Someone posed that question on an online fiction writers forum. The thread went on for months. Responses included the following sources of ideas for novels: conversations, life experiences, images, movies, music, dreams, reactions to current events, and news stories, just to name a few. There are no shortages of ideas, but the true test of an idea is whether the writer can develop into a fresh, original story that will hold the reader’s interest and reach a satisfying conclusion.
When I read popular fiction, it sometimes seems every author is chasing the same four or five story ideas with different iterations and permutations. The “coming of age” story has been done ad nauseum. Then there’s the midlife crisis story, a trusty old reliable. And, of course, the “boy meets girl” (or girl meets boy) story, in which an imperfect main character pursues the love of his life, overcoming daunting obstacles to win her over. And don’t get me started on vampire stories.
Ideas are like pocket change; there’s no shortage of them. How a writer develops those ideas makes the difference between quality fiction and a bad first draft. The idea for my first novel, Small Change, emerged from a couple of random, seemingly unrelated thoughts. We had just returned from our first family vacation. It took us ten years before we were financially able to take a vacation. A week later, I was casting about for a short story idea for my writers’ group. I was taking my son to the movies that night and I wasn’t sure whether there was enough money in our checking account to use my debit card, since I wasn’t due to be paid until the next day. I had a tray of small change that I took to the store and got $43, more than enough for two tickets, popcorn and soda.
From this came the idea of a lower middle class family in the Chicago suburbs that finances its family vacations by using the small change that the mother keeps in a bowl. I was aiming to write a Jean Shepherd (whose work inspired the classic movie, A Christmas Story) type story about the wonder a 10-year-old boy experiences on the family’s first vacation. That’s what I had in mind. That’s not the way the story turned out. I ended up with a 105,000 word novel, set in the Midwest, about two families who meet on a summer vacation in Wisconsin and become intertwined over the years.
One sound technique for developing ideas is to take a basic premise and ask a series of “what if” questions. An example is the most basic story: boy meets girl. Let’s say a young man is perusing the shelves of a bookstore when he spots a young woman. He is instantly attracted to her. There’s something about her. She seems shy. Her head is down. She averts his gaze. He must meet her. She takes a couple of books to the checkout counter. The man grabs a book to buy and follows her. She’s out of the store before he buys his book. The young man sprints across the parking lot. He runs up to the young woman and explains that he had to meet her. He asks for her phone number. She doesn’t give it to him but agrees to meet him the next day in a local coffee shop.
So far, so good. Now let’s ask some “what if” questions. “What if the young woman is attracted to the man but she is on the run from an abusive boyfriend who is trying to track her down?” this explains why she didn’t give the young man her phone number. “What if the young man falls in love with her, but the abusive boyfriend discovers them and they are in immediate danger?” Or let’s go in a different direction. The young woman has discovered a terrorist plot, and the terrorists know who she is. She spends her days in bookstores, because that’s the last place they would look. Her new lover must earn her trust. After all he could be working for the terrorists. Once she trusts him, she sees her new romantic partner not only as a lover but a protector.
Where do you get story ideas from?