Updated: Nov 23, 2020
“Human history is, in essence, a history of ideas.” H.G. Wells
It all began with an idea. And by it, I mean everything.
The world is literally built on ideas. Every invention and innovation, every desire and decision, every philosophical musing and political platform, our religions, the price of milk, the decision to (or not to!) get married and have kids - it all starts with one very basic but essential thing: an idea.
But it's way cooler than that. The ability to come up with ideas, to tease possibilities out of everyday experience and spin them into "realities" that do not currently exist (at least not yet) - in short, the power to make sh*t up - is considered by science to be the one thing that distinguishes us from every other species roaming the planet, opposable thumbs aside.
“The truly unique feature of our language," writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, "is not its ability to transmit information. Rather it is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. The ability to speak about fiction is the most unique feature of Sapien language.”
Oh, and here's a thought: if ideas are so powerful that they can bring free societies, airplanes, the internet, bubble gum, and coronavirus vaccines into existence, that makes ideamakers (and by extension, storytellers) the most powerful people on Earth. “The only people in the world who can change things,” said author Lois Wyse, “are those who can sell ideas.” Whether your jam is Kanye, Christ, or Kamala Harris, you know that's true.
Which brings us to the story you are currently writing, or least the one you want to. It's all good if you already have an idea. But what if you don't? What if you've got an ache to tell stories but you're stalled and way past frustrated because every time you try to come up with a half decent idea, you get goose eggs? Snake eyes. Nada!
Where do good ideas come from? And who decides what makes an idea good in the first place?
The question is a proverbial pebble in the cognitive shoe, just big and irksome enough to stop otherwise smart and talented writers-to-be from taking the next step. I know because I work with them every day and because, occasionally, I am one of them. Students in high school and college film classes making their first movie. Adults rediscovering their creativity for the first time in years. Even professional writers who have been at it their whole life. An idea for a movie, are you kidding me? I can't make up my mind what I want for dinner!
Yet if we add a little method to our madness and just think it through, it doesn't take long to write a list of fairly reliable places we can return to again and again. In fact, there's probably not a source on this list you haven't tapped already. It's just good to have in front of you when you're looking frantically for some crack in that wall called writer's block. (P.S. Lists are my best friends. Like an old mentor used to say to me, "It's not that we forget things; it's that we don't make the effort to remember them in the first place." Lists help us remember.)
So here they are:
Personal experiences. Things you've lived through and learned from, walked into voluntarily or fought hard to avoid. It's all good and there's nothing more powerful. Suggestion: Buy a journal (or take a voice note on your phone) and make a list of the big things that have happened to you, as many as you can recall. Be specific about the details, too. Who did what, how it went down, what resulted, how it made you feel, how it affected your relationships, how it changed you. All of it. Creating authentic, compelling stories about fictional characters starts with knowing how to relate to that story about the very non-fictional you.
Observing other peoples' experiences. Once you activate your idea "radar" (i.e. become more consciously aware of what's happening in the world immediately around you), you won't be able to stop the flow of ideas some days. You'll see them on the street, you'll overhear them in conversations, you'll feel them in the energy of classrooms and business meetings. If anything, you might eventually find yourself with so many story possibilities that the trick won't be finding them but focusing on one at a time. Suggestion: Stop right now and take a look at what's going on around you. No seriously, stop reading this and, for the next sixty seconds, just observe while also being alert to your own emotional responses. (Chances are, an audience might respond similarly if this moment were in your story!) Now use your phone or journal to take note of what you remember. To paraphrase my old mentor, it's not that ideas aren't all around us all the time; it's that we're usually not paying attention to them.
Other stories. Yes, it's absolutely okay to get ideas from other stories, be they books, movies, TV shows, stage plays, games, whatever! I'm this emphatic about it because I watch young or new writers tie themselves up in knots all the time, trying to come up with something totally original that's never been done before. Save yourself a million headaches: it's all been done before! Starbuck's didn't invent coffee and Paranormal Activity won't be the last haunted house movie. It's not even the last Paranormal Activity movie! Everybody borrows from everybody and believe it or not, most audiences want something that feels a little familiar, anyway. They just want it delivered a bit differently. They want to be surprised, delighted, elevated. No, don't plagiarize; but yes, yes, a thousand times yes, be inspired by other stories!
The news. a.k.a. The Goldmine. Corrupt players, a divided population, facts versus "facts", science versus opinion. And that's just the sports section! (Hey-ooo!) By the way, it's not all bad news. Did you know there are websites devoted exclusively to good news? Check out Tanks Good News or the Good News Network and watch your whole perspective change. Suggestion: As you do while observing other people's experiences, pay equal attention to how what you read and watch makes you feel. What makes you sad? What makes you happy? What makes you shake with righteous anger? As with you, quite possibly so with your readers or viewers.
What people are talking about. This is different than just reading the news or observing others from a distance. In fact, when you're done with the news, turn it off and put it away. This particular type of input comes only from regular engagement with real people in social settings, even if COVID has limited said interactions to mainly digital ones. "My ideas usually come not at my desk writing," said Anais Nin, "but in the midst of living." So, as Dwight Shrute would say, what's the scuttlebutt? What are people worried about? What are they thinking? What are they feeling? How are they doing with everything that's going on? What are their hopes and dreams? What are the big things that the people you talk to have in common? Suggestion: Start an online group or forum specifically for this purpose. You don't have to pretend it's something else unless you really want to. Or just pose the questions above on social media. Then sit back and listen.
Ask yourself, What matters to me? Saved the best for last. A story is like a roommate: you're going to live with this thing for a while, so you should probably like it. In my experience, the stories we ultimately have the most fun writing, and that are most likely to resonate with audiences, are ones that come from our hearts. Our worldview, our beliefs, our passions and hopes for ourselves and for the world. Suggestion: Grab that phone or journal again, it's time for your final list. What do you care about? What are your deepest values? How do you believe human beings should treat each other? What do you wish the world had more of, or less of, and where do you think we're actually getting it pretty close to right? Maybe you've never taken the time to write all that down before, to really find out what you're about. Now's your chance!
Even with this excellent list of resources at your disposal, it will likely still take time for some ideas to appear and probably a little longer for the really good stuff to rise to the surface. Blog posts aren’t magic wands; just because I wrote it and you read it doesn't mean it will be nothin' but smooth sailing from here on in. You've still got to do the work. But the great news is, the work is easy, inexpensive, 100% recyclable, and totally energy-efficient: it is simply to know where to go and to pay attention when you get there.