Coming Up With An Idea – The Ultimate Guide

writer coming up with an idea

As I was trying to come up with an idea for short stories I searched for methods to do so but one word kept popping up: anything. Anything that you think of, anything that pops to your mind, anything at all can be developed. As much as I found it to be true, it was no help to me at all.

I am not one to share my raw ideas with people since they usually have no real meaning. To be honest, I know how stupid it is of me, I fear criticism at that stage. I wouldn’t like my simple idea being criticized before it even got a spark of life in it to survive on its own.

But how do we get to the idea and grab it?

The process is personal. And wait, that doesn’t mean I’ll just say it’s different for everyone and leave you hanging. I’m about to tell you my own process so we can examine it.

When I was writing the first draft my novel, I had no real idea what I was going to write about. Now’s the time to mention I’m a classical music geek so I use classical music to get inspired. At the time I had just discovered Giuseppe Tartini and his famous Devil’s Trill Sonata so I was listening to it. It was a hot summer day and I brainstormed a little, and my mind got locked to the images of old Spanish roads that I had traveled by a few years ago.

2-rainbows-at-the-sunrise-1466726See, now it gets complicated, I wasn’t moved by the Spanish road as much as by the color palette that I imagined. Everything I thought of was almost sepia-like, yellowish and burnt. So I kept thinking about it and
came up with an imaginary town (to be honest, I like writing fiction from scratch and I like inventing towns, people, conflicts, religions, etc.).

But, not to go too far with one idea, the thing that got me writing was actually a cloud. As I saw it I imagined a terrible storm that I wanted to incorporate in my story so I wrote those ideas down. At that moment, I had a little yellow town, a storm and Giuseppe Tartini. I immediately knew Tartini would have a part to play, or his works, at least.

But where to go next?

Well, that’s easier. Once you have an image or a word that triggers your emotions, your inspiration, you can go anywhere by asking yourself simple questions about it. When I thought of a storm I asked myself who was affected by it and I thought it would be cool if I had a house at the end of a lane where a loner lives, old man with open windows with Devil’s Trill Sonata playing on a gramophone inside.

So I thought about him some more. Why was he alone? Why would he leave open windows seeing that the storm was coming? And this is what I came up with: he was a washed up painter whose career had reached it’s finest glory very early in his life.

So it’s a story of success and failure, I realized. I thought it would be really cool it the novel was covering his past in that yellow town while he was listening to music and drinking tea moments before the storm. I saw some metaphors on the horizon there. So the whole book would be set in a few minutes of his life in a house at the end of a lane with triggers for memories.


The first part, the day he left his home and went to study painting in the yellow town was triggered by the taste of that tea he was sipping. Now I had the real idea of where I was going so I was able to do the characterization and then the plot.

You can do the same thing. You can do a few things to trigger the inspiration. Be exposed to the things you like! Don’t force yourself. If you like visual inspiration then look up photos of things you like. A photo of an old house can trigger a horror novel, a romantic story set in different time, a thriller story… Truly anything can get your ideas to come.

Another way you can do that is by visiting book stores and looking at titles and covers. It’s not plagiarism if you don’t even know what’s the book about. But if it has a compelling title it can trigger the idea of what it might be about so write it down.

It’s really important to write ideas down so you can see them at any time. I’ll do a separate posts about idea selection, brainstorming, etc. You can listen to people. I wrote a short story about an old lady running a bar because I heard an old waitress saying how slow the business in her bar was.

Develop Your Ideas Further

I talked about coming up with ideas here but now I want to go in depth with ideas and how we can model them.

Before a writer starts working on their plot outline, the smallest piece of thought must be born first. That small, independent thought is an idea. I already described how I randomly come by ideas and pick them for future use, but ideas can be more powerful and deserve our attention.

An idea is a concept as well – love, hatred, vanity, justice. It’s abstract, it’s pure, it’s universal. Any of these can be a source not just of a story or a novel but a series!

