“Where do you get your ideas?”
A constant flow of new ideas is a vital lifeblood for any writer and something all of us can achieve. Read on for tips on how to maximise your idea generation potential.
There’s a great story about Agatha Christie becoming distracted at a dinner party by a late arriving guest. He was flustered, unkempt and had dirt under his fingernails. Christie withdrew from conversation as she looked at his fingernails and her mind whirred as to what had occurred before he arrived - no doubt she was wondering if he’d just buried a body…
“Where do you get your ideas from?” is one of the most common questions I am asked by writers and non writers alike. I’m often tempted to say that the best ideas just pop into my head from nowhere because that’s exactly how it feels sometimes – as it does for lots of writers – but that isn’t what happens. Ideas don’t come from nowhere, they come from a bank of material I’ve stored up, which I draw upon almost unconsciously when I need to. So how can you start building up this material?
Observe at all times; be mindful. Ideas are all around you but you need to open your mind to seeing and hearing them. Become an avid people watcher. Be interested in the people you meet and be a great listener. Don’t be afraid to eavesdrop if you can – people often reveal themselves the most in an unguarded moment.
Draw inspiration from those closest to you. Raid your family history, observe your friends but use what you learn wisely. No one will forgive you for an unflattering portrayal or betraying a confidence. However, knowing those closest to us as we do can give you truthful insights into human nature that are second to none.
Learn what makes people tick. Read about psychology, emotions and the mind to critically evaluate what people do and what unconsciously drives them. Our experiences as children or our relationships with our family can imprint upon us a pattern of behavior we follow all our lives, but which we are unaware of. Learning about these unconscious personality drivers can really help you deepen your character’s backstory, so that they bring a wealth of baggage to the first scene you write with them.
Immerse yourself in storytelling in all genres. There is a wealth of great storytelling out there – advertising, gaming, films, theatre, television, books, blogs, social media… Learn as you consume. Consider subjectively why they work for you, and why they don’t. Understanding how an idea is executed in narrative structure will help you learn storytelling craft by osmosis – and soon you will unconsciously apply it to your own writing.
Use social media to open up your world. Set up a twitter account specifically for idea generation and follow a diverse group of people and organisations from across the world. For example, find people on the ground if you’re interested in a political situation home or abroad – a real time, personal account, unfiltered by a media outlet will give a fresh perspective of what’s going on.
Research in the real world. If an area of interest grabs you talk to people in that field. I find people are often happy to talk about what they do to someone with a genuine interest. And it’s amazing how inspired you will be afterwards – with story and character ideas, and a flavor of the dialogue you might want to use – every workplace or group has a language of its own. And equally as important, what you write will be all the more truthful and authentic.
Do all of this whenever you can and it will soon be second nature. But remember that ideas are just the starting point and it’s how you execute the narrative that counts. Anyone can have an idea, even the same idea as you, but only you can write that script or story from it. Check out the films Armageddon and Deep Impact – same idea, very different experience.
And finally — apply yourself and be disciplined – all the great ideas in the world mean nothing if the stories they inspire remain untold. Get writing!