Where do ideas come from?

I came across a book packaging site the other day.  They, like other companies like them, will choose a writer to write a book for them.  They’ll give the writer an idea and the writer is then supposed to do the heavy lifting for a flat fee rather than a percentage of the royalties and in some cases without even having their name on the books they’ve written. 

Ideas aren’t hard to come by.  In fact, I’ve started a list that I fill out every night before bed.  I come up with 5 ideas (titles, characters, plots, settings, whatever) and jot them down.  The idea is that I’ll have a nice pool of jumping off points to choose from if I’m ever stymied. 

I thought I’d share my method of developing an idea into something workable.  With a diagrams!  I’m a visual person so any time I can come up with a visual aid, it’s a happy day for me.

I pulled an interesting plot idea off the take a plot idea thread in the NaNoWriMo forums a few months ago, but didn’t write down the details so I’m just going to go my own way with it.  A futuristic society has developed a way to add enhancement implants into humans, but the implants have some sort of awful drawback.  I like it for the purposes of this entry.  It’s pretty open ended.

The original idea could come from literally anywhere.  A newspaper story you read might spark some speculation, a movie you watched might have had an awesome premise, but you feel like the execution wasn’t what it should have been, maybe you pick it up from a site like the Nano forums… it doesn’t really matter where you get an idea as long as it inspires you to examine it from all sides and see where it might lead.

I prefer using a mind map for this next part, but I’ve also used bulleted lists.  I give myself permission to be as sloppy and cliché as I want.  That’s important.  Don’t be afraid to acknowledge even your dumbest ideas because, in my head at least, one thought leapfrogs to another until I’m thinking about something that has nothing to do with the original idea.  Besides, if an idea is really awful you just drop it.

I use a program called Xmind for mind mapping.  They have a pro version that costs money, but I’ve found the free version to be perfectly acceptable for what I use it for.  Try the herring bone structure for a time line… it works great.

Ok, so our central idea is Enhancement Implants.  Now I would start using a combination of things I “know” about the idea and W questions (who, where, what, why, how) to start filling in my map.  Whenever a branch forms I start asking myself questions about THAT.  By the time I’ve been at it for half an hour or so I can usually start the processes of world building, character creation, and outlining the plot.

I’m alternating between filling out my map and writing this post.  But I found my first interesting possibility for a story.

screen shot 1

I was exploring the idea that maybe these implants should be mandatory.  Which lead to some new questions. What happens if you don’t get one and what kind of a person would rebel against getting one?  I have a seed of an idea now.  A character lives in a society where it has become mandatory to get implants to enhance performance and correct any defects.  There are drawbacks, maybe widely known or maybe a closely guarded secret, but there are people who are in opposition to the mandate.  One of these people might make an interesting main character.

screen shot 2 

Ah, interesting.  What if the drawback was that the implants are organs and tissues taken from people who live in a “people farm”?  It’s been done before, sure, but it might be worth exploring further.  It adds some drama from the outset.  Especially if the penalty for crimes against the state would be to be sent off to one of the farms to be harvested.  And if refusing the implant was in itself a crime…

So now we have the beginnings of a plot.  We’ve got a scenario and some conflict.  We just have to ask ourselves what sort of character would live in a world like this?  Then we start throwing some of that conflict at them.  Maybe the MC is a member of the resistance or maybe their cherished brother was taken off to the people farms for a crime he didn’t commit.  Something has to happen that puts MC at odds with the rest of the world. 

Since this is me we’re talking about, I’d most likely end up going a paranormal direction with this.  Maybe the people farms aren’t made of people, but some kind of supernatural creature instead.  I don’t know. 

If this were a real project, I’d have several layers of sub branches fanning out, but this is the basic process.  Once I had a decent idea of where the story might go, I start world building, character sketches, and outlining though a series of mind maps and bulleted lists where I just pour out all my ideas onto the page.  I move back and forth between the three because an idea about one thing will often cause me to do a new chart about the others. 

I think the main thing about coming up with ideas is to let yourself be fluid.  Nothing is written in stone so feel free to go off on a tangent.  It might lead somewhere interesting. 

I’m uploading the finished map to Xmind.  You can find it here.


Filed under technology, writing

8 responses to “Where do ideas come from?

  1. Kelly

    Thanks for the tips, been so long since I’ve tried writing anything it’s hard to come up with ideas. I have the desire to write, but without solid ideas it doesn’t feel like it will go anyway. This was helpful in showing how to build on basic ideas.

    • I hope it helps. There are probably 100 different ways to generate ideas and turn it into a book. I think I’ve tried most of them by now. Free association just seems to work best for me.

      I think you should try it and see if you get some ideas for your story and then tell me about it. If anyone should be writing a book, it’s you. I know it’s been a lot of years since I’ve read anything, but you were easily one of the most talented writers that were our age. Plus, you are pretty sharp with editing so you’ve already got an edge over like 99% of the population.

  2. That’s an amazing program! Thanks a bunch for the link.

    Actually, I seem to work in reverse in my writing. Instead of starting with an idea and creating characters within it, I create characters and see how they react with their surroundings. This tends to work better in terms of conflict when said characters are comedic sociopaths, but even the ordinary ones have something to say.

    But therein lies the problem, and the reason I’m going to have a lot of fun with XMind. Since the plot is character-driven, a lot of times the world might seem like little more than a hall through which they run. It can be decorated, furnished, and painted a bright array of colors, but in the end it’s still a hallway. I like my worlds to be bigger than that, and more open-ended, so maybe XMind can help me with this. A very helpful and interesting post, so thank you.

    • Character, plot, and setting all come together in stages at roughly the same pace for me. If I decide that a character hates men, I ask myself why would she? Then I’ll decide it’s because the world she lives in enslaves women to work in the mines and she resents it. Which then would cause me to think that a women’s revolution would be an awesome plot idea. And then I’m back to thinking about why the character would be qualified to lead the revolution. And it goes on and on.

      The nice part is that everything fits well together (I like to think). You couldn’t just plug another character into that story or take the character and try to plug her into a different environment because all the different aspects have been built around each other. For me it’s a really organic process and a lot simpler than this post makes it sound. It’s just how my mind works best. But even if it doesn’t work out for you, I’m really glad that you found some new software. I love Xmind and use it for all my world building.

  3. Interesting screen shots, Wren. I’ve never been able to get these types of programs to work for me, but I’m fascinated to see how others work.

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