Where Do Your Story Ideas Come From?

woman sitting at a computer coming up with story ideas

As Neil Gaiman says, “You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, ‘What if…?'”

Perhaps the most overworked question posed to authors during interviews, public readings, and book signings is, “Where do your story ideas come from?”

There is no easy answer.

There’s a pond out back of my house and I pull up two or three in the evening hours before the catfish eat them all.

I find the best ideas in the lint screen when my laundry is finished.

There’s special compartment in my brain and with the right combination of harmonious drugs, I can go in and poke around for ideas.

I buy them on the Internet from a bargain-basement consortium for $5 each.

In truth, it’s a puzzler and especially perplexing for those authors who haven’t prepped themselves with a quick one-liner based on long experience fielding questions about the writing process. Otherwise, you’ll end up with your tongue glued to the roof of your mouth fumbling for a truism to answer the unanswerable question. Most writers don’t have any idea where their ideas come from.

The idea book

Searching for the germ of an idea to write this blog article, I decided to pull on the tail that was wagging in my brain and search on the phrase, “where do writers get their ideas?”

It’s a surprisingly popular topic, and you can quickly go from scientific articles on how the creative brain works to the fanciful stock answers writers use to deflect the question to the semi-serious speculations on daydreaming and letting the subconscious brain do all the background work.

In “Ideation: Where Do Ideas Come From?,” writer Laura Drake chronicles some of the outrageous responses she’s found from various authors. Crime writer Lawrence Block has a pat answer: “The Idea Book. It’s loaded with excellent plot ideas. I have a subscription, of course, and as soon as I get my copy I write in and select half a dozen ideas and get clearance on them, so that no other subscriber will go ahead and write them. Then I just work up stories around those ideas.”

On a more serious note, Drake observes, “… if you’re not in control of your ideas, they could just stop coming, and then where would you be? It’s probably my biggest fear as a writer. Every new idea I have for a book is golden, because I wasn’t at all convinced that I’d get another.”

The noises in your head

In the HuffPost, Jennie Nash puts it this way: “Planning to write another book on the same theme as my last two or three or four makes me feel a little bit like it’s all I know how to do. In any case, this idea became the idea because of the noise it made. That’s how writers get their ideas: they listen to what’s making noise in their head.”

Writing for Lit Hub, Lore Segal notes, “People ask how writers get their ideas. From 8 am to 1 o’clock, I tell my interlocutor 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, I sit at my desk and write (at an income, if my arithmetic serves me, of 1 dollar and 82 cents an hour) but when you ask me how I get my ideas, my mind is empty.”

“As a writer,” she continues, “I think of myself an expert of mindfullness. Whatever I experience, whether of pleasure, anxiety, sadness, puzzlement, or the day’s nasty news will agitate to understand itself in words, and what demands expression today is the consciousness of an empty mind.”

Listen to your characters

Colin Barrett has his own twist on the idea paradigm. “When I’m writing, I don’t often get ideas, and I don’t like it when I do. Ideas about writing that is. I have ideas about the characters and the plot of my stories all the time of course, but I like to think of these as very practical ones, utilitarian and contingent, relevant only until they solve a puzzle, whereupon they, like the problem, disappear, or at least I hope so.”

The writer with two brains

Psychologist and writer Melissa Berkley posits the notion that ideas might come from the automatic (unconscious) part of the brain. In a book co-authored with her husband, Berkley discussed the two systems of the brain, the controlled system and the automatic system.

Editing Guide banner“The controlled system,” she writes in Motivation Science, “is the part of our mind that we are consciously aware of and is within our control. People generally assume they are aware of everything that happens in their own mind, but in fact they are really only aware of this controlled aspect. When you are trying to make a conscious decision (e.g., Should I eat the brownie or the apple?), it is your controlled system that weighs the pros and cons and ultimately decides which food item to eat.

“The automatic system occurs outside of our conscious awareness and essentially is the part of our mind that handles all the dirty work in order to make our lives easier. It scans all the sounds and sights and smells that constantly bombard your system, interprets and organizes the information, then decides if it should be discarded or if deeper processing is in order. Without it, our brains would have to process each piece of information one by one.”

Ideas beyond the written word

It’s not just writers who struggle with the question of the origins of ideas. Writing for Scientific American, Abraham Loeb, chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University, says, “Ideas originate from pregnant minds, just as babies emerge from the bellies of their mothers. What makes a mind fertile? For one thing, it is the freedom to venture without the confines of traditional thinking or the burden of practical concerns. If a quantum system is probed too often, it tends to stay in the same state.”

Whatever place those ideas come from, let them flow when they happen. This quote from Neil Gaiman says it succinctly:

You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, ‘What if…?’

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Because my mind is a complete blank when it comes to writing fiction, I stick to memoir.
    I am in awe of the imaginations of fiction authors, whether science fiction, historical novels or mysteries. I am grateful that they share their imaginations with us as I love to read a gripping book.

  2. I was a managing a fancy restaurant. One day, my boss came for dinner with some guests. I was called to the table where he pointed out a fly bathing in his wine glass. At the end of the shift I entered the incident in my report book illustrated with a cartoon showing a fly at a dinner table calling a fly waiter to complain about a man in its soup. Subsequently, I came with the idea of making a book of insects in funny situations.

  3. Quite simply: ‘ideas come from everywhere.’ Subtly, from other books, certain characters or quirky situations, overheard conversations, sudden ideas which strike in the middle of the night…Or, if holding certain passionate beliefs about politics, religion, history, etc., It is endless.

  4. Writing inspiration comes in a variety of ways . This includes automatic and non-automatic sources. Others include run of the mill information , written texts , review of previous written books/magazines/comics/art works etc. What is needed is for a writer to have a premises or main purpose of writing to actualize the dream of writing . Others then follows.

  5. I found this article very interesting and as a scientist l sometimes wondered where research ideas come from? These are relatively easier. Research ideas. One from the following amongst others:
    1. Supervisors who have seen a lot!
    2. On going challenges e.g. epidemics, pandemic, food poisoning, emerging diseases etc
    3. Other concerns e.g. environmental
    4. List is endless! e.g. Growth!

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