Where Do Ideas Come From? I'll Tell You.

Discussion in 'Articles' started by J. Paul Roe, Feb 13, 2016.

By J. Paul Roe on Feb 13, 2016 at 8:38 PM
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    Where Do Ideas Come From? I'll Tell You.

    Discussion in 'Articles' started by J. Paul Roe, Feb 13, 2016.

    I've been participating in writers' groups for a very long time. More often than not these days, I'm the one answering the questions, and I'll be very forthcoming about why people like listening to my answers. It's not because my answers are the best, it's because my answers are unique.

    Because I've been around so many writers' groups, workshops, classes, labs, and forums over the last ten years, I've been able to collect a lot of data. And what does that data show? It shows that people have been giving the same lame answers to writing-related questions for at least ten years. My goal is to buck that trend, because I know that hearing “you should read more” for the ten-thousandth time is not going to help you write.

    The writing community is still asking the same basic questions, and that tells me that the answers they're getting are garbage. Plain and simple. As writers helping writers, we owe it to our contemporaries to not waste their time by regurgitating the same cookie-cutter advice that has been floating around for decades. The writing community needs new answers, smarter solutions to the problems that plague us all.

    Toward that end, I'm going to answer the most commonly-asked question I've ever come across:

    Where do you get ideas?”

    This is not a simple question, yet so many people give it a simple answer. “Read more fiction” is a simple answer, but it's also a crappy one. Yet, so many writers say it, repeat it, and swear by it. Why? Because we all enjoy reading and, heck, it sounds like a decent way to get ideas, right? Not so much. It's more likely to set you up to steal ideas, and you won't even be doing it intentionally.

    You know darn well that many new writers produce work that reads exactly like someone else's story. That's because knuckleheads keep telling them to read more, and then these new writers take the advice and read their 900th R.A. Salvatore book. Then they're surprised when their own work continues to read like a bad R.A. Salvatore fan fiction. What do you expect?

    Now, I've seen even worse answers to the “where do you get ideas?” question. Some folks will talk about sitting on their porch, taking walks, or playing with their kids, offering these up as advice to “get ideas.” These are also crappy answers. They are ephemeral, personal exercises that aren't universally actionable. At best, they're distractions. They can play a part in the innovation process by freeing up your subconscious mind, but that's still not an answer to the underlying question.

    Why am I so obsessed with getting down to the hard answer? What's wrong with telling another writer to sit on their porch when they need a creative boost?

    Look, when someone is asking how to come up with ideas, it's like they're asking for help finding food. They're starving for a creative spark. If a hungry person were asking how they can eat and not die in front of you, you wouldn't tell them to go for a walk. “Go play with your kids and maybe you'll think of a way to get food!” No.

    You also wouldn't tell them to watch you eat until their stomach is no longer cramping from hunger. Watching someone else succeed at eating won't sate their hunger! We all know this, yet so many writers are quick to apply that stupid logic to writing. “Go see how another writer created a novel and you'll get creative ideas!” Nope. It doesn't work that way.

    Let's go all “parable” on this; If someone needed to feed themselves, the best course of action is to teach them to fish. In doing so, you're showing them where the food comes from (the river) and how to get it (hand grenades. Or a fishing pole. Whatever.)

    Likewise, the best answer to “where do you get your ideas” is to explain where ideas come from and how to catch them.

    The problem, right off the bat, is that most people have no clue where ideas come from. That's why I'm here. I'm going to tell you.

    Ideas are produced by a largely-subconscious synthesizing process. The human mind is incredibly good at taking multiple concepts and combining them into new ones. It takes A, adds it to B, and creates C. Every new thought in your head is a product of that math, although you don't see it happening.

    It's like this: At some point in history, someone looked at a potato, then looked at a hammer, and mashed potatoes were born. The idea of mashed potatoes didn't just fly into someone's head while they were playing with their kids. The idea was a synthesis of two existing concepts within the creator's mind; In this case, it may have been “I can smash things with a hammer” and “potatoes taste good.”

    The point of that barely-adequate illustration? If said person had no idea what a potato was, they couldn't have come up with mashed potatoes. A+B=C. They would have lacked the required conceptual raw materials to assemble the idea.

    The more concepts you have in your mind, the more creative you can be. Think of knowledge as a pile of Lego bricks. The more of them you have, the more things you can build. Therefore, the first step to becoming a never-ending wellspring of creativity is to stockpile your mind with conceptual raw material. Yes, this means learning about the world and experiencing its many facets for yourself.

