They’re slippery little things.
If you ask a writer where to find them, they’re likely to say something like: “I don’t know??? They just...arrive??? Go ask somebody else???”
Part of me understands their frustration. Because sometimes ideas do simply arrive, sudden and whole and complete, and no one can explain that particular breed of magic.
But another part of me has always wanted to write a blog post about how to generate ideas, because writers don’t just sit around waiting for story-sparks. They also make them, from scratch, with nothing more than ink and spit.
So here are some exercises I’ve used to come up with story-seeds—which, after a little daydreaming and notebook time, can grow into Fully Fledged Ideas:
OPEN THE DICTIONARY
Let's get this out of the way: words are not just words. They're worlds. One word can spark a whole novel, or a whole universe.
So, open the dictionary to a random page and choose a word that reverberates at the same frequency as your heart.
Trick. Cinnamon. Dulcet. Sabotage.
Slip. Porridge. Leviathan. Herringbone.
Got a word?
Now take that word and play with it.
What if it were the name of a character? “Herringbone Linx was having a terrible day.”
What if it were the name of a world? “In the town of Porridge, gruel made people sick.”
Keep going until you find yourself in a world you recognise as your own.
THE TITLE GAME
I got this one from Ray Bradbury.
Take a couple of words and combine them into titles. (You could even put a bunch of words in a hat, and pick combinations out.)
The Cinnamon Trick.
A Trick of Cinnamon.
Cinnamon Trick and the Solstice Lampshade.
Ask yourself, if this were the title of a book, what would it be about?
Write, write, write.
Keep going until you find something—a spark or feeling—that makes your chest bloom with roses.
TURN A SONG INTO A BOOK
1. Find a song you love.
2. Take a look at the lyrics.
3. Make a story out of your favourite line.
Here’s one my favourite lines from "Possibly Maybe" by Björk:
I suck my tongue
In remembrance of you
Hmmm, okay. Who’s sucking their tongue? A girl. A girl who’s just bitten into an apple. Okay, maybe an apple is too obvious. A guava, then. Or a kiwi. Or a fruit with wings called a featherberry that can only be picked by the brokenhearted. . .
Who is this girl? She's a girl who’s just been reminded of something—who’s standing, after taking a sour bite of featherberry, in an orchard of memories. . .
Keep going until your heart shatters a little bit.
A NOUN + THE UNEXPECTED
Choose a noun.
(Choose one consciously, or open the dictionary and scan until you find one.)
Then put another word with that noun.
An unexpected word.
For instance, if your noun is glove, don’t use leather or velvet. How about forgiving? The Forgiving Glove. We could work with that.
Once you’ve got an odd combination, free write for a page or two, starting with a phrase that incorporates your title in some way:
"The gloves she wore were not forgiving."
"It was common cause in Flaunton Heights that a woman could not forgive a man if her hands were ungloved."
Keep digging until you find a gem.
So there you have it. Some exercises for generating ideas when your soul feels as dry as the Namibian desert.
All these exercises are variations on the same theme: words make worlds. You're a writer, and therefore a universe-maker. All you really need is one word that makes you shiver. So start there.
Remember to read, and to play, and to delight. Ideas are drawn to joy like bugs to a lamp.
And if one of you wants to write a book called The Forgiving Glove, please, go right ahead. . .