The Mysterious Movements of Ideas

Ideas are funny things when you’re a writer. They’re very necessary to the work, but they also move very mysteriously. Sometimes they come in a tidal wave and sometimes the well is dry. People who aren’t writers often ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve heard many different responses from many different writers; some of them hate and despise the question, since the truth is they really aren’t that hard to come by and it requires no special talent or insight to turn a concept into a story. In fact, writers (or anybody) have very little control over ideas themselves. They literally just pop out of nowhere and don’t really seem like anything special—until you find you don’t have any. Then it’s like they’re more precious than diamonds.

And once you do have them, they work strangely. Take these three case studies for example.

First, there’s the idea I had several months ago. How did I get it? By noticing a certain trend in the books, movies, and TV shows I enjoy within the science fiction and fantasy genres. Realizing the concept was a genre trope, I thought I might try my hand at inventing some characters, some creatures, a universe for plots to take place in. I have a notebook that I’m starting to fill with some of the ideas, and even a first story. But when it comes to finding plots and stuff to happen in later stories…I’m at a loss. That initial inspiration has only taken me so far. It’s come to the point where I’m almost ready to put it on the back burner, that hellish limbo region where so many of my projects have ended up.

Then there’s another idea, also from several months ago but a little after the one described above. When it first came to me, I had little more than a name for a character and a genre. An image came to me and it quickly became what the main character would look like. But who was he? What did he do? The character actually popped out of another project I was working on, rather like a story-in-a-story. Then it blended with a note I had made ages ago, a very vague and almost unformed idea. Turns out these two concepts were part of the same thing and they were just looking for each other. But I still didn’t have much. I decided to bounce the idea off a friend of mine to see what he thought. He came back with just a few simple observations, but they sparked off a thunderstorm in my head. Before I knew it, I was developing the character and the concept and the milieu to the point where I can write at least three stories with it.

And finally, there’s what we in the literary profession have come to call the Shiny New Idea. An SNI is what happens when a writer is unexpectedly blind-sided by what seems to be a completely formed concept ready to have characters and plot points slotted into their assigned places. This particular one tackled me about a week and a half ago as I was reading an article on…Well, that’s not important. What’s important is that it would be easy to put everything else aside and work on this frankly exciting and innovative notion. More than just the concept, the method of storytelling used could be revolutionary in an era that is seeing the dawn of the e-book. But, ultimately, it’s really just a Shiny New Idea. And if I follow after it now instead of leaving it to ripen, it just won’t last long enough to really become something meaningful.

Where do writers get their ideas? From everywhere and nowhere. The trick is knowing how and when to nurture them and when to leave them alone.

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