    Now, go back to the Lego analogy. You may have a pile of blocks as high as your waist . . . but what if they're all blue 4x4 blocks? You can only build so many things when you have a pile of the same block, because your creative options are so severely limited. You get the same outcome when you learn about, read, or experience the same things over and over again. You'll have tons of “stuff” in your head, but it's all variations on a theme. Thus, the second step to unlocking your creative mind is to diversify your conceptual raw material. Reading nothing but science fiction novels will fill your brain with all the same blocks. Where's the fun in that?

    I never run out of ideas. When other writers are stuck with their own stories, I can usually come up with a solution in seconds. Why? Because I have a huge, diverse stockpile of raw concepts. I enjoy writing fantasy, but I haven't read a fantasy novel in two years. I read naval history books, magazines about celebrities, National Geographic, biographies, and non-fiction books about photography. And guess what? I've gotten more original ideas for fantasy fiction from reading photography textbooks than I ever did from reading fantasy. The reason is obvious: if you're getting ideas for your fantasy story by reading fantasy novels, you're going to have a hell of a time being original.

    When it comes to raw innovation in storytelling, you can forget “The Hero's Journey.” Forget outlining and all of the technical methods. It's the assortment of knowledge, the raw materials, in your brain that matter. Star Wars exists because George Lucas watched Flash Gordon and old samurai movies. His creative mind combined elements from what he knew to assemble what he created. He didn't just pull the ideas from the air . . . nor did Lucas ever claim to. He'll openly tell you where his ideas came from, and if he'd never learned about a variety of genres, Star Wars would not exist. That's that.

    Ideas do not come from some other dimension. They are not magical or bestowed by the muses. They are the product of intelligence. They are the product of diverse knowledge. There's a good reason why most successful writers are bright-minded folks. If great ideas magically appeared from space, everyone would have them. There would be no bias leaning towards intelligence, but there is. If you want better ideas, focus on learning more about the world.

    Don't take offense to that previous remark. If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that average people don't aspire to write. (These days, statistically-average people don't even read.) If you desire to be a storyteller, you're already ahead of the curve on the whole “smart” thing. The next challenge is to feed your brain with a diverse spread of knowledge. Reading fiction is easy, but reading to learn can be a challenge. And that's where most aspiring writers cut their own throats. They read novel after novel, usually in their preferred genre, thinking that it will have some impact on their own ideas. Reading non-fiction, especially if it has nothing to do with what you're planning to write, will give you a far greater creative advantage. I promise.

    As a writer, it's your job to constantly learn. Broaden your horizons, and do not have a “wheelhouse.” You don't want to specialize, because specialization will kill your creative mind. Learn about psychology, history, dancing, agriculture, textiles, stock markets, auto repair, avionics, biology, and everything else. It's what you don't already know that will be assembled into your next great idea.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 14, 2016

Comments

Discussion in 'Articles' started by J. Paul Roe, Feb 13, 2016.

    1. BayView
      BayView
      So - a really long, pointlessly bombastic way of saying "read more", which is the advice you were claiming to refute in the first place.

      Interesting.
    2. J. Paul Roe
      J. Paul Roe
      Not really. It would only be bombastic if it had no meaning, but you'll see there's a depth to it . . . as long as you're doing more than skimming the high points.

      Which is essentially my point. So much advice given to writers is regurgitated nonsense with no evidence to back it up. I back my advice up with facts. I attempt to distill something vague and formless into an actionable piece of guidance. For instance, when someone tells an aspiring writer to "read more" without qualifying the statement, the listener has a tendency to take it as "read more of what you like and what you've been reading for ten years." That's what doesn't work.

      The idea of building up a stockpile of conceptual raw materials doesn't only apply to reading. My ultimate advice is not "read more," it's "learn more." More accurately, it would be "absorb and understand more." You can do these things by watching TV or movies, attending classes, or by actually going out into the world. You cannot do these things by reading a entire bookshelf of novels that fit into the genre you want to write. That's my point.

      I'll admit that I've been accused of being bombastic before, but not nearly as often as I'm thanked for giving useful, actionable, and unique advice. I've noticed a pattern; Those who tend to peg me a pontificating narcissist are those who are turned off by my personality, not my advice. Don't let your distaste for my confidence rob you of the message.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
    3. BayView
      BayView
      Wouldn't it be an interesting experiment to try posting without the bombast?

      If your goal is to help people, you need to reach people, right? And it would probably be easiest to reach people if you weren't quite so aggressive with your message?

