The Secret to Generating Great Ideas for Stories

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re looking at an excerpt from a previous post titled The Place Great Ideas Come From.

I am often asked, “Where do you get those ideas for your novels?”

Have you ever stopped to consider just how ideas come to us? I’ve heard writers lament on occasion that they just can’t come up with any good ideas for their next book. They “rack” their brains trying to find a new story, or a new twist on an old story (more likely, since it’s pretty true there are “no new plots.”)

How do ideas bubble up to the  surface of our consciousness and why those ideas? Is there a way to “bubble up” some great ideas that will make a compelling story?

No Shortage of Great Ideas

I’m not going to talk about ways to find great story ideas; they are all around us. All you have to do is read the daily news and you’ll come up with amazing stories you can borrow and adapt.

Rather, I want to focus on the word great in the title of this post. Great ideas. Ideas that can move into rich concepts and themes.

What I’ve been hearing in discussions with literary agents and editors is they are seeing way too many stories that are a string of scenarios and not many true “stories.” As I critique manuscript after manuscript, I find myself faced with plot and not heart.

Writing stories with heart is a passionate issue to me, and I will venture to say that’s what literary agents are really hoping to come across as they read through one lacking manuscript after another.

Just what is lacking? Ideas? Good plot?

Probably not. I’ve read some terrific plots in the novels I’ve critiqued over the years, but not a whole lot have ever gotten me excited or “rocked my world.” But isn’t it plot that really makes a book exciting?

Yes and no. You need a terrific, fresh plot. Or a fresh and intriguing twist on a standard plot. The Hunger Games is a twist on Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery.” Harry Potter is essentially Star Wars revisited, which is derivative of many stories that came before it.

But even with a great plot idea, a novel can fall flat. And that’s where passion comes in.

Merge Passion with Idea

Maybe you’ve heard people (editors, agents, writing instructors, novelists) talk about passion. But what or whose passion are they referring to?

You can be passionate about your story idea, which is really enthusiasm. Don’t confuse the two.

I’ve heard clients talk (or write in an e-mail) quite excitedly about their plot, and it might actually be a great idea. But when I dig into the writing looking for the heart of the story, I’m not finding passion.

So, what do I mean by passion? I’m talking about a strong feeling, conviction, belief that comes from within. A belief that this is an important story to tell, an important theme to explore. Or it may have nothing to do with importance. There may be absolutely no theme or point to your story, but it can still radiate passion.

Ooze with Passion

Have you ever read a book that oozes with a passion of storytelling? One of my favorite authors is Walter Moers, who writes insanely crazy stories with the most bizarre plots and characters. Maybe underneath all the madness there are some themes floating around, some “point” he is trying to get across. If so, I think I may have missed those—too busy laughing my head off or turning pages so fast in excitement I didn’t notice.

I picture Moers at his computer or drawing on (?) blank paper those wild cartoons that pepper his books. Or typing madly away at his keyboard, his fingers flying fast over the keys as laughter bellows out his mouth in the delight of his story.

Do you ever sense that? That utter joy in storytelling? I was just critiquing a client’s intro to his second novel last week. I loved his first one, and although his profession suggests (highly) he would lack a sense of humor (okay, guess away, but I won’t spill), his wry humor won me over immediately. But it was more than that. Sure, his writing is good, better than many, craft-wise. But I see a lot of good writing that bores me.

As I went through this intro to his second novel, a completely different story than the first, it struck me why I thought he stood out among so many of my clients. It is clear he loves to tell a story.

I’m sure somewhere in there, as I go through the book, I will find great plot and themes, maybe even some deep take-home message underlying the book. But that didn’t concern me as I read through the opening pages. I knew, just by being wooed into this story, I would love the book. And if it needs some work, some tightening, revising, restructuring (don’t most novels?), in the end it will be another terrific novel by this budding author.

Which brings us around to the question as to why we write. I wrote a number of posts last year about our concepts of success, and about our feelings of self-worth being tied in to our writing. Our need for validation, our need for an audience. There are many reasons for writing, and many of them are valid.

But, for whatever reason we write, we should, I feel, find a way to tap into the passion for writing and bring that out in our stories.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What makes you passionate about your story? And what is it in someone else’s story that excites you and makes their story stand above the rest?

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  1. I’m sure many writers *believe* they are writing with passion, myself included, but I wonder if perhaps it just doesn’t come across that way to all readers… or maybe they are just confusing passion with enthusiasm. Are there any well-known novels or stories that stick out in your mind as being particularly passionate and/or lacking in passion?

    1. I don’t think it’s a matter of a book exuding passion. How can you know how a writer was feeling when she wrote the book? I don’t think you can. There are passionate stories, and those are such because of the concept, premise, or character arcs. But what I feel is the key is to tap into your love of writing, and pick a story idea that really means something to you. That allows you to share your passion about certain things, whatever they may be. When you have strong beliefs and you bring them out through your characters or via a nonfiction book, I believe readers can sense that, though the convictions and actions of the characters. I try to infuse all my novels with passionate characters who believe strongly in things and will risk much to defend or accomplish them. Does this make sense?

  2. I do look forward to these informative posts. This one brought to mind what my writing coach said, “Anyone can learn to write a sentence, but not everyone is a storyteller.” I’ve read best seller and self-published fiction, but sometimes disappointed because the story was boring. The first page, first paragraph, or first chapter didn’t grab me and make me want to care about the characters. I think we owe it to our readers to transport them with vivid colors.

    1. Right, and a good way to ensure the best success in telling a riveting story is for a writer to be passionate about the story idea, characters, and themes. You bring a large part of yourself to every story (or you should, in some way).

  3. Find your theme and you’ve found your passion. Having just polished The Crush, my sixth contracted novel, I know by now that my theme is coming home . . . something I was oblivious to when I started writing. What’s more, I already know that my next three contracted books will a further exploration of that theme. It comes from living a vagabond life as a child and being an introvert, not feeling as if I belonged anywhere. You don’t choose a theme—it chooses you.

    1. Thank you for sharing that. As I’ve mentioned at times on my blog, I usually start my new novel ideas with theme. I’ll have a scenario in mind, like road rage or an image of a character dealing with a particular problem, like guilt or shame. I came up with Someone to Blame by thinking about blame and how hurtful it can be to self and others. I feel novels with strong themes have the potential to be those lasting, impacting stories.

      So a great way to come up with story ideas is to read news headlines, think about the kinds of inner and outer conflicts people deal with, mine the themes, and then work up a strong concept with a kicker.

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