Where Do Ideas Come From?


"Where do you get your ideas?"

Writers get this question often. It doesn't lend itself to a simple yes/no answer, so I'm gonna go in-depth with this one.

Where ideas come from: Some are lifted from books, movies, TV, etc. and I file the serial numbers off and recombine them. Some I put serious effort into devising from scratch and developing.
Some do just come to me. This happened with few of my more popular characters.

What most laymen call "ideas" are actually managed influences combined and developed in appealing ways and properly executed.

Influences + juxtaposition + execution = speculative fiction "ideas".

Most non-writers tend to overestimate the importance of ideas. Pick up any book, turn your television to a random channel, or look out the window. You'll find a hundred concepts that could be the seed of an SFF novel. Jim Butcher's Codex Alera sprang from a bet that he could write a book based on the two worst ideas a panel audience gave him. The crowd came up with the lost Roman legion and Pokemon.

Writers must be readers. If you finish a book and say, "I could never come up with an idea like that!" Chances are you don't read enough fiction.

Ideas are easy. The world is overflowing with them. Execution is the most vital part of the equation by far.

The synopsis of every SFF story sounds dumb because it's just the pure idea without the execution.
A short, hairy-footed gentleman  goes on a cross-country trek and returns.
When someone says "I could never think of an idea like that," nine times out of ten he means he couldn't execute it as effectively.

I can't speak for anyone else, but there's a lot going on behind the scenes of my writing--linguistic techniques I use to deliver the story's ideas for maximum effect. People call my stuff layered and dense. They're right, but only a few folks have caught on to what's happening beneath the surface.

But that's just me. You don't have to get down into the paragraph, sentence, & word-level weeds like I do. Just read extensively in your genre, manage your influences, & work hard to hone your execution.

Make my award-winning Soul Cycle part of your reading list, and add the tools I mentioned to your author toolbox.
The Soul Cycle ends with a fast-paced, thought-provoking bang. New characters, returning favorites, and a villain so grotesque, the most chilling thing about him will be how recognizable he is.


  1. Pretty much. We live in a world filled with ideas and you are constantly internalizing them through osmosis. I can guarantee most people who ask the question "where do you get your ideas" have several ideas come to them in a day. They either don't remember them, or think they are 'bad ideas'. The solution to the first problem is to start writing down ideas as they come to you. Many authors use to carry a notepad just for that purpose, but now everyone has a smart phone which is great for that. The second problem is one that
    Brian covered at length. Your 'bad idea' actually isn't that bad of an idea. Often an idea will sound good in your head, and sound awful when you try explaining it. Again, it's all about execution. When writing, it'll probably come closer to they way it was in your head, than when you said it out loud, (closer mind you, not identical. Writing is a messy process.) If one idea, by itself still seems flimsy, then combine them. Grandmaster John C. Wright likes to combine at least three ideas, but many authors can make it work with two. That's pretty much the go to the elevator pitch format. "_____" meets "_____". Using an example from Nick Cole a master of the elevator pitch format, Ctrl+Alt+Revolt is Terminator meets Night of the Living Dead.

    That idea that popped in your head while being stuck in traffic isn't as bad as you think it is. You dig down to the origins of most story ideas, you find similarities. Conan got his start when Robert E. Howard saw a gloomy landscape during bad weather. Aligning with the "stuck in traffic", Go Nagai's Mazinger Z idea came to him when he was in a traffic jam and wished he had a giant robot to get past it. Tarzan could have possibly started out as a jungle book fork.

    1. Yep.
      Write everything down.
      Pick 2 or 3 ideas.
      Ask "what if?"
      Work hard at development.

  2. I wrote on this subject a while back:


  3. Thanks guys. I really find the what if? or Did you hear the one about? questions to start a story to be very helpful.
    It takes the pressure off being 'original'

    Writing is a lot like gun making. Clinton Ezell who wrote THE book on the development and variants of the AK said it quite well (I'm paraphrasing as I don't have the book with me):
    Producing small arms is pretty well known and there's no innovation per se. The originality lies in how you design and put together the armament package.
    And writing is a lot like that.
    Story telling hasn't changed in 6000 years; the originality lies in how you design your stories from the disparate threads that've influenced you over the years.