      I won't let my distaste for your arrogance rob me of your message, but... your message isn't much use to me. I have no shortage of ideas. I honestly can't understand any writer who is struggling to find ideas. And I already read lots.
      123456789 likes this.
    4. J. Paul Roe
      J. Paul Roe
      It's funny you should mention that last part. I often wonder the same thing, because that honestly is the question that I encounter the most, and it's usually the first question asked. It's a high-priority issue for some people, this lack of ideas. But my immediate reaction is "how can you want to write if you have nothing to write about?" It seems paradoxical.

      There's a good possibility that many aspiring writers are prioritizing badly or following a false idea. They're attracted to the idea of being a writer, not writing. Two very different things.

      I appreciate your feedback regarding the tone of my writing. The truth is that I've been writing professionally for over four years now, and the nature of my work means that I hardly ever get to write in my own voice. When I can express myself more naturally (meaning I'm not getting paid), I do. In reality, I am a little bombastic. I'm a showman (I was into acting for a while) and I'm aggressive (was a Marine, too.) Some people seem to jive with it, some people don't . . . and I totally understand why some people don't. Especially since my sense of humor sometimes translates poorly into writing.

      Again -- and I'm not being wry or sarcastic -- I do thank you for reading and responding. Differing opinions on style and method aside, we're all in this together!
      Rani99 and kalulu like this.
    5. Mocheo Timo
      Mocheo Timo
      @J. Paul Roe, your article completes my inchoate perspective on creativity. Once meditating on how creativity is reached, I've reached the conclusion that it is much more related to one's experience than most people imagine. However, seeking all kinds of experiences is not exactly what I believe writers should aim to do (one does not become a drug-dealer to write a novel about smuggling drugs). Broadening one's "horizon", as you put it, is a good way to go.

      Something else which I would like to add, which you might have touched on, is the importance of learning with others. Regardless of how much you are able to broaden your mind, you may eventually reach a limit doing so on your own. Seeing the world through someone else's view can broaden your perspective and give you unlimited ideas. I don't mean only putting yourself in different shoes. I mean deeply observing people around you and trying to accept them. Then, if you have done your homework, you will be able to create unique writing by adapting or distorting their ideas to your own.
      ruhroe, kalulu and J. Paul Roe like this.
    6. plothog
      plothog
      Personally I thought the 'read lots' advice was more to give writers a good feel for writing technique, than for ideas.
      By reading other people's fiction we get an idea of what engaging writing looks like. We can get an idea of pacing. An idea of how to balance description/action/ dialogue/thoughts etc. A feel for how vague writing advice such as 'don't overuse adverbs' and 'show don't tell' works out in practice.
      I could go on.

      Admittedly I fall into the 'never struggled for ideas' camp, so maybe I don't pay such attention to conversations on how to get ideas,
      but reading fiction in my chosen genre seems to me an essential part of learning what publishable fiction in my chosen genre looks like craft-wise.
      Last edited: Feb 17, 2016
      Megalith likes this.
    7. J. Paul Roe
      J. Paul Roe
      As a follow-up, there are plenty of writers (and others) who have no shortage of ideas. I just can't help but address the topic because a huge, huge number of people who attend writers' groups and workshops ask the question.

      In part, it makes me question their motives a little bit. If you have nothing to write about, then why do you want to write?
    8. Rob40
      Rob40
      I see current answers for the idea-less as unclear answers. "Read more" is B.S. and I say that because it's unclear. "Read more variety of quality things" explains much more to me and the readers out there but in itself, isn't enough. "Read more varieties of quality, contemporary, things." Will just about solve the problem.

      Why do I say variety and contemporary? That's the idea factory combined with the improvement of the writing ability. How so? I read a nice news article on scientists who can now print data on to, and retrieve data from, DNA. Tell me that's not a fantastic idea for a story. Here's variety: Throw that into a political story I read about the China government stealing the F-35 information in 2009 (real event) and you got something amazing right there. What happened, and how. Go read science news or articles of current events on top of well written or well constructed stories. (Here, both well written and well constructed in one piece would be ideal but we know they aren't necessarily always together.) It gives you the idea bits from variety, as well as the quality writing to learn from, to improve your own.

      Why contemporary? Well, It's a nice thing to read great works of literature but honestly, I have no desire to learn the construction of nineteenth century styles and viewpoints. They won't help my present day atttempts. Perhaps I can glean story construction from them but in the actual writing, I feel I'm not gaining anything. So, relatively recent quality material with a wide variety of content is the goal and should, In my opinion, be the answer given to anyone needing help.

