By J. Paul Roe on Feb 13, 2016 at 8:38 PM
  1. J. Paul Roe

    J. Paul Roe New Member

    Feb 12, 2016
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    Central Florida

    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


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

    1. Whitefire_Nomura
      A very interesting outlook. To be honest, and please note that this is simply my opinion, I find reading "can be" the worse thing you can do.

      A lot of people I've known do read a lot and then, when they go to write, low and behold it's a Frankenstein of their favorite author's work. A problem from one novel here, a similar character from another there, Just cut and stitched up to make it seem like a new story. I don't know, maybe I'm just too critical. lol

      Though I do agree that reading about the rest of the world can be very useful.
      Alan Aspie likes this.
    2. Aaron DC
      Aaron DC
      I believe it's because the turn-over is high and we do not have reliable mechanisms for recording or transmitting lessons learned.

      Whilst I agree with this claim, the best source for "multiple concepts" is ... reading. Lucky ones among us can also speak to others for ideas, and sometimes things just pop up into my head unbidden.

      It appears you agree. The person with no time or money to travel to exotic places to smell the locals and eat their food is far better served with reading about it.

      A good book on brainstorming can teach good techniques for generating ideas. Said book basically agrees with your thesis except for one caveat: start with the premise that there are no bad ideas. I would suggest "read more" is one such idea worth adhering to, as it is, in fact, a good one.

      To my way of thinking, reading adds something far more valuable than ideas per se - the chance to learn how to tell a story. The craft of story telling is being hammered home with the TV series I have been watching recently. Some of them I don't care at all about the characters, whilst with others, I care about the evil characters more than the good characters of the other series. That was one awkward sentence. I hope you caught my meaning. It's 4am. The bottom line is, I am paying attention to the latter series more, to pick out WHY I care. What makes me care. How did it differ with the previous?

      Story telling is a big part of that.

      As someone blessed with good genes in that department, I kinda get what you finish with re:Intelligence and bell-curves, but the take away for me from the last 12 months or so is I am lucky, and there are much brighter people around. They're the ones who don't want to write fiction but research and write studies. Or hypotheses and ways to test them. Or who start businesses and create reality from the ideas they have. To my way of thinking that's much more talented / intelligent / ahead of the bell-curve than only writing about it.

      I can come up with ideas easily too, but IMO that's because I am lucky, not because I am better than other people. Just different, through luck.
    3. Gary O'
      Gary O'
      Seems if yer asking 'where', ya best become a reader
      and not a writer
    4. jannert
      Hmm. In a lot of ways I agree with you, in that ideas are something you put together for yourself. It's one of the reasons I always react to people on the forum asking us to 'help' them solve a story problem, name a character, decide what should 'happen next' etc. Those are ideas, and they need to come up with those ideas themselves, if their writing is to be original.

      However, I think you've misunderstood why so many people (myself included) also tell a would-be writer to read. It's to get an idea of what makes a story work—in the medium of a novel or short story.

      Getting a good idea for a story is only the beginning of the process. You have to get your ideas across. If you only play role-playing games or watch movies you are going to struggle to translate your ideas to a novel—unless you also read novels. A novelist is going to struggle to create a role-playing game if this novelist never plays role-playing games. A novelist who doesn't watch movies is going to struggle to make a movie. In the same vein, a person who doesn't read is going to struggle to write a novel.

      Reading simply helps you become familiar with the medium of the written word. It's got nothing to do with the content of your particular story.
      Last edited: Mar 19, 2017
      Alan Aspie and Bill Chester like this.
    5. Homer Potvin
      Homer Potvin
      Yep. Reading is like lifting weights with your imagination. If you don't buff that shit up, your imagination won't have the strength to carry the load.
      jannert and Cave Troll like this.
    6. JPClyde
      I think ideas come from experience. I am often inspired by what I see. Not What I read. I see a Homeless man on the street with a dog and I wonder what he is thinking. Where he is been. How he found his dog, etc. Personally I think ideas come from both reading, but also watching and experiencing things. It's a construct of knowledge.
      Alan Aspie likes this.
    7. badgerjelly
      I have an easier answer to this. Read non-fiction and do stuff you don't usually do.

      It is the new experience that helps make a mind fertile. Travel to new places, try new activities and speak to people you don't usually speak to. Basically live the life you don't live.

      This is just general advice not just for writing. There is certainly something to be said here for fear and courage. It takes new experiences to feed creativity and it takes courage to experience new things intentionally.

      note: loved the self-proclaimed "unique" expressed in the OP XD
      Alan Aspie likes this.
    8. Alan Aspie
      Alan Aspie
      1. Eat a pig. All of it.
      2. Go to sleep.
      3. You can't. Your stomach does not let you sleep
      4. You start to get ideas!


      - You should BBQ pig before eating.
      - Or at least wash it.
      - Or at least kill.
      - That pig is going to haunt me for rest of my life!
      - I'm hungry. Is that cow still on the field?
    9. Alan Aspie
      Alan Aspie
      That is true. More * something = more something.

      But the more you can conceptualize new concepts, the (much, much) more you can create.

      More^2 * something = hugely more something.

      Ability to create concepts gives you more than having concepts.

      Ability to create concepts = concept factory.


