Where do great writing ideas come from? Ideas arise from many places. Questions about broad societal issues. Visual images that linger in your imagination. Questions such as ‘what if…’ and ‘why is it that…’. Read 7 insights on how to get writing ideas from Goodreads’ author interviews:
1. Ask ‘What’s going on?’
Marvin Gaye did this memorably in his 1971 soul music classic. In this case, the answers described conflicts surrounding civil rights, with lyrics such as:
Picket lines and picket signs/ Don’t punish me with brutality/ C’mon talk to me/ So you can see/What’s going on.‘What’s Going On?’, Alfred W Cleveland / Marvin P Gaye / Renaldo Benson , ‘What’s Going On?’, 1971.
Barbara Kingsolver describes writing her novel Unsheltered (2018) out of a similar question. Says Kingsolver, when asked whether there was an ‘aha’ moment that made her write the book:
The question in this case was, “What in the heck is going on?” How can it be that all of the rules—about what kind of leaders people admire and elect to public office, and how we behave as citizens of the world—no longer seem to apply. All the rules seem to be changing. And not only that, but larger, biological rules about our home, the idea that the poles would always be covered with ice, and that there would always be more fish in the sea. All these things that I’ve always counted on suddenly were no longer true.Barbara Kingsolver, interviewed by Goodreads, September 2018.
Curiosity of this kind – being curious about change, what drives it, what it could lead to – is key to how to find writing ideas from history or present events.
2. Practice thinking ‘otherwise’
In a similar way to acting, a large part of writing (and how to get ideas for stories) is inhabiting other worlds, minds, and lives. And convincing your audience in your performance of this habitation.
Author of The Witch Elm (2018) Tana French describes how useful ‘thinking otherwise’ to one’s own frame of reference is for finding new ideas.
When asked how her story first started taking shape, French replied:
I had been thinking about the link between luck and empathy, and how if you’ve been lucky in certain areas of your life, it can be hard to develop empathy toward those who haven’t had that luck. Because their experience is just outside your frame of reference.
For me, the easiest example was myself. I was lucky to have a pretty happy and loving childhood. And early on in life I found it hard to take in the experience of those who had really and truly terrible childhoods. I would think—oh, they must be exaggerating. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe them; it was that it was so outside my frame of reference that I couldn’t take it in.Tana French, Interview with Goodreads, September 2018.
What French describes is important to imagining the lives of others.
As an exercise, think about an experience in your life. For example, you may have moved from town to town growing up.
Now imagine a character who lived otherwise. Maybe they lived in the same house from ages 1 until 70. Why did they stay rooted? What kept them there? How has their life differed from your own? How might their motivations or feelings around concepts such as ‘home’ differ from your own? That’s thinking ‘otherwise’.
[Profile characters in your story and flesh out ideas for interesting backgrounds and details in the ‘Characters’ section of Now Novel’s story outlining dashboard.]
3. Follow images that ‘worry’ your thoughts
Activist, essayist and author Arundhati Roy is known for tackling socio-political issues in her work.
When asked by a Goodreads member whether a specific event inspired her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), Roy replied:
Well, I think over the past 20 years—as I suppose people know from my nonfiction—I’ve had occasion to go places in India that many people wouldn’t normally go. Obviously all of that experience was accumulating in me. But it was only about ten years ago that it began to coalesce into fiction. It’s not as if one thing happens and you suddenly have a novel! No, but something does happen, and your mind starts worrying it. I think the first sort of image I wrote down was about being on the streets of Delhi at, like, two in the morning with all these various protest groups when suddenly this baby appeared—and nobody knew what to do with it!Arundhati Roy, interviewed by Anderson Tepper, June 5 2017.
4. Imagine conversations you’d like to have
Often when writing fiction we are so focused on aesthetic trappings – style, the ‘good phrase’ – that we forget about other important aspects.
Conversation, for example. The dialogue between author and reader.
Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, when asked about how his novel Exit West (2017) took shape, described the role of imagined readers in shaping his decisions:
When I moved back to Pakistan seven years ago, I saw this pent-up desire of people to get out. I think all of these things—my own personal life story as well as the political backdrop of fear and animosity toward migrants—congealed into the impulse for this novel. As usual, I struggled with the question, How do I tell a story like this? […]
Another part of it was that living in Pakistan the last seven years, I realized that so many readers don’t approach literature with the same background as me, which of course should have been obvious. And I thought, am I writing books that require a sort of decoding apparatus on the part of the reader that maybe I’m mistakenly assuming they have? I wanted to write a book that builds its own decoding system into it.Mohsin Hamid, interviewed by Anderson Tepper, March 6 2017.
5. Rework the familiar
Many stories have been written out of taking a familiar image, idea or saying and imagining a different meaning. For example, imagining a figurative phrase as something literal.
Colson Whitehead, asked about the inspiration behind his novel The Underground Railroad (2016), describes this.
Whitehead describes his disappointment as a child when he learned that ‘the underground railroad’ (the network of safe routes for helping slaves escape to free states during the early to mid-19th Century) was not actually a subterranean rail network:
I had this fanciful idea—I think I was remembering how when you’re a kid and you hear about “The Underground Railroad,” you think it’s an actual subway. Then when you find out it’s not, you think, Damn, that would’ve been so cool! So I just thought, What if it actually was true? That was the start of the story, but there’s not a lot of meat there. So I was, like, what if every state that our character goes through is a different state of American possibility?Colson Whitehead, interviewed by Andy Tepper, September 6 2016.
6. Write to someone important
Many creative people throughout history have had ‘muses’, people who inspire their creative work.
Whether it’s a romantic muse or a close confidant – a friend, beta reader or editor – having a specific person in mind when you begin writing can help you find how to get writing ideas that have a specific tone or communicative purpose. Helen Oyeyemi describes:
I don’t have a muse, but I do have very immediate readers. People who read what I’m writing and help me figure out some very essential things. Sometimes when I’m writing, I think, “Will it make this person laugh?” Like the first story, “Books and Roses” [from the collection What is yours is not yours]. I wrote it for my Spanish publisher. He died last year, and he never got to read it, but I thought it would make him laugh, and I was writing in the hopes it would amuse him in some way. But since he never got to read it, I dedicated it to him.Helen Oyeyemi, interview with Goodreads, February 29 2016.
7. Store away ideas until the pieces fall into place
Author of Life of Pi (2001) and The High Mountains of Portugal (2016) Yann Martel describes how the latter book grew out of ideas he’d had 25 years prior to writing it:
I started writing a novel when I was at university. It featured a crucifix, a quest, an animal (a talking dog), a setting in Portugal. But I was too young, too unlearned in the craft of writing to know how to pull it off. The patient died on the operating table, so to speak. I moved on. Twenty-five years later, I started writing THMOP, and something of that early novel showed itself, in an archaeological way. But new elements came into play, too. The automobile, the Agatha Christie murder mysteries, the autopsy, and so on. I don’t know if I’m any more learned in the craft of writing—I still feel like an apprentice foolishly playing with powerful magic potions—but this second time round the novel came together.Yann Martel, interviewed by Heather Scott Partington, February 1 2016.
Martel touches on an important aspect of ‘inspiration’ – giving yourself the time you need to find how the strands of your story idea connect.