      That's how I view it.
    9. MeatSpoon
      MeatSpoon
      The thing that stood out to me from the original post was that it has to be deeper than just reading more. You have to gain an understanding of the fundamental elements that are present in all human beings. You have to know what buttons to press within your reader's minds so that they will develop an emotional connection with your story and your characters. Yes, reading more is a part of gaining any type of knowledge or wisdom, but you kind of missed the point.
    10. J. Paul Roe
      J. Paul Roe
      I'm right there with you; that's exactly what I'm talking about. I get a lot of great ideas for fantasy stories from publications like Nat Geo and Scientific American. You see something interesting and then figure out a way to fit it into a story . . . and anachronism is a boon, not a hurdle. If a writer is looking for sword n' sorcery ideas in a book of medieval history, chances are they're tapping a dry well.
    11. PBNJDraftNumbA
      PBNJDraftNumbA
      Thanks for sharing lessons learned.
      I am sorely in need of the perspective given.
      My reading online chunks of information is pretty faithful.
      However, I am ill-intentional in actually reading entire books that are unknown...
      to me. Therefore, I take your take :) as a great challenge to improve and never settle.

      Keep the ideas coming!

      ~#A
      J. Paul Roe likes this.
    12. HelloImRex
      HelloImRex
      I agree with you that people being told to take a walk or go play with their kids is bad advice for scavenging ideas. Like you said, its the same as how you don't tell people who are starving to take a walk or play with their kids...that are also presumably starving. Now, the solution is where I lose you. In countries that have solved the problem of mass starvation what is put in place is safeguards by the government to help out those in need. Take america, the best country in the world, you've got food stamps. Now, for those who are starved for ideas there needs to be a similar program. Behold: idea stamps! Just go to wherever your local food stamps are distributed and stand in aspiring writer's line. You'll get ten stamps all with great ideas such as "Take a walk, but get abducted by aliens in the middle of it and write a biography about it", or "pretend to play with your kids but just ask for their ideas and write about those", or even, if you're really creative "complain about how it's hard to feed my kids spaghetti" and put it into a rhythmic beat and make millions. Until the government imposes this much needed policy if anyone wants some idea stamps let me know.

      Okay, fine, you could argue I'm just trolling with what's above and the need for approval makes me question the ability of this to ever be read. The point I'm trying to make is that if you need multiple, oddly extended analogies to try and explain one central idea, it might not be such a good idea at the core. You introduced a bunch of weird variables like starving parents and legos to distract from the message which is that if you read you just steal ideas, but you should still read to get ideas. That's just the impression I got and I feel like people without a clear idea often cover it up by writing a bunch of fluff that confuses the logic.
      Last edited: Mar 1, 2016
      Lyrical and Ayn G like this.
    13. TopherT
      TopherT
      OK. When you're writing things like "The writing community is still asking the same basic questions, and that tells me that the answers they're getting are garbage.", "This is not a simple question, yet so many people give it a simple answer. “Read more fiction” is a simple answer, but it's also a crappy one.", and calling people who give this advice "knuckle-heads" (as good natured as it may be) you're playing a dangerous game, and the chances are good that you'll come off looking like a fool.

      The previous book on writing that I read was "Stephen King: On Writing". It was, without doubt, the most entertaining and most helpful and insightful book on writing I have ever read, and trust me, I've read my fair share. Stephen King's book is better than the others, combined and doubled. The main advice that Mr King gave was that you have to be disciplined, plus you have to read lots and write lots. So, according to you, one of the most prolific authors of our, or any, time, is a knuckle-head who's giving crappy/garbage advice? Oooook....

      Let me make this clear, reading a lot IS the best advice you have give to (aspiring) writers. It's not about gaining ideas or developing plots, you read to find out about how other writers structure paragraphs and chapters, how they approach dialogue and character and plot development. It's also equally important that you write a lot and you be disciplined. Exercise is also vital to keep the mind active.

      There's no magic-laced arrow when it comes to advice. People are bound only by their own potential. Take sport, Steph Curry could take another player under his wing, he could give him pearls of wisdom, advice on how he is an incredible player, they could share nutritional timetables and training schedules. Will this other player play as well as Curry? I doubt it. Why? Because human beings are not programmable robots.

