The Habit of Getting Ideas and Turning Them into Story

I no longer dread the question “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s because I finally figured out the answer.

Don’t get me wrong I’ve answered it a million times over my more than ten year career as a writer. I’ve nattered on about brain monkeys, ends of rainbows, stealing ideas from Maureen Johnson, ideas not being that important, blah blah blah.

The actual answer does not involve light bulbs or muses or brain monkeys or Maureen Johnson. Well, not directly. My true answer involves lots of work. I apologise for the lack of glamour.

Here’s what I realised: I’ve been practising getting ideas and turning them into stories for most of my life. Just as an athlete develops the muscles and reflexes necessary to be able to play their sport by training and playing for many, many years, so do writers develop their story-creating muscles.

I started when I was little. As I suspect many novelists do. I was one of those kids who was forever coming up with whatif scenarios.

My Parents: “Don’t answer the door if we’re not home.”

Me: “What if it it’s someone saying the house is on fire?”

MP: “They’d shout through the door.”

Me: “What if they’re mute?”

MP: “Aaaaaarrrggghhh!”

As you can see I’m already building a story. There’s a child at home alone, there’s a fire, and the only one who can warn the child cannot speak. What happens next? Will the parents get home in time? Will the child survive?

MP: “Don’t hit your sister!”1

Me: “But what if hitting her is the only way to kill the tiny alien that’s attempting to crawl in through her pores?”

MP: “There is no excuse for violence under any circumstances.”

Me: “But what if . . . ”

MP: “What if we say no more books for you until you turn 30?”

Me: *side eyes parents*

Here we have a world in which there are nano-aliens who can get inside us through our pores but who can also be destroyed by squashing them. What happens if they get inside us? Do they eat us? Turn us into pod people? How did they get here? Have they been here all along? Are they only after little sisters?

I played at what ifs almost every day of my childhood. When I wasn’t tormenting my parents and teachers I was making up stories for my sister and then for my friends.

If I lost a book before I’d finished it I’d make up the ending. Ditto for movies and tv shows I didn’t get to watch all of.2

It becomes a habit to start extrapolating possible stories out of, well, pretty much anything. Why is that banana peel on the ground directly outside a jewellery store? Genetically enhanced monkey jewel thief. Obviously.

When I overhear odds snatches of conversation I extrapolate the rest of the conversation and the story it’s part of. It’s fun to imagine whole lives and adventures for the people I overhear on the tram.

Having done this every day for decades now it’s no surprise I get ideas for novels many times a day. I see a fantastic tweet like this one:

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And I start thinking about writing a novel where a kid does that on their first day of school: walks in dressed very fine, holding a big sign that says FEMINIST. The rest of the novel would be them slaying the evil trolls, defeating the misogynist school board and principal, and saving the world.

When you get a bunch of writers together they often do this, bounce ideas off each other, extend them into a story. Whatif-ing each other for hours. It’s how collaborations often begin. That’s how Sarah Rees Brennan and I wound up writing Team Human together.

Of course, I pretty much never write the novel if I’ve already figured out how it ends. When ideas really spark for me I have to start typing. But even then I have oodles of half sketched out beginnings of novels, sometimes several chapters, sometimes just a paragraph or two, sometimes no more than a few lines. A very small percentage of these ever become novels. All that practise turning ideas into story pays off every time I finish another novel.

There is, alas, a huge distance between coming up with ideas, extrapolating a story, and turning them into a fully fledged novel. The first two are a matter of moments; the latter a matter of months, if not years. But without the ideas the novels never happen.

Finally, to tie this into Scott Westerfeld’s marvellous series on how to write YA, extrapolating about other people’s lives is a great way to build empathy, which Scott argues is one of the most important functions of a novel.

  1. I was a truly awful older sister. I’m not kidding. It speaks volumes as to what a fabulous sister I have that she forgives me. []
  2. Punishment meted out by parents. Possibly for asking a few too many what ifs. []

7 comments

  1. Jane on #

    This is great, thanks Justine. I was the same. Still am the same, I guess. Why is there a lunchbox by the side of the road? Well, it must have either a kitten or a bomb in it. What if it’s a kitten? What if it’s a bomb? etc etc etc My whole life is ‘what if….?’ I have notebooks full of tiny short stories, starts of novels and so on as a result.
    Do most people have the ‘what if?’ response, but they try to ignore it?

    • Justine on #

      I have no idea. But I do think it’s super common. Especially with kids.

  2. Scott on #

    People certainly have a natural tendency to fall into ‘what-ifs’. We are curious creatures who like to know the things we don’t, with the ‘what-ifs’ forming infinite branches of the infinite things we don’t know. I am strictly a reader; the only writing I do is for comments on the internet or technical writing for college in lab reports and such, but even I always think of these what-ifs. I doubt people explicitly try to ignore it. Could it be that the level of depth or absurdity of their what-ifs is what varies the most?

    I sometimes like bringing what-ifs into action in reality. “What if I purchase a unicycle?” And then boom, I’ve learned how to unicycle. Sometime in the future I might try to go, “What if I started writing for fun?” Maybe even get a little meta and say, “What if I used what-ifs to make a story?”

    Most recently, I’ve been looking for a gift for my S.O. who is a writer, using what-ifs to try to generate the best gift ideas I could with my limited resources.
    “What if I got her a nostalgic gift?”
    “What if it was a YA novel from an author she enjoyed?”
    “What if I took these old picture frames and used this leftover etching solution to rebind the book with a glass cover?”
    “What if I got a copy signed?”

    Unfortunately, I was only able to get to the fourth part before I got stuck. Making it to any of the tour dates turned out to be impossible and a “What if I contacted the author directly?” is the most shot-in-the-darkiest shot in the dark. Of course I’ll still send out a quick email regardless and there is always the backup “What if I found a book from a more obscure author with an emptier inbox?” but that would bring books which aren’t nearly as perfect, since she was an Ohio teen happy to write a young adult novel.

    Who else besides Scott Westerfeld has happened to write a YA novel about an Ohio teen writing a YA novel?

    • Justine on #

      Haha! Though Scott has not written such a novel because Darcy Patel of Afterworlds is from Philly, not Ohio. 🙂

      Hint: Best way to contact Scott on such a mission is via twitter.

      • Scott on #

        Yeahh, I should get around to reading a copy of the book myself before trying to send one as a gift. It seems Tasha Robinson has made an oopsie about Darcy in her review on NPR.

        Thanks for the hint! I finally have an excuse to make a twitter account.

  3. mclicious on #

    Completely excellent. now I’m remembering all the dictation I would do to the adults in my life about all my dolls and stuffed animals before I learned to write for myself.

    • Justine on #

      Awwww. That’s adorable.

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