Look For Ideas In All The Wrong Places

look for ideas

If you’re writing a romance novel, don’t look for ideas in other romance novels. Look to thrillers, chaos theory, or the building of the Flavian amphitheater. If you’re struggling for inspiration, try looking in the unlikeliest places.

When writing the script for a coming-of-age film about Beverly Hills High School students set in the mid-’90s, Amy Heckerling didn’t look to other teen comedies for inspiration. Instead, she based her story on Jane Austen’s 1815 comedy of manners, Emma. This was a rather bold choice at the time. Most other teen-comedy writers were being inspired either by actual experiences or by other high school films (including Heckerling’s own Fast Times at Ridgemont High). But Heckerling’s instincts proved correct and Clueless went on to be a box office hit that would launch a TV series and 21 novels, fuel a plaid-skirt and knee-high sock fashion craze, and feature a gold-record-certified soundtrack.

The wrong lesson — the one Hollywood glommed on to for a while — was to create the “set X in high school” formula. (Most of those films were regrettable. One notable exception, however, was 2006’s Brick, in which first-time director Rian Johnson set Dashiell Hammett in high school, creating a unique film that made Johnson, who has since directed Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a star.)

So what’s the right lesson to learn from Amy Heckerling? It’s this: if you’re struggling for inspiration for your next book/movie/play/whatever, you should look for it in the unlikeliest places.

There was nothing about the modest joys of a story from Regency-era England that inherently suggested it would be ripe for updating to 1995 California. But Heckerling loved Austen’s character. She saw something at the heart of the story that she knew could freshen up the tired high-school comedy genre.

This brings to mind another success story based on an unlikely source. In the mid-50s, few would have thought that reimagining violent New York City street gangs as the Capulets and Montagues from Romeo and Juliet would be a suitable concept for a romantic Broadway musical, but that’s exactly what Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Arthur Laurents set their minds to with West Side Story. Had it solely been about disaffected youth, juvenile delinquency, and racism, the play would have been way too heavy for a musical. But grounding it in the most beloved love story of all time created a palatable tale that also gave us some of the most bizarre and iconic visuals in history (gangs dance-fighting through the streets of Manhattan) and a love story with serious bite.

Looking, as I put it, in all the wrong places for ideas isn’t just for your big concept. It can also provide your story with rich details that readers/viewers can latch on to, and it can set your work above that of your peers.

Star Wars offers a great example of this. Originally, George Lucas wanted to remake the old Flash Gordon serials. Unable to secure the rights, he set about writing something new, but rather than grabbing ideas from existing sci-fi stories (John Carter of Mars, Buck Rogers, etc.) Lucas looked to the samurai movies of Akira Kurosawa. Those movies inspired the look of his villains, the weapons his elite warriors would use, the code they would operate by, their name (Jedi comes from Jidaigeki, the Japanese word for period drama, aka samurai films), and the character traits for his droids (modeled after the bickering peasants in The Hidden Fortress) and Han Solo (Yojimbo). But Star Wars is not merely samurais in space. Lucas also mined John Ford’s westerns, which inspired many of the scenes on Tatooine; Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which inspired Luke’s story arc; the fighter plane scenes from various World War II movies; along with other sources to create a rich universe that has generations of audiences coming back for more.

Science fiction, in general, seems to really benefit from oddball mashups: Willian Gibson’s Neuromancer gets a lot of its atmosphere from Jamaican dub music and Rastafarian culture; Philip K. Dick used the I Ching, not just as a plot and thematic device, but even to help him make plot decisions when writing The Man in the High Castle; Alien was inspired by horror films like Jaws and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the art of H. R. Geiger; and Frank Herbert’s Dune was as much inspired by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Lesley Blanch’s biography of Imam Shamyl (The Sabres of Paradise) as it was Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Perhaps it’s because world-building is such a huge part of the science fiction genre, mining numerous influences can help a writer create details that will resonate on a subconscious level.

One of my secrets to writing children’s books is to draw from sources that would definitely be deemed inappropriate for kids. For example, some of the things that have inspired my Mr. Pants series include Seinfeld, Dawn of the Dead, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, What’s Up Tiger Lily?, The Wire, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, The Shining, bar tricks, and the Firesign Theatre. I tend to gravitate toward such inappropriate fare because I feel like it gives my children’s books an edge. I don’t want to write (or read) sweet stories. I want stories that feel slightly dangerous.

Of course, they’re still kid’s books. As I detailed in “Panic For Fun And Profit: Submission Deadlines And My Book Series,” I took the idea of being trapped in a mall with flesh-eating zombies and turned it into an airport-wide game of zombie tag. No child is going to know that Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet was inspired by the gore-fest that is Dawn of the Dead, but I like to think that movie’s DNA radiates through in my book.

I’m not saying you need to borrow anything from anyone. If you have an original story that owes its ideas to no one, more power to you. But if you’re looking for ideas for your romance novel, don’t look to other romance novels. Look to thrillers, chiptunes, car manuals, Kabbalah, Half-Life 3, chaos theory, aquaponics, jazzercise, and/or the building of the Flavian amphitheater. You never know what’s going to inspire you or how some extraneous detail might flesh out your subplot into the most memorable part of your story.

Don’t be afraid to borrow. Everyone borrows from everyone else. As much as George Lucas stole from Akira Kurosawa, Kurosawa stole from John Ford. Or, as screenwriter Dan O’Bannon said, “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!” Steal. Then make it your own.


The End


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Sensory Language IS The Detail In Your Writing
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  1. Thank you Mr. McCormick for taking time to share those insights. I’ve been looking for inspiration for my writing-
    Your notes landed in my inbox at precisely the right time, encouraging a novice like myself.
    Timing is everything- they say-Thanks again for your time & wisdom.

  2. Thanks, Scott. Excellent observations.

    I’ve often thought that a series based on the historical accounts provided by Josephus would make for good fiction. To be a king back then was dangerous: Everyone, including your closest advisors and family, was determined to kill you and capture the crown. Much could be made of human motivations, and questions could be posed about whether modern society has changed.

  3. I often get ideas for my short stories from the novels I read. I pick them up here and there, just as long as they’re not too pricy. I like historic fiction best.


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