Inspiration Engagement Pieces 2020-10-10 00:00

How Do Writers Come Up with Original Ideas?

screwed up balls of pager on a notepad with a pen

“Ideas are the currency of life.”

That’s what James Altucher says, and I tend to agree. If you’ve got ideas, you’re able to build businesses, create products and services, and most importantly, write and publish stories.

At its core, every genius story that becomes a runaway success or an influential piece of art comes from the little seedling of an idea.

Here’s a random sampling of ideas that turned into classic movies that, honestly, I love to this day:

  • A man falls in love with a woman who possesses a 24-hour memory (50 First Dates)
  • An orphan boy is raised at the north pole, thinks he’s an elf, and now has to go to the real world to find his father (Elf)
  • A depressed man has the bad memories of his broken relationship erased from his brain (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
  • A young boy breaks arm, can throw 100 mph fastballs, and is recruited to pitch for the Chicago Cubs (Rookie of the Year)
  • A divorced father accidentally kills Santa, is now required to become Santa against his will (The Santa Clause)
  • A boy is accidentally left alone by his parents and must protect his house from criminals while learning to live by himself (Home Alone)
  • A do-gooder constantly gets crapped on until he wants to kill himself, then is shown how his life has added value to everyone else (It’s a Wonderful Life)

A lot of these are Christmas movies. What can I say? I love Christmas movies.

Besides, those are the movies that seem to have the really fantastic concepts. A guy accidentally kills Santa and has to become Santa? Who thinks of this?

Some of these are mild-mannered ideas that you could probably come up with on your own. Other ideas are just crazy-original stories, like the boy pitching for the Cubs or a man getting memory erased.

Any good story, book, movie, TV show, or otherwise needs to start with an original premise to build from.

But how do you get there? How can your brain tap into the originality that some of these creative geniuses used to create masterpieces of storytelling?

If you struggle to come up with ideas, there are ways you can generate your own. In fact, you can come up with new ideas on demand, whenever you want.

But before we get into how, we have to address one giant elephant in the room: idea quality.

  1. What if your ideas are bad?
  2. Freewriting: unlocking ideas already in your brain
  3. Find ideas in everything around you
  4. Write 10 ideas per day
  5. You only need one good idea

What if your ideas are bad?

I’ve got news for you: you’ll have lots of bad ideas.

That’s a good thing.

Here are three more brilliant movies… and how they started from bad ideas:

  • Ghostbusters: Dan Aykroyd created Ghostbusters to be far more than what it turned out to be. It was originally set in the future, where ghosts from time and space would attack the world, and large teams of Ghostbusters would fight them off. It climaxed with FIFTY huge ghosts attacking at once. Instead of the movie that we got – one full of charm and comedy based on the strength of its cast and writing, Ghostbusters could have been just a big budget monsters movie. It probably would have failed.
  • Back to the Future: A classic, masterful piece of storytelling, this movie was originally called Spaceman from Pluto. Yikes. Oh, and the time machine would have been in a car wash, and Marty would have only discovered its powers because he was going into the car wash to kill himself. Yep. There’s no chance we would have this beloved version of the movie had they gone with the original idea.
  • Monsters, Inc.: A favorite movie of my kids, Monsters, Inc. was pitched to be about a 30-year-old man suffering with depression. He would come across a notebook of monsters he drew as a child, which would come to life and turn out to be his unresolved fears. Then, the monsters would disappear as he resolved those fears.

I’ll be honest, that last one doesn’t sound half bad. But Monsters, Inc. as it is, is way better to me.

But all of these examples are here to show you that good ideas aren’t necessarily always going to appear from thin air.

Sometimes you have to start with the bad ideas first. The “good” comes in the editing process.

So when you start brainstorming ideas using the exercises below, forget about analyzing each idea as “good” or “bad.” Just put them down.

Even bad ideas can become wonderful ideas. But you have to get them down first.

Let’s start with my favorite method of creating ideas.

Freewriting: unlocking ideas already in your brain

I think the book Accidental Genius should be required reading for any creative. I re-read this book at least once a year.

