Coming Up With Ideas

Most writers - at least the successful ones - get asked this question at one time or another: "How do you come up with your ideas?"

One of the funniest answers to this question that I've heard was from a well-known science fiction author: Here's an address. Send them ten dollars, and a week later, you'll receive a brand new idea in your mailbox.

While this is a funny answer (not to mention one that could generate a lot of extra cash from more gullible fans), it leaves a difficult question unanswered. The fact is, no two people will come up with ideas the same way. They also won't always be able to explain how they do it. I'll give it a try here.

First, I'd like to discuss an old saying that many creators I know take to heart: There's nothing new under the sun. Essentially, they figure that there are no new ideas to cover. In their opinions, it is no longer possible to come up with something new, so there is no point in trying.

I don't agree with this philosophy, not fully. It is definitely harder to come up with new ideas, but not impossible. Often, the best way to come up with something fresh is to take an old idea and turn it around with a fresh approach. Usually, that new approach IS a new idea. Some originality comes of this.

For example, my game module, Crashpoint. It is a story set in Ianus Publications Alternate Reality Universe. This is essentially a cyberpunk world with vampires.

At first, I couldn't hit upon an interesting plot idea. There are very few things to write about vampires that haven't already been written. Then, a thought hit me. Ianus world, because it was primarily science fiction based, gave a scientific rationale for the existence of vampires in this future world. Essentially, vampirism is a genetic virus of sorts. Once I thought about the scientific rationale, it led me to think of the biological aspects of these creatures... and that led me to an original, complex plot that made for what I hope is an excellent adventure.

[What exactly did I do? Sorry, I won't give everything away. I DO want people to buy my publication, after all.]

Here are some of the things that I do to help me come up with ideas for my writings:

1) A journal. This is one of the most basic ideas that many writers suggest. I keep a notebook for jotting down ideas as they come to me. It's filled with thought fragments, notes on interesting people that I've met, sometimes even dream images.

A journal can act as a subconcious idea filter. Reading through the various notes you jot down may lead you to a full-fledged idea somewhere down the road.

2) Article clippings. This is something you can do in conjunction with a journal. If you see an article in a newspaper or magazine that interests you, clip it out and add it to your journal. You never know when one of these articles may give you some inspiration.

I've used a pretty unusual variant of this to good effect: every once in awhile, I pick up a supermarket tabloid. The Weekly World News, in fact. Strange as it may sound, you would be amazed how some of the more ludicrous pieces can inspire you!

I used this often to help jump start my creativity in Animation school. Not all of the things that inspired me resulted in films, but they helped. For instance, I once clipped out a photo and blurb: "Human Horse Pulls Farm Plough!" Basically, it was a piece about a farmer who pulled his own plough through the fields in place of a horse, because he couldn't afford a horse.

When I read this, I had an image of horses in the Wild West riding on the backs of human steeds. It started the seed of a bizarre Western in my mind. Although I have yet to write a script from this image, the adventures of Doc Colt and the Palamino Kid may yet come to print, if not to actual film.

3) Word association. This is an exercise to expand your creativity. You cut out words from magazines and newspapers, each separate. Put them all in a paper bag, shake it up, then draw out 3 or 4 of them.

Look at the words you pulled out, and try to come up with an idea based on them. It could be a sentence, a poem, maybe even a complete story if you're inspired.

This exercise is another way to train your mind, get it ready to make creative leaps based on what you see or hear.

These are just three ways that I use to come up with ideas for my writing. They may not be helpful to everyone that tries them. They definitely aren't the only ways to do things. Give them a try, though. Maybe they'll work for you too.

1996 by Jeff Boman

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Last updated July 19, 1998

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