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How to never run out of ideas again.

Thanks to Ninja Writers, I interact with thousands of writers every week. It’s pretty damn cool. I had a conversation in our Facebook group this week that made me realize that there are two things I hear, probably more than anything else.

  1. Where do you get your ideas?
  2. I want to be a writer, but I don’t know what to write about.

Those are basically the same question, right? Or one question and one reason for asking it. Hopefully it helps to know that all writers struggle with the idea pit.

Here’s Stephen King’s answer to The Question.

I get my ideas from everywhere. But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question ‘What if?’ ‘What if’ is always the key question.

And Neil Gaiman’s.

‘I make them up,’ I tell them. ‘Out of my head.’

I used to give flip answers when someone asked me The Question. Like ‘heaven’ or ‘on sale at the Wal-Mart.’

But the truth was, ideas freaked me out. I’d never run out of them, but I only ever had one at a time. So I was in a constant state of worry that whatever I was working on was my last good idea ever and this was it.

The entirety of my career rested in the palm of this this one idea.

Talk about putting pressure on a thing.

I also realized, eventually, that the next idea that I did get always came when I was smack in the heart of the boring part of writing the first one. The boring part, in case you’re wondering, is the second act. The middle. The part where you’re done with the exciting beginning and you haven’t go to the rush of the finish yet.

The part where my brain is willing to do anything, including be brilliant, to get me out of having to do that work.

You know that scene in 10 Things I Hate About You where Julia Stiles flashes the teacher so Heath Ledger can sneak out of detention? That’s my brain on writing the second act.

So, I’d give up on the idea that suddenly felt boring and wrong, and switch to this one fantastic, shiny idea. Because of course that’s the right thing to do. Shiny New Idea is going to make me a superstar.

And it would be my only idea for a while. Then I’d get to Act Two. And, well, you know. Some new idea would flash my brain and I’d sneak out the window and abandon the last great idea.

If I was going to have a career as a writer, something had to give. I needed to be able to stay with one idea all the way through, and I needed a way to capture the shiny new ones. And I needed a method for developing new ideas at will, so that I could let go of the fear of running out of them.

I put a lot of effort in the last couple of years into learning how to develop and capture ideas. And it worked. No kidding. I turned myself into an idea machine.

I teach the method for free here. At Ninja Writers, we call it H2DSI — or How to Develop (and test) a Story Idea.

Today, I just want to go over the ‘develop’ part. I swear, it’s like magic. You’ll want a notebook and a pen (or a computer, if you’re less analog than me.) And a couple of hours that can be spread over a few days. That’s it.


Step One: Make a list of characters

Mark Twain based Huckleberry Finn on a real person. Someone he knew.

“In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person — boy or man — in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.”

Agatha Christie’s infamous Miss Marple was inspired by her own grandmother.

“Although a completely cheerful person, she always expected the worst of anyone and everything. And with almost frightening accuracy she was usually proved right. [She used to say] ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if so-and-so was going on.’ And although with no grounds for these assertions, that was exactly what was going on. …[The character of Miss Marple] insinuated herself so quietly into my life that I think I hardly noticed her arrival.”

You know people like Tom Blakenship. You probably have a grandma or uncle or first grade teacher who had some kind of personality quirk that’s stuck with you. Spend some time making a list of them. Every single character you’ve collected in the nooks and crannies of your mind over the course of your life.

Just a line or two is fine.

Just this morning I added two to mine.

I was driving my daughter to a basketball tournament and we passed a car broken down on the side of the highway. There was a mother standing outside of the car, on the highway shoulder, with her five- or six-year-old daughter — brushing her hair. They were both in chruch dresses. We passed them going sixty or so, and I only caught a glimpse, but mom and daughter both made the cut.

I’ve had another roadside glimpse on my list for two decades — a man kneeling beside his muscle car, in prayer. I saw him from a bus window in Las Vegas. Was he really praying? Maybe not. But on my list, he was. And someday, he’ll find his way into a story.

Assignment: Make a list of at least ten potential characters.

Step Two: Make a list of settings

For J.R.R. Tolkien, it all started with a hole. I love this story.