I have designed a three stage process that should help you with developing your ideas. It’s very simple and can be done quickly with positive results. It’s more of a brainstorming technique than a formula to success, to be honest.

1. Associating

When you have a picture in your mind, do a game of associations, try to followCreativity-Tips-Mind-Map-by-Tony-Buzan.gif the path
of all the ideas that come to your mind. Follow the trails of your thoughts. The best thing to do is to make a mind map (just like in the picture, but you don’t have to try as hard).

You should have a creative tree of ideas related to the parent idea that should be in the center.

2. Questioning

Now that you have a family of ideas, try questioning their position, try imagining the details. For example, your parent idea is a town where nothing ever happens. You add corrupted local government, you add a subculture of young people whose only joy is drinking all day long, you add a summer heath, lack of water and a lot of dust to it, you add a local religious cult to it. What do we have? Not so boring, if you ask me. But now, I’d probably exclude the cult, it doesn’t really fit in with the rest.

So, I’ve questioned the cult, scratched it and I’m left with other ideas. Why is there a lack of water? Is the corruption related to it? Where does the local mayor’s interests lay? What’s the cause of massive alcoholism? Does that make a good story about a young man who gets trapped in his stale life?

3. Contrasting

Now that we question (and answered) our ideas, we should put them one against the other. If I said that the town was suffocating on dust. But also said there were unstoppable rains the whole summer, it wouldn’t make any sense. That’s why I contrast all the ideas. The same way is if you write a mystery and find that a certain sentence or a certain event reveals to your readers who the mastermind behind the conspiracy is – you exclude it, you change it!

These should help you to brainstorm before you start plotting with the real techniques for story development.

Why Use Simple Ideas

Recently I’ve been struggling with my ideas. It took me a while before I figured what I’ve been doing wrong. We all randomly stumble upon ideas and we like them so we try to fit them in a story but sometimes they just can’t work. Now, to me, that’s a nightmare. Cutting my own idea that I was so proud of? Terrible notion. Nonetheless, I do it (and I store it in a treasure chest just in case).

But why don’t they work?

Sometimes they’re just cliches that appear from our exposure to mass media. We can’t escape stereotypes and ‘natural conclusions’ that the media is offering us, so from time to time, we all give in. Think of phone conversations you see on TV – every single one is wrong. But the most of us just ignores that fact that people don’t talk like that because we’re so used to the way people on screen talk to each other.

But the second reason why some ideas don’t work, and the reason for my struggles, is the fact that some ideas are just too complicated to fit. Sometimes I would have an original idea that I think would work fine and as I try to develop it I figure out why no one has done it before.

Fantasy World

But let’s go a step further.

Simple ideas – those are the best ones even if you’re a seasoned writer with a reputation and proven track record. You can work with them in any way you wish, they’re fluid and can bend. The best thing is that you can easily change your perspective and a simple, old idea will seem somehow new. I’m not saying that you should loose all your ambition and just recycle ideas. I suggest you keep it simple.

The simple ones will work and you can easily shape your story around a simple idea about a girl who writer crime novels and goes deep into her research for a novel only to find that she is in danger from whoever she was investigating. See? Made it up as I went.

My favorite TV show revolves around some incredibly simple ideas that became legends – they started out simple and over the course of fifty years they developed into complexity with grace – I’m talking about Doctor Who, of course. The idea of an alien traveling in time and space? Simple, with potential. A small box that is bigger on the inside? Never really explained, we all just went along with the idea. That TV show was so lovable that the audiences worldwide have been watching it for decades now.

So, the next time you’re struggling with an idea that is complex and just won’t fit – cut its edges. Bring it backwards and make it simple – from there you can pick a direction and develop it with ease.

Keep writing!

Author: Mladen Reljanović

Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.

13 thoughts on “Coming Up With An Idea – The Ultimate Guide

  1. Ideas can come from anywhere. The simplest things. I got a character name from the defective decal on the back of a fuel truck on the freeway at 5 in the morning, coming back from Disneyland last year.

    All it takes is the inspiration, a root of an idea and off you go!

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