Train yourself to generate endless new story ideas

07/11/2012

How important is a good story idea?

It seems like everyone has at least one story idea. Or thinks they do. How valuable can an idea be if even Great Aunt Regina insists her idea about that one crazy summer her cousin came to visit would make a great screenplay and you should write it because it practically writes itself?

Then again, sometimes I’ll read a hot spec screenplay, maybe even one that’s just been sold, and think — they only bought this for the idea because the execution is crap. Therefore, as far as making a screenplay sale, doesn’t this say that it must be the idea that’s most important? (I have a feeling that selling a book manuscript on the idea alone happens less often. But I’ve read some books…)

Why we really need good ideas

I find there’s nothing sadder than finishing a screenplay and having someone immediately blow a whole through the central concept. Sure, it can be rewritten,  but sometimes the battle is so bloody, the writer is resistant to charge back onto that battlefield. Writers who start with shaky ideas either have a lot of first drafts in their trunk, or they have many, many drafts of the same damned script. So, yes, I think having a solid idea is important. But there’s more. 

Here’s what’s most important to me. A good idea excites me. It’s pulls me out of bed and over to the keyboard in the morning. It is a fire that burns me, and the only way to keep it from consuming me is to extinguish it a bit at a time by writing. An idea that I’m passionate about carries me a long way over the normal and probably necessary bumps and stalls of beginning a writing project. That’s what I want from a good story idea — it’s my best defense against the pain of writing.

How do you know if you have a good story idea?

Here’s how I judge a good idea: it makes my friends insanely jealous that they didn’t think of it.

A more objective measure of a good idea — it gives me everything I need to write the screenplay (or novel, or picture book or whatever). I know writers that don’t come up with their logline until after they’ve finished their project, and that just seems silly to me. A logline is a great tool for crafting a story — for getting yourself on solid ground before you begin. If you don’t know what you’re writing, how can you write it?

For me, I know my idea is done cooking when I can identify the hero, the antagonist, the central question, the main obstacle, and the stakes. If I’ve got that, I can start working out the details. If I don’t — it might not be a story idea. Sometimes the hardest part about story ideas is finding them.

Where do you get your ideas?

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it. – Neil Gaiman

It’s the noticing that’s important here. The ideas we notice without effort are usually the ones that land on us fully formed. That’s difficult to ignore. It’s the ideas that flit by, the ones we barely catch by the tale, the ones we have to worry into being — those are the ideas we have to train ourselves to see. To notice.

I trained myself to notice ideas when I was in grad school and was required to bring three fresh ideas every week to my story development class. I hadn’t realized until that point just how stuffed full of ideas the world was. What’s more — when the class had ended, I was still in idea-hunting mode. Once you see ideas all around you, it’s difficult to unsee them. Like Jesus in an inkblot.

After many years of course, I grew complacent and eventually my idea generator slowed down. And so I threw down a challenge to my closest writing pals. They accepted the challenge, and at the end of the week we each had 21 freshly minted story ideas.

The Logline Derby

In order for this idea-generating challenge to work, you’ll need one or two very trusted, very dependable writing friends. I’m very lucky in that regard. I met both Jason Nutt [ Twitter | IMDb ] and Marianne Oberle in a private screenwriting group after I finished grad school. Jay writes comedy, and his film Balls to the Wall was directed by Penelope Spheris (Wayne’s World). Marianne is currently in England, editing the web series she wrote and directed. They both deserve credit for helping to shape how the challenge worked and for making it such a huge success.

Here’s how what we called The Logline Derby works:

1. Before midnight each day over the course of a week, we email each other three new story ideas.

I’m glad we specified “before midnight” because I would have been in for some very late nights if I didn’t have that deadline.

2. We do not comment on the ideas in any way during the week. We merely send and receive. We are allowed to taunt each other for missing deadlines.

We don’t want to derail, distract or accidentally deflate each other. And we probably wouldn’t have time to both come up with our ideas and give thoughtful critiques anyway.

3. At the end of the week, we compile all our ideas into a single Word document for each other to review.

There were a lot of emails flying around. Compiling the loglines into one document made it much simpler and gave us Word’s annotating tools for comments.

4. Each of us picks the three best story ideas submitted by the others and provides feedback. We can also chose runners up and comment on as many ideas as we like, but the top three are what’s required.

Reviewing all these loglines take time, so we gave each other a break and agreed just to expect feedback on the top three picks, although those of us who had time could feel free to go through all the story ideas.

The Results

Why does this work? After all, it seems like a variation of the old Steve Martin joke about how to make a million dollars — “Okay, firstyougetamilliondollars…“. The value in the challenge isn’t that it gives you some new formula for creating story ideas. The value is that it trains you to notice the ideas that are already around you by leveraging those good old-fashioned writing companions, Accountability and Deadlines.

The process itself went fairly smoothly. We all made the deadline and all pitched 21 new story ideas. In that sense, the whole exercise was a huge win — between the three of us, a total of 63 new story ideas existed at the end of the week that didn’t exist before. There were nights when I was up until midnight, desperately scraping the bottom of my brain for something I could work into an idea. But there were other times when I would quickly get a new idea that really excited me and which I would never have thought of otherwise.

There’s the whole crux of this challenge. Had I not been actively seeking ideas, I would not have found them. And I found some great ones.

A few other things I learned:

I’ve had a few vague notions of ideas swimming around in my head for a while. This was a chance to get them down on paper (or, er, electrons I guess) and finally crystalize them. You only think you have an idea until you write it down and try to make it work. That’s where the rubber meets the road. Once those notions were finally out of my head, it gave me a chance to stretch and reach a little and come up some fresh ideas. And, admittedly, some real clunkers too.

I was also surprised at how excited some of the new ideas got me and was relieved and happy to see some of my own favorites made the top picks. For whatever reason, the shiny new idea I think up today is much, much more attractive than the idea that’s been sitting in my notebook for a while.

I also quickly learned which ideas didn’t work. There was one idea that I hadn’t perceived as belonging to the same genre as those James K. Polk, Zombie Hunter type novels but in retrospect, that’s the first thought others would jump to. Not what I was going for. And there were ones that just fell flat and didn’t resonate. Or that struck too close to stories already out there.

I also discovered which of my ideas appealed to others as graphic novels, books, or series. I’ve been writing screenplays for long, I forget to consider other media. It was good to have that feedback.

So where did you get your ideas?

Everywhere.

I looked at what books I had on my shelves. Could I think of an idea that was inspired by my interests? I made up the name of a hard-boiled detective and spun a story around him (much to my embarrassment, Jay’s wife had to tell me that the name I thought up was already the name of a famous baseball player). I asked myself what spin I would put on a sci-fi comedy like Hitchhikers Guide if I had written it. I thought up ironic twists and worked backwards. I recalled my love of an old kids sci-fi series and combined that with my love of schematics of superhero lairs like the Baxter Building. I thought to myself, how would I do Lord of the Flies…in space? I wondered how I could tell a story that incorporates everything I love about the fabled Old West. And so on.

I think about these things all the time. The trick, as Neil says, is to notice them. Once I started writing them down, I was forced to make them make sense to someone else. Before long, 21 new story ideas were born.

For more on where story ideas come from, read Neil Gaiman’s excellent post.

Featured Image: Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys | via AllMoviePhoto.com