      But also your tools, methods to process, your targets, your relation to your raw material...
      Last edited: Aug 5, 2018
    10. Alan Aspie
      Alan Aspie
      1. You start with self reflection and getting knowledge about the tools your kind of people use when they think. (For instance liberals and conservatives have different tools in they cognitive toolboxes. Having tools or lacking them effects very much.)

      2. You pay attention to dynamics of something you are not interested instead of substance. Forget "what I need to know" and pay attention to "how it happens".

      Dynamics - "how it happens" - makes effects. Substance does not. Effects make meanings.

      If something does not have a meaning it is not interesting. When it starts to get meanings it might start to interest - or not.

      3. Repeat with something else.

      Self reflection - honest and wide - is also the base of your character development. It's the root of contrasts.
      Mockuree and Mckk like this.
    11. Mockuree
      That's the best advice I've received in years regarding storytelling. I've been so bored of my five year old ideas that haven't gone anywhere interesting since there creation. It's kind of funny, I've literally aspired to be an author for five years now (where at the time, having not unintentionally narrowed my horizons, I was flooding with brilliant ideas almost daily), and in that time, I've invested so much blood, sweat, and tears into discovering what writing is that I have restricted my own creativity. Hell, I've hardly even written anything to move my stories forward since I created them, and apart from the occasional brilliant idea that I just NEED to write someday, I haven't had any new or original ideas since. Interestingly enough, I was much more creative and original five years ago when I was much "dumber" about storytelling. Though my inspiration was far more limited and my knowledge of good story's was lack-luster at best, I was much more productive in *actually creating* dumb-fun stories then. Thanks for the article man. I'm definately going to do my best to break these creative chains of my own bitter creation.
      GingerCoffee likes this.
    12. MarcT
      The more I concentrate and rack my brains for ideas, the less they come. It's a bit like trying to find a title for a new book. It can take ages if you try too hard.
      Remember when you were younger and you wanted a girl/boyfriend? The more you looked, the less luck you had? Then one day, the right person walks into your life completely out of the blue.
      For me anyway, ideas come in such a way and too much over-thinking simply doesn't work.
      Been rejected more times than you care to count? Write a satirical short story about it, which is what occurred to me, anyway.
    13. Infel
      I still come back to read this article every now and then. It's really good.
      GingerCoffee likes this.
    14. Paryn
      J. Paul Roe,

      I'm quite new. I read your full article and I think I understand it or at least got something out of it. What "my" brain read, was instead of hunting and asking for ideas for that great novel - educate yourself as a place to begin.

      If you learn about rifles, how they are handled, loaded, discharged and learn part nomenclatures, you could skillfully add a bad man or a good protector to your story without stopping to learn about rifles because you already did.

      Many mystery writers would be very limited without pharmaceutical knowledge. So maybe knowledge of poisons and antidotes could be a good thing to know. Topography, Science, Mathematics, Medicine as in strokes, heart attacks, diabetic comas, etc. If some of things were known from studies that you've already done, it would not take so long to write because there is less time spent on research - this just makes sense to me.

      This is what I think I'm getting from what was said. Learn many many things, and those thoughts could combine into some very new and original ideas with entire scenes floating in your head and the research floating beside them.

      Did I read more into this than what was meant?
      Cdn Writer and GingerCoffee like this.
    15. paperbackwriter
      Good literature explores grey areas that cant be explained fully by religion, psychology, philosophy, history and so on.
      Finding ideas for me would be exploring the motivations of people. For intance...why do good people do bad things? A novel is a broad enough canvas to delve into background, family culture, religious or otherwise childhood , natural predisposition, defining events and so on. There would be a lot of psychology and religion in my books.
      Magus and Paryn like this.
    16. ohno_you do!
      ohno_you do!
      Things come when not looking.
    17. Cdn Writer
      Cdn Writer
      I would word it more that people have various ideas, tons of them, how many people express those ideas adequately? Most people seem to struggle to communicate effectively.

      We've probably all flown into a murderous rage at something that's happened (or we can relate to it) when though probably none of us have ever committed a murder. We've probably all experienced relationships (friendships, sexual relationships) that have started and ended.

      We can understand when a gifted writer takes a situation such as a wife cheating on her husband, how the husband feels at the betrayal and the things he might plan to do - hire a hitman, kill her himself, call a divorce lawyer, have an affair of his own....etc because we can relate to that feeling ourselves.

      BUT....having idea X, Y or Z does not mean that people can communicate it effectively. Being able to communicate the idea you have is what I consider the mark of a brilliant writer.

      Ideas....tons of them.

      Ability to communicate the idea in a NEW way that catches the reader's attention? Incredibly hard to do well.
    18. EmoryWolfe
      I think reading more can be helpful, as a trained artist I've always been told to look at other peoples work, look at their techniques, think about what you enjoy about their work and what you'd change. I have many passages in books I flick to when I'm stuck on a scene, if I'm stuck on a fight scene I re-read my favourite fight scene from a book and think about the pacing, descriptions and what I like about it. Your work is never going to be 100% unique, there is always going to be influences so broadening and researching for more influences is the best way to go. If you read the same author and same genre with the same cliches your work is going to end up uninteresting and repetitive but if you're critical and understand how to use previous works it will benefit you.

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