On Writing


Where do story ideas come from?

Like the saying, "there are no new ideas," it's also true that there are few new endings:

  • they all lived happily ever after
  • the battle was won/lost, but the war had just begun
  • the lone survivor lives to tell the tale
  • and that's why there are no (unicorns, elves, cavemen, you name it) today
  • even though (name here) died, life would never be the same
  • ding-dong the witch is dead
  • and that's what I did on my summer vacation

Which one (or variation thereof) did you use in your last story? The story's climax and genre will be the major factors in deciding which ending works or, in the case of some genres or publisher's imprints, is required.

Ideas come from your muse, your robot assistant, your furry familiar or Poughkeepsie. (That last is a favorite response of Harlan Ellison. If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Ellison or his work, you've got some catching up to do.) More to the point, it's your knowledge, your experiences, and your subconscious that produce ideas for stories. The key is to keep reading, watching and learning from the world around you. Sift through what you know and use your imagination to put the various facts and observations together in a creative way. Take inspiration from other stories and authors--but not exact wording or full plots or any other unique, intellectual property. Thou shalt not plagiarize.

Variations on a theme--new twists on old stories--are allowed. Take West Side Story for example, a variation on Romeo and Juliet, which by the way was not an original idea of Shakespeare's. The Bard wrote a variation based on Arthur Brooke's Romeo and Juliet, which was based on Bandello's Romeo and Giuletta, which was also used as a basis for a French version of the story by Pierre Boaistuau.* So, while it's great to keep up on top of what's hot in the market today, don't shirk you duty to read older works. It pays off to become well read, not just widely read. Along with classic literature, mythology and fairytales of all cultures and ages can be great springboards for story ideas.

For example, I got the idea for Goldie and the Three Bares, my third published story, because two unrelated events collided. I wanted to write a story about a busy woman who hasn't made time for a personal life suddenly finding herself pursued by too many sexy men to choose from. While pondering the here, when and who for such a story, I saw a call for submissions of stories based on fairytales. Too many choices + fairytale plots added up to a twist on Goldie Locks and the Three Bears for me. Instead of having to make decisions about porridge or chairs or mattress softness, my Goldie has to decide between three guys who are equally attractive to her, but for very different reasons; instead of the heroine stumbling upon a cottage in the woods when she's hungry, she stumbles into a fairy circle and the chance to jump through time; the original Goldie searches for food and rest, while my Goldie searches for the key to an archeological discovery (and finds she needs companionship just as much).

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