One of the most common questions writers get asked is: “How do you come up with your ideas?” Creativity is the backbone of storytelling because without creative ideas there are no stories. You want to have as many ideas, or “sparks” as I call them, as possible.
But how do you come up with those sparks? How do you remain creative day in and day out? This is part of my creative process, and hopefully it will inspire your own creativity.
1) Don’t Fear Failure
The most surefire way to crush your creativity is to convince yourself that the spark isn’t good enough, or people won’t like it, or it won’t make sense, before it even has a chance. In short, you’re worried about failure. This is the most important step; the rest of this article won’t help if you defeat yourself (and your sparks) before you begin.
Are there going to be bad sparks? Yes. Not everything is great and amazing, but I am a firm believer in the brute force method of creativity. If only 10% of my sparks are worthwhile, then I want as many sparks as possible. 10% of 1000 is more than 10% of 100.
Try this: Attempt to catch yourself shooting down your sparks. Notice when you disregard a potential spark, no matter the reason. In fact, promise yourself a reward if you can catch yourself writing off a spark instead of writing it down. This doesn’t mean the spark will be good, but you want to learn to keep yourself from getting rid of sparks before they have a chance.
2) Learn to See
You pass thousands of story sparks each day, if not more. This is the reason I call them sparks, because you’re not going to stumble across complete story ideas on the street. It would be great if whole books would appear in our minds, fully fleshed out, but more likely you will pass by something that will spark an idea within you, and that little something can lead to more. But it only can if you’re paying attention.
Creativity comes from without. If you sit in a closed room with a lightbulb, you’ll starve for sparks because there’s nothing to ignite them. Sparks come from the world you see and interact with every day, taken in to be interpreted in your own unique way.
Try this: Go somewhere, anywhere that is not a closed room with a lightbulb. Outside of your house is even better. Write down twenty things you observe. Anything. It can be about a person you see, or the sound of a bird, or the smell of the city. You’re not looking for story ideas, you’re learning to notice sparks.
Example: Music coming from across the street.
3) Get Inspired by Other People
I get my sparks from everywhere, and that includes things created by other people such as TV, movies, books, video games, news stories, and music. I’ll tell you a secret: pretty much every story I’ve ever written came from a spark I got from another book or movie/TV show. I took the things about those stories that I loved (or wanted to love, that I decided I could do better) and turned them into my own stories.
Try this: Go read a favorite book, watch a favorite movie, listen to a favorite song, etc. Try and pin down some sparks from what you liked about it. If you’re feeling daring, pick something you didn’t like, but think you could do better.
Example: A curmudgeonly doctor (from the TV series: House)
4) Expand Your Sparks
Now you want to take those sparks and use them to develop brighter sparks. Try this: Pick a spark from your list that you like.
Example: Music coming from across the street.
Try changing the spark by asking a few questions: Who, what, when, where, why, how?
Example: Who is playing the music?
Then answer those questions, either on your own or by combining them with another spark.
Example: A curmudgeonly doctor is playing the music.
Are you starting to see how your sparks can grow? Did you get any story ideas from these simple sparks? Try asking other questions or even skew the answers based on the genre.
Fantasy spin: The curmudgeonly doctor is using magic to generate the music.
5) Share your ideas
I am going to reiterate “Don’t be afraid to fail” here. Believe me, I’ve been there many times. At the same time, I have gotten through so many stuck spots by just talking through an idea with my husband. Sometimes he doesn’t even have to say anything; the mere act of explaining it to someone makes me think of it in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. Sometimes he’ll come up with a spark of his own to combine with mine.
Try this: Share one of your bright sparks with someone you trust. I use my husband and close friends. Start with: “I have this idea for a story,” then tell them your spark and listen to what they have to say. Notice which sparks generate a lot of discussion, or other sparks, and which ones don’t.
Creativity is all about compounding sparks on sparks until you generate a bonfire. If you keep working on noticing sparks and building on the ones you have, soon you’ll have more sparks than you know what to do with.
Please share your sparks below. I would love to see what you’ve come up with!
Laura Highcove has been writing her entire life and enjoys creating fantasy worlds and discovering the people who live there. She has been influenced by anime, table-top gaming, and Norse mythology, in no particular order. Her current obsessions include gryffins, anything Brandon Sanderson writes, and the new TV series Lucifer. Visit her website or follow her on Facebook to learn more.