Where do writers get their ideas?
It’s a question many writers are asked. And it’s the question we ask ourselves behind the writer’s curtain when facing a blank page with a blank mind. Sometimes you show up for writing practice and come up empty. What am I going to write about? you ponder. I don’t have a single idea!
Not so, dear one. Ideas are everywhere. You don’t lack ideas. You lack a story. A form.
So to get the ball rolling, here are five tips to transform an idea into a story.
1. Begin with a list
List the things you love, hate, regret, see, hear. List the things that bring you gratitude and the things that bring you sensual pleasure.
I love old movies and vintage suits and the scent of jasmine on a summer night. I love the wonder of the world seen through a child’s eyes.
2. Ask questions, and let the imagination unfurl
What kind of person escapes by watching old movies? Who is smelling the jasmine, and is that person alone? What makes a child stop seeing the wonders of the universe?
See the movie in your mind’s eye.
3. Riff on the idea
Riffing is a jazz term for improvising off the melody. Writers call it freewriting. The technique is to start with an idea, and see where it takes you.
I’m grateful for butterscotch pancakes. Even though I’ve never tasted butterscotch pancakes, even though it’s doubtful that they even exist; still, I’m grateful for the idea of butterscotch pancakes. Something golden and drippy and sweet, pooling in maple syrup and warm butter; a warm candy breakfast. I’m grateful for a world where butterscotch pancakes can be dreamed of and created and devoured and shared. A world where the possibility of butterscotch pancakes exists. A world where any flavor of pancake can be served on any day of the week at any time of the day. To anyone.
A world where someone parks themselves on a tall stool at Denny’s and orders a short stack of butterscotch pancakes and the waitress looks up from her order pad with a quizzical brow and says, “You mean buttermilk” and discovers that butterscotch sounds so much better, so much sweeter, and on Sunday, her one day off in the week, she experiments to see if butterscotch and pancakes make a good marriage, and she discovers that indeed they do. And it’s the start of something grand.
4. Consider the possibilities, the what-ifs.
I hear a biplane motoring across the sky, smooth as thought, a ribbon of adventure up there in the sky.
Maybe there’s a barnstormer and his shy date in that plane, their first outing together, and he’s taking her to the coast for breakfast, for a stroll along the beach. The whole Hallmark thing, a day of it. His buddies back at the hangar had a good laugh when he told them, their eyes jolly but tinged with jealousy. They’re all romantics, those pilots. It takes a romantic heart to believe in flight.
What might happen? What could go wrong? Figure it out on the page.
5. Zoom in on the details.
I love the feel of silk against my skin.
A long-legged woman with silk stockings crosses her legs, one knee notched over the other, tucking a pointed high heel behind an ankle. There’s something in those long silky legs, sunlight shimmering down, making them glow in their paleness; there’s something there that makes a young man look twice. Quickly. Something that makes him smile.
Who is this man? Zoom in. Record the details. Ask questions. Play what-if.
6. Add a desire, and conflict
I regret the night I left the party early and missed gazing at the stars with him. Him with the brown eyes and high cheekbones and smooth skin that creased when he smiled. What would have happened if I had stayed? Or he had followed me?
Add a desire. Then add something in the way of that desire, something to be overcome, and a reason to overcome it.
To sum up:
Make lists until something catches your fancy and you can’t not write about it, then ride the wave. Ideas are everywhere. They come through the senses, memory, and imagination. The trick is to tease those ideas into stories or poems or essays or screenplays by exploring through freewriting, focusing on the details, asking questions, following the answers, adding desire, and building conflict.
One word at a time.
Takeaways this week:
It’s not a lack of ideas that stymies writers. It’s a lack of story. Sometimes you find the story by riffing on an idea. Freewrite if you’re a pantser. Take notes if you’re not, and expand the notes, add to them, build an outline. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Daydream on the page. The story will come.
Practice. Every day. Short pieces based on something you love, hate, hear, see, taste, smell, feel, remember, regret. File them in a folder called “Write aheads.” Scavenge from these files whenever you feel blocked.
Don’t be afraid of the naked page. Fill it with thoughts.