JWAM reader request no. 2: Generating ideas

Travis Says:

Where do your ideas come from? Every time I try to write something, I can’t think of any interesting thing for my protag(s) to get themselves into. Very frustrating stuff.

I have written so many posts answering your first question that I created a separate “ideas” category for it. However, I think you’re asking something different. The issue is not where I get my ideas from, but how you can generate some of your own, and thus find interesting things to happen to your protags.

When beginning writers ask this question I tell them to take a plot from somewhere else: a fairy tale, a movie, a novel, manga, anime, anywhere at all really. But change it. Change it a lot.

Say, you decided to use “Little Red Riding Hood”. Why not make the protag a boy? And instead of crossing the woods to meet his grandmother, he has to get from one end of your city/town/neighbourhood to visit his uncle. And in place of a wolf there are members of an enemy gang trying to stop him.1 And it’s set in a future where water is scarce and worth more than gold. Or whatever you want. If you get stuck throw in another plot. Like one from Naruto maybe or High Noon or Great Expectations or something.

Every time you get stuck have something blow up. Or someone come running in brandishing a gun. Or someone discover that their new best friend is their long lost sister. Just keep throwing more stuff in until it feels like you have enough to work with.

I also suggest fixing someone else’s story you think is broken. Next time you read a book you hate, or stop watching a movie because it’s deeply lame, try to figure out what you hated about it and how you would fix it. Then write your improved version. This is a great way to learn how to plot.

Trying your hand at fan fiction—setting a story in someone else’s world with someone else’s (maybe minor) characters—like writing a story set in Harry Potter’s world about Hagrid or in the Middleman universe about Lacy. It’s a great way to learn. You already have a world and characters. But it really helps you learn how to plot like no one’s business. It’s no surprise that the pro writers who come out of fandom are plotting geniuses. Counter-intuitively they’re also very good at characterisation and world-building. You learn A LOT playing in someone else’s world.

Now most of these borrowed-plots stories and fixing of other people’s disaster will probably suck. But they’re an awesome way to learn.2

I once3 wrote a story by opening up two books at random in my room. I closed my eyes, spun around, and grabbed a book and opened it before opening my eyes. I was staring at an entry in an almanac about Lammas Day. The second book opened on the “Demon Lover” ballad. The resulting story was at long last, after many many rewrites, published this year.

I don’t need to generate ideas using tricks like that any more because after so many years of writing ideas come easily. That’s true of most things in writing (in life, really) the more you do them (plot, write dialogue, transitions, action scenes etc.), the easier they become, until they’re a habit you couldn’t break if you tried.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Wait a second does this mean that Warriors is a retread of “Little Red Riding Hood” and not whatever Roman myth the creator claims? []
  2. Some fanfic is just out and out genius. []
  3. more than fifteen years ago []


  1. Seth Christenfeld on #

    does this mean that Warriors is a retread of “Little Red Riding Hood” and not whatever Roman myth the creator claims?

    Nope. It means that “Little Red Riding Hood” is actually a ripoff of The Odyssey.

  2. S on #

    This was excellent advice. Thank you!

  3. rockinlibrarian on #

    Ah. Thank you– I am someone with the very same question in my own work. So with that question clarified, I guess for me the question moves on to actually be: “How do you convince yourself that all your plot ideas don’t suck?” I suspect that Travis and I and others like me who keep asking that question of how to come up with ideas are actually trying to get rid of some deeper blocks….

  4. Justine on #

    rockinlibrarian: How do you convince yourself that all your plot ideas don’t suck?

    Ah, well that is a whole other issue. Confidence. I guess it only comes when you start trusting yourself. Quite a few of the people who ask me about ideas never finish anything. I suspect the two are connected. As in once you start finishing things you start learning to trust your ideas.

    Good luck!

  5. Travis on #

    Thanks a bunch! Now to see if I can come up with something good…

  6. Dan Goodman on #

    Some other tricks: “Oh, yeah?” It would be horrible if people were brainwashed into loving the spouses assigned to them? Write a story in which this happens, and the couple live happily ever after. (Note: I believe H. G. Wells and John W. Campbell have already used this one.) Make the Orcs the good guys. (Already used by Mary Gentle.)

    Turn it around. The disturbing discovery is made that the President of the US is NOT an alien. (Lawrence Watt-Evans used this one.)

  7. Julia Rios on #

    This is great, practical advice. I’ve seen advice from all sorts of people on how to come up with ideas, but never before have I seen a suggestion so concrete and in easy reach of even the newest writer.

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