Getting Ideas

Be it you’re trying to come up with an original concept for a new story, or you’re looking to devise a deliciously evil way for your villain to destroy a town of innocents, or you read your latest draft and feel like it’s just missing that je ne sais quoi, every writer faces those moments where you wish you could force inspiration with a snap of the fingers but the ideas simply aren’t coming. Or maybe you’re not having any trouble finding ideas, it’s just that none of them are any good, which is just as useless as having no ideas. If you once could seize that moment of golden inspiration you’d be happy to do the hard work of recording it, iterating on it, and slowly crafting it into a legible form. Because doing all of that is just busywork and you know you can do that through grit and time. But having an idea? Well that’s not really a labor you can control. Somehow an idea just pops in your head, seemingly effortlessly.

Well, if you’ve come looking for answers to these conundrums…I’m afraid you might be disappointed. I have no secret formula to guarantee the genesis of an original idea within any specific timeframe. I have no alchemy to conjure an idea of guaranteed quality either. Instead all I have to offer is ways to cultivate the environment where ideas, including quality ones, can and will happen… when they decide they’re good and ready to.


My first recommendation is to stop worrying so much. You can actively hamper your mind’s natural creative processes by being harsh with it. Negative reinforcement such as demanding, shouting, or threatening is known to provide less effective results with people, so why would it be any different with their minds? It wouldn’t be fair to walk up to another person and insist they give us an entirely original and amazing narrative on the spot, would it? So don’t do that to yourself! We fall into this mistake because we want to feel we are in control of our own creativity, which we want because we are afraid that we won’t be successful without some sort of intervention. So learn to let go of that fear. As I mentioned before, your mind has a natural creativity to it. It’s not something that you have to force, nor indeed can it be. The mind is designed to originate thought and imagination automatically, and will gladly do so, when it is relaxed and at peace. Trust in your miracle mind and just let it do its thing, it will not let you down.

Let it Stew)

One of the ways that miracle mind of yours is able to come up with its ideas has to do with how it brings different parts of the brain to work on the same problem. You are only consciously aware of the workings of one of those parts: the conscious mind (funny, that). You have an unconscious mind as well, though, and that part works on things without you even knowing about it. I am a software developer by profession, and constantly come across logical problems that I cannot solve after hours of intense, conscious focus, but then when I step away and decompress I find the solution pop up, seemingly without any effort. You’ve been thinking hard, your focus is strained, so step away and let the back of your mind take a turn germinating those ideas. The best part is you don’t have to feel guilty about taking a break because you really aren’t! Only your frontal lobes are, while the other sections are still dutifully firing away on all cylinders without you feeling the burn.


“But I don’t actually feel burned out yet”, you might say. “I still feel like working and being productive.” Fair enough, here’s a way that you can get both your subconscious and conscious minds working in tandem, then. Pull out a pen and paper and just start freewriting. Try taking a group of characters and a situation from the story you’re working on and go from there. The one rule is, ignore the rest of the plot you have outlined, throw out any preconceptions about where things need to end up. Go ahead and kill your main hero off at the very start. Have your villain decide he doesn’t want to be bad anymore. Write something–anything–happening, and then write down the reactions and responses as they occur to you. You aren’t dictating events to your characters anymore, you’re experiencing those events with them. You’re getting a fresh perspective. And all the while that you’re doing this very active, direct, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thinking, your subconscious mind has taken over on that nagging problem you had from before. Don’t be surprised if you both stumble into some great new material and also have the solution to the previous problem pop into your mind. Just be prepared for a new problem: now having too many ideas to know what to do with!

Identify the Question)

Sometimes our mind throws up barriers to our progress because the subconscious has realized some problem that our conscious mind hasn’t caught up to yet. There’s a plot hole, a logical inconsistency, an unintended shift in tone, something you’ve planned in your story that just isn’t right. The subconscious puts up a barrier, but doesn’t know how to be more specific about what the trouble is. We feel the brakes coming down and assume that the something wrong is in the very next thing we were about to write and our tunnel vision might be looking at the completely wrong area as a result. So sometimes its helpful to backup, take in your work as a whole, and ask yourself: is this all what I really want it to be? I’ve often noticed my motivation for writing a story take a nosedive for no apparent reason, and only on closer examination realized that my subconscious was simply trying to call attention to a fundamental design choice it needed settled. Once remedied, the flow of thought returned naturally and I could continue as before.

Experience Something New)

Perhaps all of this advice has felt separate from your problem. Perhaps you aren’t trying to solve a specific plot point, perhaps your concern is more general: no story idea that you come up with seems good anymore. This might happen if you’ve already written a few stories and are realizing that each feels exactly the same. You want to do something different, but can’t think of anything that isn’t just another clone of your previous work. You might start to wonder if you even are capable of coming up with something original, or if this hamster-wheel is just the way your mind works. Well, kind of, yeah, it is. Your mind thinks in its own particular way, a way that is the product of your personality and experiences. When your experiences remain consistent, the mind is likely to produce the same results to the same requests. After all, your mind wants to automate every process that it can, like a robotic assembly line. And it’s hard to tell an automobile assembly line to start making pianos.

The solution to this is pretty simple, actually, you just need to experience something different. Meet new people, learn a new skill, learn a new instrument, read things that come from a foreign culture, travel to that foreign culture, if you’re into theater start following sports, if you’re into sports start going to the theater. Perhaps not every change is feasible, but you ought to be able to find some ways to push yourself away from what you’re comfortable with, and that will kickstart your mind into abandoning its preprogammed habits and starting to learn again. That, ultimately, is what we are trying to achieve here. It’s all too easy to get out of the habit of real, deep learning, but I find that that is the single greatest environment for sparking wonderful ideas. Not to mention, you’ll also be a more enriched human being, too, and thus have better things to say.

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