[I remember] the actual flashpoint. I can still see the corner in my house in 20 Northmoor Road where it happened. I’d got an enormous pile of exam papers there and was marking school examinations in the summer time, which was very laborious, and unfortunately also boring.
I remember picking up a paper and nearly gave it an extra mark, or extra five marks actually, because one page on this particular paper was left blank. Glorious! Nothing to read. So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’

Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Thing at the Top of the Stairs” was inspired by a setting he held on to for most of his life.

When I was 4 or 5, 6 years old, we had the bathroom upstairs. And in the middle of the night, when I had to go up there, I had to run halfway up the stairs, turn on the light before I could go the rest of the way. Well, when I was doing this, I’d always say to myself, now, don’t look at the top of the stairs because “it” will be waiting for you. And I never learned not to look. And I would scream and fall back down the stairs, and my mother or father would get up and sigh and say, oh, my God. Here we go again. And they’d turn the light on for me and let me go upstairs.

Just like you did with characters, open your notebook to a fresh sheet and start a list of settings. You have them, already. That spot where you felt safe when you were six. The place where you had your first kiss. The gym locker room after basketball practice. The way, way back of your grandpa’s station wagon.

The book I’m writing now was inspired by two settings from my list. The house my dad lived in when I was about ten years old. It was tall and skinny, with a bedroom perched on top like a cherry on a cupcake, surrounded by a 360-degree balcony. And the stairs leading down from a bluff to the beach where we took a family picture twenty years ago.

(That picture was photobombed by an elderly couple who legit stopped and turned and posed for it. They’re on my character list.)

Assignment: Make a list of at least ten potential settings.

Step Three: Make a list of situations

Audrey Niffenegger’s inspiration for The Time Traveler’s Wife came from character, but especially situation.

“The idea came in the form of the title, while I was drawing one day. I wrote it down and began to turn it over in my head. The title contained two characters, the time traveler and his wife. It seemed that it might be rather trying to be the wife. I imagined her waiting. Then I had an image of an old woman in a bright room, waiting, and I knew that was the end of the story. After that it was a matter of figuring out who these people were, and how that woman got to that room.”

Kahled Hosseini wrote the short story that became The Kite Runner after seeing a story on the news.

“I was watching a news story in the spring of 1999 on television, and this news story was about the Taliban. And it was talking about all the different impositions that the Taliban had placed on the Afghan people. And at some point along the line, it mentioned that they had banned the sport of kite flying, which kind of struck a personal chord for me, because as a boy I grew up in Kabul with all my cousins and friends flying kites.”

Situation is just another word for story. Not a whole story, though. A snippet of a story. A seed of one.

Open another clean sheet in your notebook and start writing a list of situations. Think about news stories that have stuck with you. People you’ve met, who told you something interesting that sometimes pops up for you again. Your family history. (It’s okay — these are just seeds, right? Don’t worry about whether someone might be upset that their situation made it on your list.)

The book I sold last summer, The Astonishing Maybe, which be published by MacMillan early next year, came from a situation I’d been holding on to for a long time — one from my own childhood — a girl coping with her father being in prison.

Assignment: Make a list of ten potential situations.

Step Four: Pretend you’re at a Chinese restaurant

Once you have your three lists, start putting them together.

Really, just pick a character, a setting, and a situation. See how it sits with you. Tweak it until you’re happy with it, then add it to your idea barn. And do it again. And again.

And just because you used a character, setting, or situation for one idea, doesn’t mean you have to cross it off your list. Until you’ve written the idea into a book and published it, it’s all still fair game.

Assignment: Shuffle your potentialities into at least three new ideas.

When I was writing The Astonishing Maybe, I knew I wanted to write a story about a little girl who believed she was a superhero named Wonder Roo. I knew I wanted to write a book set in rural Nevada. And I knew that I wanted to write a story about a girl whose father was in prison.

I didn’t know they were all going to be the same story. Until I did. I literally just messed around with my lists, putting them together like tangrams into different story shapes until something felt right.

This method is one of my favorite things to teach. I hope it helps you. (If you want, you can come join us in May for a free Ninja Writer 31 Day Challenge. We’ll be walking through this method and a bunch of other stuff.)

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes, is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming middle-grade novel The Astonishing Maybe and is the original Ninja Writer.

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