Either get used to it, or get out while you can.

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