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How to Write a Novel: Step 2: Ideas (or, 7 Different Ways to Come Up With Story Ideas)

Most people who want to write a novel probably already have a good idea about what they want to write about. It’s the idea that fuels the desire, and keeps you up at night (or, if you are like me, wakes you up early in the morning, kind of like the family pet, helpfully licking your face to let you know the sun is about to come up).

I understand, however, that it is a source of mystery for many.

And perhaps some of them would like to write a novel if only they could work out where to get an idea.

I’m happy to try and help – after all, I do this all the time for children at school (‘but, Miss, what shall I write about?’, usually followed by, ‘nah, I don’t want to write about that’, while I am hurriedly trying to find a blank piece of paper where I can scribble the idea, surreptitiously, for later).

I actually suffer from a surfeit of ideas – which isn’t to say that I’m not stumped by what to write next from time to time. You see, I was blessed (or, possibly, cursed) with an over-active imagination.

I think it was in Soul Music, or it might have been Moving Pictures, that Terry Pratchett wrote about inspiration whizzing around the place, hitting people all the time, and some people just being sort of giant receivers.

Or, what I’m trying to say is that there are lots of ideas out there, you just have to be open to them:

One: Enlist your Passions

Start with something you are passionate about, or even mildly interested in. There is probably a person or a character, or an event, that could provide a starting point. I’m not suggesting that you write a biography or a journal, but you could start with something like that, and, well, just let your mind wander.

Even something like engineering can provide some fascinating ideas... just imagine Swedish bridge builder Alfred Nobel, rowing across the lake with nitroglycerine – a highly volatile material. What led to the invention of dynamite? What intrigue can you imagine going on behind the scenes?

Two: Observe Your World

Keep your eyes open for interesting things or people as you go about your day to day business. Horde away interesting snippets of conversation, news items, unusual events, or something that happened to you that could inspire a story (just be careful not to write something that could be taken to be about someone or something specific, remember this is a work of fiction, not a ‘kiss and tell’).

Who were the two boys in hoodies running through the crowds in the forecourt at the art gallery? Why were they running? Had they done something? Was it a dare? Or was someone chasing them?

Three: Enliven the Ordinary

Even very mundane things can spark off an idea, if you are willing to let your mind play (writers are renowned for daydreaming and staring off into the distance, now you know why): for instance, yesterday I was driving into work and it just so happened that a plane, approaching Canberra airport, was about to fly right above me, over the road that I was driving along.

Now, understand that I love that part of flying during landing or take-off where you are still low enough to see what is going on below you (I like being on trains, for the same reason, except not seeing things below me... which would be weird).

Anyway, back to yesterday (time travel, anyone?).

I started to imagine that I was someone up in the plane, looking down at the lone blue car hurrying along a country road, wondering who I (as in the real me, down in the car) was and where I was going...

...what if I was an incognito heiress with an amazing secret (haven’t worked out what the amazing secret is yet, but this is only the seed) who had just been tracked down and was on the run from international kidnappers?

...or, being fond of a bit of fantasy, an incognito heiress from a different dimension, etc., etc., who only had [an unspecified amount of time] to get to the jump location?

Add in leaving behind everything and everyone I love and care for, or perhaps I have them hidden in the car but have to somehow keep them safe, and we’re slowly starting to rock a storyline.

The important thing is to ask yourself, ‘what if?’

Four: Check Your Horizons

Use a landscape to set yourself a problem to overcome. This could be an artwork, a photograph, or real life.

Once, on a long and potentially boring car journey, I kept my son entertained for hours while we told each other a story about a group of young teenagers who had to reach a distant mountain that was off to the left of the car somewhere, and all the fantastical problems they had to overcome.

Hmmm... scribbled some notes at the motel that evening, then lost track of them... must be around somewhere...

Oh, er, yes.

Five: Visit the Library

Of course, the other source of ideas is reading lots of good books, and , no, I am not promoting plagiarism, but there are themes that run through whatever genre that you are fond of.

Knowing what is what in [unspecified] genre helps build your story – sometimes it is not even in following the rules, but knowing how you can break them.

Often, in fact, it is in knowing how you can break them.

And there is always that moment when something you are reading sparks an idea very different to the book in hand.

More ideas?

Six: Play List

Recently, I read somewhere that bloggers could benefit from writing down ten ideas a day for their blog. Some you will use, some not, but it means that you always have something to go to.

Maybe this would be a good motivation for coming up with novel ideas – although ten a day might be stretching things a bit. Set yourself a goal of three or five, and write down anything that comes to mind – silly or otherwise. Make it your new journalling habit, and draw ideas from your day. Or even your dreams.

Seven: Out of the Box

Oh, and the last thing I am going to suggest is to make a list of potential characters (relevant to your intended genre), eg. a witch, a knight, a wizard, a princess, a schoolgirl, a detective, etc.

Now cut up the list and put the characters in a box (or a paper bag or something).

Do the same thing for a setting (magical forest, shopping mall, boarding school, zoo, whatever), and pop them into a separate box. Now make a box for actions (go wild here: dancing in the moonlight, searching for a unicorn, eating mushrooms, learning to sword fight, just go for it).

When you are ready draw one from each box, and voila: a schoolgirl in a zoo is searching for a unicorn; a wizard in a shopping mall is learning to sword fight; a detective in a magical forest is dancing in the moonlight... and off you go. At the very least, it is kind of like tossing a coin. You can always say, ‘nah, I don’t want to write about that’.

Most important, though, is to let your mind roam free. Give yourself permission to daydream. Stare out the window.

And don’t forget to tell everyone that you are busy working.

It’s legit.


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