All students of imagination have the same reaction when they see something new and amazing within the scope of their craft, “Where did they get that idea?” Well, in actuality it can go two ways, the first involves stomping up and down screaming, “it’s not fair, I thought of that way before that guy.”  The second being the complete dumbstruck awe and depression that you’ll never come up with anything worth a damn.  Fear not my dreamers, for all ideas come from the same places, you just have to know where to look.  I’m going to make a statement here and list the top 5 places (in no particular order) new concepts and ideas are born.

1.  The what if? contemplation – alone
2.  The what if? contemplation – collaborative
3.  Dreams
4.  Raw Experience
5.  Environment


Exhibit A. – What if? (alone, usually in the shower or before bed)

‘I should really expand on my idea about killer sports equipment.  What if footballs all turned to kamikaze explosives?  Tennis racquets and bats beating the hell out of people would be AWESOME too!’

‘What if there was this vampire kid that fell in love with a human girl?  Like they could be in high school and stuff.  There would be werewolves too, but not like Lycan werewolves, they are slobbery and gross.  My wolves would be sexy, way sexy.’ … ‘Nah, that will never work.  Good Night.’


Exhibit B. – What if? (collaborative)

Mr. Idea:  “What if Robots came down from outer space?  What if they wanted to plunder all our secret caches of blow-up sex dolls?”

Mr. Idea’s Buddy: “We have secret caches of blow up dolls? Why?”

Mr. Idea:  “Because that is what powers their fuel cells!”

Mr. Idea’s Buddy:  “That’s not what I asked…”

Mr. Idea:  “Dude I don’t know.  Maybe because like the women are all going extinct.”

Mr. Idea’s Buddy:  “You have my attention.  Perhaps there should be killer tomatoes for good measure?”

Mr. Idea:  “HELL YA! This is why I have you around man.”


The what if? is effective done alone, but can be deadly powerful in groups.  Bringing minds together and bouncing ideas off of a peer group has lead to many successful collaborative efforts.  This has also lead to many dismayed parents seeing the family car turned into a cardboard pirate ship.  We see these efforts in cinema a lot, and even with novelists who work together to write great books, musicians as well.

As we can see from exhibits A and B, the what if? question is a tool for entertaining all sorts of ideas.  From the outlandish to the very serious marketable ones.  You are no doubt asking yourself, “Damnit Danny, where do the what if? questions come from?”

The what if? question is designed to help you flush out an idea that you only catch a fleeting glimpse of.  The seed of an idea if you will.  An abandoned car on the side of the road, for example, can lead to all sorts of what if? questions:

What if that car had the president in disguise inside it and he is hitchhiking cross country?
What if that car belonged to a criminal on the run?
What if that criminal was wanted for…?

Abandoned buildings, a piece of trash, a fragmented grocery list found on the ground, the two seconds you remember from your dream last night, new paths for other ideas ex. “What if Vader was gay? How would Star Wars be different?”, are all examples of where a what if? question can be used.  The possibilities are endless.  A solid 90% of all successful ideas and concepts are based on what if?.  The lucky ones (Twilight anyone?) well have a successful idea in a dream.

Dreams are good places to pull ideas from for a number of reasons: it’s easy, your brain power is more efficiently used on expanding instead of idea seed creation, reflects a part of your inner self so you can identify with it, how else are you going to imagine getting chased by an eight legged spider with the head of your Dad while you run naked through a field of wheat?

Personally, I keep a dream journal.  It sounds silly but going back and reading dreams that I’ve forgotten has lead me to some good creative juice.  I highly recommend getting a note pad next to your bed.  If it is a long dream just make short notes about the sequence of events and go back later to expand on it.  Your brain remembers it all, you just have to jump start it to pull it up front.

Lets get away from the dreams and imagination for just a minute and talk about, “raw experience.”  Besides sounding like the title of a Monster Truck Rally, “raw experience” is the most effective and credible means for any creative person to paint a picture or tell a tale.  A person who has been to prison is going to capture it’s true essence better than a researching book worm.  The guy who climbs mountains is going to describe the feelings of his protagonist mountain climber better than the writer who watches Cliffhanger 100 times.  They say, “Write what you know.” What you know is from getting your ass out of the chair on the weekends and having adventures.  Experiencing life and trying new things is the only way to make yourself a more dynamic individual with expanded creative horizons.  Which brings us to the number five, environment.

The environment a creator of any medium finds themselves in is going to influence what comes out of his idea pot.  People who live in Southern California don’t churn out many songs about rainy depressing days and the Beach Boys didn’t write “Surfin’ USA” in the middle of a corn field in Iowa.  What you surround yourself with is going to influence your thought processes.  If not noticeably on a conscious level you are certainly finding yourself subconsciously influenced.

If you have a lot of friends named Sean, it is quite the coincidence that the first name for any character you create starts with an S. Weird.  If you walk to work everyday passing a certain Cafe it is just a matter of time before you imagine a) two people falling in love who meet there, or b) a hostage situation (whatever side of the spectrum your morality falls on isn’t my place to judge, so whatever floats your boat).  Environment I find plays more of a major factor in little details of my creativity.  A character name, or a new way interactions between people take place.  I’ve even gone so far as to snoop on conversations of strangers.  The world around you is a mountain of ideas for characters, their interactions, settings, and what if? questions.  Pay attention.

In conclusion dear reader, creativity is fueled by imagination grown from planted idea seeds.

Those seeds are EVERYWHERE!

May 6th, 2009

Posted In: The Craft of Writing, zEverything

Tags: ,

  • Mike

    Do I have to plant the seeds or can I just eat them? Anyone got a Twinkie?

  • Don’t eat them 🙂 plant them and make something of them. To many ideas just get tossed into the wind and never become anything.

  • Mike Dufloth

    I’ve been looking for different voices to play with the last few months since I started writing/editing the local newsletter … while browsing for ideas I came across this site and really enjoyed this guys stuff. It is a guy from the UK at: http://chasemeladies.blogspot.com/
    ENJOY!

  • Rhonda

    Some ideas come from emails. For instance, today I looked at one of your short story emails. And I suddenly got the idea to click on a link in it. Turns out the stories are longer than what’s displayed in the email, and that’s why I have been so confused about the stories!

Where do ideas come from?