Now this a question we all wrestle with, isn’t it? How does anyone come up with good story ideas?
Seth Godin suggests that the secret to coming up with a good idea is to put a lot of bad ideas to the test.
Somehow, I can’t help but agree.
Because no one is ever 100% sure of their idea until it’s out there. And even then, some of the really good ideas fail not because they were bad, but just because they weren’t promoted well enough, or because it just wasn’t the right time.
Still, let me answer the question as best I can. So how do you come up with good ideas?
1. Live Your Life
This is the answer many authors will tell you when you ask them where they get their ideas. Most of the time, their ideas are a product of experience. It’s something they’ve lived through and survived. It’s something they have first-hand experience of.
Trust me when I tell you that no matter how boring you think your life is, I’m almost a hundred percent certain that you have had some frustrations that you’ve had to deal with. At one point, there must have been some struggle you experienced—even if that struggle is as simple as deciding whether or not you should cheat on a test.
Because even something as simple as that can be translated to something much larger and more profound.
The struggle to cheat, for example, is more or less the same no matter what situation you find yourself in. The only difference is the gravity of the situation, as well as the gravity of the consequences that follow should you get caught.
The emotions you had when you were taking that grueling high school exam could somehow translate if you put yourself in a presidential election, or a court trial.
Think about how actors are able to channel specific emotions on-the-spot. They go into their own experiences and look for something similar, something that could produce the emotional reaction that the director is looking for.
The same goes with story ideas.
A story, as I’ve said in a previous post, is nothing more than a struggle that your main character goes through. How he deals with that struggle determines whether he comes out, in the end, the victor or the victim.
2. Keep Your Eyes (and your mind) Open
Look around you! There’s a wealth of possibilities just lying around.
During my commute to school back in college, I would always pass by this filthy market on the way to the train station. Every day I passed there, and every day I saw all sorts of characters. It wasn’t until I paid attention, however, that I started coming up with ideas for stories.
Every so often I’d come across these middle-aged men sitting on the sidewalk, playing a game of chess. I began to ask questions. Who were these guys? Why on the sidewalk? Didn’t they have anywhere else to play? Were they any good?
One thing led to another, and I eventually twisted these questions into statements. I started answering my own questions, filling in the missing pieces, weaving a story around this one very simple image.
What was the idea I came up with?
It was an idea I used for one of my short stories. The sight of those two men playing chess got me thinking…
“What if these two men weren’t just regular men? What if… What if one could see into the future, and predict the other’s moves, whereas the other man could read his rival’s mind and predict his moves? Why? Wouldn’t that end in a stalemate? No one would move any piece at all. Everything would remain in its starting positions. Could that be metaphor for something? How about life? Worry too much on the future, or on what other people are thinking, and it can cripple your ability to take a step forward and accomplish something.”
Yes. All that from watching two people on the street playing chess.
First pay attention, and then turn that image around in your head. Ask questions. Ask bizarre questions. Ask dramatic questions. Then come up with your own answers.
But first, you’ve got to see beyond what you regularly see. See with your imagination, not with your eyes.
3. Find an Itch to Scratch
An itch: or the desire for satisfaction.
We all want something out of life. We all want meaning and purpose. We all crave satisfaction.
But we can’t get no satisfaction.
That, right there, is something to write about. In fact it’s the best thing to write about. Why? Because everybody feels that way. It’s relatable. It resonates.
In fact, every hero in every story craves something. It was Kurt Vonnegut who said…
Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water.
More specifically, I suggest that you focus on YOU, the creator. What itch do YOU want to scratch?
Faith alone is a topic that can spark numerous conversations. What is it about? Maybe you feel that it is misunderstood—both by those challenging it, and those practicing it. Perhaps, in your mind, no one gets what true faith and belief is. Perhaps you want to challenge certain foundations and principles. Perhaps you want to ask what you feel is a bigger question than the tireless debate on whether God exists or not. You want to explore a fresher perspective, something people have yet to see, but you yourself have experienced.
Or maybe your itch is as simple as the desire to hurt someone, but being unable to do it. You wrestle with the morality of it. An eye for an eye, or turn the other cheek? Which is it, really?
Or you could go with a more heartfelt itch. What does it mean to love and be loved? How do you find it? How do you keep it? How do you nurture it and make it last?
In It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart’s character, George Bailey, has a terrible itch to travel the world. It’s an itch he is never able to scratch—mostly because he feels a greater sense of responsibility to help others. Because of this, he makes a wish that he’d never been born, and discovers just how rich his life is, as well as how rich others lives have been because of him.
The best itches, then, are often those that your characters can’t scratch. Why? Again, because nearly every single one of us feels that way. It resonates. We can relate. And so when we see it up there, on the screen, or in a book, we immediately feel like the person that made this understand exactly what it is we’re going through.
I’ve talked about the need to have your audience relate to your characters in another blog post. I’m repeating that same sentiment again here.
Resonance is the single most important thing in your story.
NOTE: Stan Lee’s Spiderman
The brilliance that Stan Lee himself recognized in creating Spider-man was that unlike other superheroes, Spider-man’s entire body was covered by his costume. The man underneath the mask could literally be anybody. You wouldn’t be able to determine gender or race because of that costume. And so everybody wanted to be Spider-man.
Add to that the fact that the stories in Spider-man’s issues revolved around the Peter Parker’s every day life—the struggle of hiding your alter ego and juggling that crusade along with relationships, school, work, and life itself. What made everyone love Spider-man was the fact that even though he had powers, he had the same problems we all have.
And so, three things:
- Live life
- Keep your eyes (and your mind) open
- Find an itch to scratch
Remember, it’s not about whether your idea is good or bad. Rather, it’s what you do with your idea that’s important. You can sit on a good idea for an entire decade, and still not see anything fruitful come out of it. On the other hand, you can take action on a bad idea and unleash it out into the world, and then be surprised that it was actually good.