Where do you get your ideas?
This is a question authors get asked a lot, especially authors in the sci-fi or fantasy genre where creating worlds and realities that are unlike our own is inherent in the storytelling process. Everyone wants to be the next Tolkien, Lucas, or Roddenberry and create something powerful that is unlike whatever has come before. Unfortunately there is no easy answer to the question of where ideas come from. If there was, I’m sure someone would have shared it by now.
However, my take on it is that ideas aren’t something you find in isolation. They don’t spring out of the void, and you don’t just happen upon them or buy them in the idea store. The way I see it, being creative involves drawing connections between things no one has seen before or building on things in ways that others might not find immediately obvious.
In order to draw these connections, you have to be something of a collector…or a thief. As Austin Kleon drives home both in his book Steal Like An Artist and his TED talk, all art is derived from what came before. The trick is taking all of your influences and turning them into something new.
So, if you want to generate more ideas or be more creative, I suggest that you broaden your collection of inspirations. Here are some ways you might do so:
1.) Read More
This is, of course, advice every aspiring writer has already heard, but one of the easiest ways to learn about what does and doesn’t work in fiction is to read a wide variety of stories. But reading across different genres or from different authors who present different ideas can spark all kinds of thoughts. You might find themes you want to include in your own stories or characters that will inspire your own.
2.) Study What You Consume
Other books are the best things to learn from, but any storytelling medium, whether it’s film, TV, or something else, can teach you things. Naturally, you don’t want to be binge watching TV if it cuts into your writing time, but studying some of the shows or movies you like might generate some ideas for you. What do you like about a given movie, and is there a way for you to incorporate that into your own story? Study the things you consume, even if you don’t plan to practice that sort of art, and see what you can apply to your own work.
3.) Try New Things
Everyone has heard the old adage “write what you know”, and trying out new things is a great way to know more. Not only will you be able to write on different topics or activities with more authority, but once you know more about a topic, you might find similarities between it and other things you enjoy that you hadn’t thought of before.
4.) Or Learn About New Things
If you’re unable to try something new, for whatever reason (and there are lots of good ones), try studying it as much as possible. Just like doing something new, learning about something can allow you to write about it with a more authentic voice. But more importantly, at least for this article, the more things you are aware of in the world, the more things you’ll be able to integrate into your own work.
5.) Moments of Reflection
Letting your mind be able to wander is a great boon for creativity, I find. If you’re always plugged in to social media or focusing on something tangibly productive, you’ll never have time to think. A lot of people (including myself) will often have their best ideas before falling asleep, and that’s because that’s the one time of day where you can guarantee your mind will be at rest. But if you give yourself some time away from distractions, perhaps by simply taking a walk, you can let your mind wander through ideas and build connections that might be difficult to find otherwise.
As a reminder, this isn’t about plagiarism. You can’t directly copy other people’s work. And if you want to be original, you shouldn’t imitate it either. Instead, see what you can learn from it. Originality, as far as I can tell, isn’t about coming up with things that are entirely new. It is about finding connections between things that haven’t been explored yet. Literature is about building on the stories that came before, and I think the stories that people see as original are the ones that try to do something new with the same foundation rather than just copy what was has been successful already.
It’s impossible to create a piece of art that doesn’t draw on someone else’s work, that isn’t inspired by things that came before. But if you can create a story that the audience has to engage with in a new way, that forces them to look at things differently, or brings together ideas that hadn’t been put together before, then I think you’ll find you have created something original.