      The four pieces of advice that I would give to writers are WRITE, READ, BE DISCIPLINED, and EXERCISE. If you keep to those four then you will be bound only by your own mind, potential and luck. You write because you learn by doing, you read because you learn through the work of others, you have to be disciplined because the path to improvement is repetition and you exercise to keep the mind active and agile.
    14. Justin Rocket 2
      Justin Rocket 2
      At the core, this article's answer isn't "read more" or even "learn more." It is "synthesize more." I did this professionally as a software and security architect all the time. I disagree about "learning more." "Learning more" should be replaced with "experience more." Then, synthesize it.
      Lifeline likes this.
    15. AuntyKipper
      AuntyKipper
      I've heard, or possibly - dare I say read - somewhere that one of the things that 'writers' are good at is observing. I think there's some truth in the sentiment that writers see the world differently. Or perhaps if not differently that they notice more. Take for example the man I sat opposite on the train the other day. Beside his eye there was a big scab, cuts and grazes under his chin. relatively fresh. He seemed content with his headphones on watching something on the laptop while I sat and wondered where his injuries came from, and whether there was a story there. This is just one of many incidences. Having a rough notebook and writing these down, for later synthesis, isn't a bad place to start generating ideas:).
    16. Nicoel
      Nicoel
      I love writing and I am planning on pursuing it professionally (specifically, publishing). I do ask myself the question, "Where do I get ideas from?" frequently.

      I love the process of writing. The putting words on paper, the story telling, creating something, the feeling of finishing a draft. As much as I complain, once I get into the groove, I even enjoy editing.

      My problem is finding a story or idea that I want to actually write about. Finding something that I can commit myself to for possibly months at a time is difficult. Sure, I can come up with something random to write about decently. But if I don't love my characters or plot, I know my writing falls flat.
    17. Samuel Lighton
      Samuel Lighton
      My ideas come from taking my own experience in life, extrapolating from them, then applying my favoured setting to them. After that, it becomes a story. So although reading is a great way to stir the imagination, it's nothing without relying on yourself.
    18. DeadMoon
      DeadMoon
      I think one of the best ways to produces ideas is the What if? method along with reading and writing a lot.
    19. Cave Troll
      Cave Troll
      My head is full of random thoughts, so there is no shortage of ideas. :p If I can think it then I can write it. If it is good or not is still up for debate. :p So yeah, what ever randomness there is out there, you can bet I can turn it into a story. It is true that some of what I have read kinda bleeds into my writing, but I think we all do that anyway. Whether we are aware of the outside influences in writing, is on a case by case basis. Now I am off to go and work on some more nonsense, since working on my WIP seems to be a misadventure in what not to do. :D

      Great article by the way! @J. Paul Roe :superidea:
    20. Megalith
      Megalith
      I'll echo what a few people have said already. Getting ideas for stories can come from anywhere. Life experience, TV, history, etc. You are correct that is a good place for inspiration. But if you are trying to gain your own voice, then the advice you are demeaning is exactly what you need to do. You rinse and repeat until your writing style is distinguished enough. And if you have any hard facts on finding your own voice/style then please link me right now.
    21. pyroglyphian
      pyroglyphian
      The 'subconscious synthesis' explanation was an interesting read.

      As to the above process, I think these things happen automatically to pretty much everyone. When you do something, anything, there's no way to stop the experience from leaving some kind of residue in your mind. So those who are struggling for ideas are struggling despite an abundance of raw material.

      Perhaps they have a block. Or perhaps their minds are tuned towards producing ideas that aren't appropriate to the task of writing. Perhaps they would make great computer scientists or landscape gardeners instead.
    22. Ettina
      Ettina
      From personal experience, I'd say that taking psychology classes and reading psychology research can be really helpful in writing. Especially when trying to write a character who is very different from yourself in their experiences or ways of thinking. It's not enough by itself, though - it's also good to seek out firsthand accounts of the same experiences - but it can be pretty helpful to know that, for example, having a parent who isn't very sensitive to their child's needs tends to result in a child either being overly aloof or overly clingy, even once they've grown up and are seeking romance.

      I expect you'd also get benefits from other social sciences, like history and anthropology. For example, I find understanding history really important to building my vampire characters, because they lived through a lot of those events. The fall of the Roman Empire came as a huge shock to many of my Roman vampires, who felt that the empire was just going through a rough patch and would soon recover.
      Megalith likes this.
    23. agorman00
      agorman00
      Very interesting read. I find the "Idea Synthesizing" very enlightening.

      Thank you for the post
    24. Raven484
      Raven484
      I think that not only should we read more, but become better researchers to enhance our stories. I could always come up with a decent idea, but researching different character occupations, geography, science, fantasy and psychology (which is mentioned above), etc., has made my ideas evolve into something interesting and people want to read more. Being diversified will help your creativity, but could also drive you a little crazy sometimes. I do not know how many times I had to change my outlines because the story made more sense after I did better research. I am 48 now and I consider myself pretty much a dummy! But with some hope and a lot of learning, I should publish before 65!

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