Of course, you know what freewriting is: setting a goal (word count or a timer) and writing in stream-of-consciousness style until you’re done. No editing, no going back.

Here’s a great example of how to use freewriting to come up with story ideas: open up a Google Doc and set a goal to come up with 100 different story ideas. Now, go.

Wait, what?

If you’re struggling to come up with story ideas, how would writing 100 ideas work?

Because you’re not trying to come up with any story idea. You’re editing in your head. You’re trying to come up with the best story idea. And that’s why you’re stuck.

Instead, just come up with the first ideas that come to mind, and don’t stop until you hit 100. Here, I’ll just start 5 new story ideas right now, based on the first thing that comes to mind:

  1. A boy has a magical hat that transports him back in time
  2. A man creates a drink that cures all disease
  3. A coffee shop is targeted by international assassins
  4. A king goes undercover as a high school gym teacher
  5. The world’s plumbing is destroyed and only a tribe of master plumbers can save the day

Those are terrible.

But within those ideas could be the germ of something good.

That’s the kind of “non-censorship” we’re looking for here.

Maybe you don’t want to do 100. That’s fine. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Or 30 minutes. Write anything and everything that comes to mind.

You don’t know what could be the next great idea. Remember: somebody came up with the idea that a guy would accidentally kill Santa Claus and become Santa Claus and it turned into a three-movie franchise. You just don’t know.

I’ll be right back after I go copyright the idea for a king who goes undercover as a high school gym teacher. That one is gold.

Find ideas in everything around you

I’m going to pick 5 items directly in my view, right now, to show you how to come up with ideas from your immediate environment.

Banjo Player with Dog Head

Just to be clear, I’m sitting in my home office.

  • Coffee cup: A laced coffee bean instils paranoia – a man discovers it and untangles a web of government corruption and population control
  • Headphones: A man receives strange messages in his headphones when not playing music. He accidentally discovers that they are transmissions from space but nobody will believe him
  • Painting of a banjo player with the head of a dog (see above for the actual painting that hangs in my office, there’s a story behind it that I won’t get into right now): The world’s top musician is a banjo player with a dog for a head. He struggles with whether he’s popular for novelty of his appearance or if the world appreciates his actual talents
  • Photos I took of my kids at a baseball game: Man takes family to baseball game and they begin disappearing, one by one, with zero evidence they were ever there or even existed to begin with
  • The sunny day outside my window: A society where the sun never goes down and how it changes people’s behavior and habits

Not all of them are good. That baseball game one actually sounds promising to me, though.

Let your brain wander and play with your immediate surroundings and you never know what it might come up with.

Write 10 ideas per day

This is from James Altucher, who I quoted at the start of this piece. He calls it being an “Idea Machine”.

In Altucher’s estimation, the ability to come up with ideas is a muscle, and it needs to be worked out regularly to be in shape.

If you write 10 ideas per day, you will work out that muscle and keep your brain in the habit of thinking creatively.

Of course, Altucher says if you can’t come up with ten ideas, you should come up with twenty. Here’s his way of explaining it:


For the obvious reason. You are putting too much pressure on yourself. Perfectionism is the ENEMY of the idea muscle. Perfectionism is your brain trying to protect you from harm. From coming up with an idea that is embarrassing and stupid and could cause you to suffer pain.

We like the brain. But you have to shut the brain off to come up with ideas.

The way you shut the brain off is by forcing it to come up with bad ideas.

You only need one good idea

Your life and your career can change overnight with a good idea.

When Stephen King came up with the idea for Carrie from cleaning a high school girls’ bathroom, he launched one of the most prolific and successful horror careers in history.

But you have to be coming up with ideas regularly for that to happen.

It’s how the pros work – and if you want to be a pro, you have to do it, too.

Now open up a Google Doc and start creating some bad ideas. The next one might be the one that launches your career.

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The Novel-Writing Training Plan

The Novel-Writing Training Plan

So you are ready to write your novel. Excellent. But are you prepared? The last thing you want when you sit down to write your first draft is to lose momentum.

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Be confident about grammar

Check every email, essay, or story for grammar mistakes. Fix them before you press send.