Piecemeal Manifesto #8 – Where I Get My Ideas (or Brainstorming 101)
They say it’s the question you’re not supposed to ask writers–Where do you get your ideas? I don’t necessarily mind the question because most times I can trace back where the initial idea came from and how it evolved, but I do understand writers find it difficult to answer sometimes. In fact, some writers have stock answers to the question, such as Harlan Ellison:
“When some jamook asks me this one (thereby revealing him/herself to be a person who has about as much imaginative muscle as a head of lettuce), I always smile prettily and answer, ‘Schenectady.'”
Some writers attribute their ideas to muses, others simply shove you down and kick you in the ribs if you ask. Here’s my favorite answer on the topic ever, Neil Gaiman’s Blog Entry.
Or hell, listen to him addresses the question in this video clip which you might like even more because you get the benefit of his awesome voice.
As for me, I get my ideas through a lot of extensive brainstorming. Here’s a few tips and strategies I use when I’m trying to generate an idea and/or develop and idea:
1. Brainstorm a Set Number. We have to start here, because while this is pretty basic, before you brainstorm anything, set a number of acceptable responses. The number you set should hurt a little because the best ideas you come up with are usually the later ones. You know as well as I do what’ll happen if you set a time limit instead of a response limit–you’ll write down three responses, then sit and doodle for the next four and a half minutes until your time is up.
2. Brainstorm What You Know. Common advice, yes, but not as limiting as some people say. I don’t think this is saying you HAVE to write about what you know, but that it’s a good idea to use what you know when you can. See the difference?
Here’s are ways to brainstorm ideas using what you know: List things you’re an expert on. List “worlds” you know. (For example, I know the high school world–its inhabitants, its routines, etc. I also know the parenting world, and having spent my teen years working at McDonald’s, the fast food world.) List experiences you’ve had others likely have not. List feelings you know well.
3. Brainstorm Things You Love. Weird, but true, the ideas for my (failed) first novel, LUCKY TOWN, and DON’T GET CAUGHT, came from listing what things I like reading about or watching in movies. I mean, you should enjoy what you’re writing, right? So for LT, my brainstorm list that led to the novel included items like: cults, an enclosed setting, disappearances, people you think are dead but are not. All of those things are in that novel in one way or another. With DGC, I did a different list of things I like in books/movies, and from that list capers, an ensemble cast, sophomoric jokes, and pranks jumped out at me. All of those are in the book.
Do this: List books, movies, and TV shows you love. Now, from each of those, list what you specifically love. Look for commonalities, this may give you an idea of the type of book you might want to write.
4. Brainstorm Interesting People. Most writing advice says you should start with character. And honestly, I’m terrible at this. I usually start with a situation and then mold the characters around it. This usually leads to a lot of revision work later. In fact, I’m 15K into my next novel and I still haven’t figured out my main character yet, but I do have a general idea of who he is based on brainstorming interesting people.
Here are some ways to brainstorm a character: List interesting jobs. List interesting hobbies. List interesting quirks. List favorite songs, then figure out what type of person would have each song as a theme song. List people you know who are real characters, those 1 in a 100 people you know who really stand out for whatever reason.
5. Brainstorm Interesting Settings. Since setting determines a person’s behavior, actions, attitudes, etc, sometimes you can start with a setting and build outward.
Do this: List places that have inherent conflict. List places you’ve visited that you can picture clearly. List places that make you uncomfortable.
6. Play the What If? Game. Every novel is a What If? What if a boy discovered he was a wizard? What if a town was terrorized by a great white shark? What if a girl was forced to represent her town in a fight to the death? What if an elephant found an unhatched egg? You get the idea.
Do this: Start with a character and put him in a conflict-ready situation.
Okay, so you have a general idea, now what? I’ve talked about this idea before HERE, but here’s the idea: Once I have an idea I like (or am stuck in plotting), I do what I call Riffing. This is where I open a new document and just start typing ideas and questions and possibilities until an idea emerges that I’m interested in. Sometimes these riffs go on for a week and ten thousand words until I discover what I’m looking for, but usually it doesn’t take that long. Asking questions is what helps me the most. Here’s an example I use in my creative writing class:
Character: High school football player Riff: Why does this kid like football? Or, does he like football at all? Is it something he does out of love or is he forced to do play? Why would a parent force a kid to play a sport he doesn’t want to play? How would a kid respond to something like that? Would he sabotage the team? Does he play at all? What if he was put in to play in an emergency situation? Would he actually try or would he fail on purpose out of spite? What about his character makes him choose this?
This is pretty basic, and just a way to help kids figure out who a character is, but it shows how riffing like this can lead you down a path. This starts out asking if why he likes the sport, then once I thought that maybe he was being forced to play, evolved into a lot of Whys and Hows.
Bonus Advice: Brainstorm for a bit, then change your setting by going for a walk. Ideas will come to you.