Are you sitting at your desk waiting for your muse to show up, staring at a blinking cursor on a blank screen? Seriously, there’s nothing more deflating than that wretched blinking cursor. As it continues to taunt you, you think, "Why is finding ideas so hard?"
You may think the best writers have tons of ideas flowing from their fingertips every time they sit down to write. That’s actually not true. They just know how to tap into what’s already in their brains.
Psychology Today reports:
Many people feel that they have no or very limited creative ability—even people who work in creative fields! However, innovation is not some divine gift; it’s actually the skilled application of knowledge in new and exciting ways. The truth is that creativity can be acquired and honed at any age or any experience level. When a person learns new information, sleeping or enjoying a distraction allows the unconscious mind to process the data in novel and surprising ways, thereby laying the groundwork for a creative insight or breakthrough.
What’s Key for Idea Generation?
First, you must have a process for capturing ideas when they hit. Because they indubitably hit when you’re in the shower, taking a walk after work, or just about ready to fall asleep. There’s something about the combination of being away from your desk, letting your thoughts drift off, and movement that sets your mind awhirl.
So, you can go one of two ways: analog or digital. Here’s something to consider. What do you always have within hand’s reach? Your smartphone. And there are plenty of apps to help you capture your ideas, or you could record a message or send yourself an email. On the other hand, some writers like the feel of a notebook or journal and pen in hand, and always keep old-fashioned analog paper nearby. Do whatever works best for you.
Don’t let your mind fool you into thinking it’ll remember this amazingly great idea later. It won’t. You must capture it.
Prime the Pump
Don’t expect an unprimed pump to gush new ideas. You need input to create output, and the quality of your input is important. What you read, watch, listen to, and observe will color and influence your ideas, so make sure you’re consuming quality information. For example, if you write crime dramas, watch the highest-rated shows and movies or read the most-revered authors. You’ll also want to observe how real police officers or detectives work and talk to use as the basis for your characters. Or you might buy a police scanner and listen to the chatter to get a feel for the work involved.
Take in plenty of input from an array of sources. The best minds know that lots of quality input helps you make the most amazing connections.
Where to Start?
Now the fun begins. You’ve primed your pump appropriately. How the heck do you generate ideas from the mess in your head?
First, are you a character writer or a plot creator? When you come up with a new idea, does it start as this character in your head that speaks to you? Or do you come up with a plot that grabs hold of your imagination and won’t let go?
Starting with a Character
If you usually gravitate towards characters first, the best way to get ideas flowing is to people watch. Look at that guy sitting by himself at the coffee shop. Maybe he’s waiting for a blind date to show up. Or maybe he’s hiding out where no one would think to look for him because someone—or something—is after him.
Play the "what if" game. What if this coffee shop guy is a secret agent? Or what if he was just evicted from his apartment and doesn’t know where to go? What if he’s just killing time before interviewing for his dream position?
When you start with a character in mind, brainstorm how you can put that person in uncomfortable or dangerous situations, (e.g. a plot idea). And remember, capture your thoughts.
Starting with a Plot
Real life is always a great place to find a plot idea, so read the news every day to find ideas. As I write this, this morning’s news reported another terrorist attack halfway around the world. What if that had happened in my small town; how would we handle it? Brainstorm how you can take a situation from daily life, twist the details a bit, and create a story idea.
Here’s another idea from this morning’s news: The political administration drastically reduces the size of fines for health violations in nursing homes. What if your mom or dad was in a nursing home that cut corners as a result, putting the patients in danger? Or maybe you like the idea of a nurse working in a nursing home who’s fighting management over cut-backs that will endanger its residents.
Think about the characters who might populate each of the plot ideas you come up with.
Now that you have a character and plot in mind, just let the ideas come. Don’t censor or edit your ideas; it’s more about letting your primed brain gush forth.
Again you have a couple ways to tackle this. If you like to pour your ideas out through your fingers, sit down at your desk and write in your notebook or use your computer. Or grab a friend or family member and brainstorm with them. Use them as a sounding board and to help you go deeper into plot and character.
You might find that a combination of the two work best. First, get your ideas down on paper or screen. Then, run some of them by people you trust and respect to help you refine them.
One of my favorite ways to generate ideas is to capture them on my laptop. Then, the next time I’m in the car with a friend or my family (i.e. a captive audience!), I run the ideas past them. I get valuable feedback because invariably someone will groan at an idea and say, "That’s been done too much already." Or, "What if you…?" Then the ideas feed off each other. Just be careful not to alienate family and friends by pestering them constantly with your story ideas. It’s all about balance.
If all else fails, there are plenty of online resources to help you generate ideas. Just Google, "story idea generator." I got 74.1 million hits. That should keep you busy for a while.