Series Info...#1: Ideas

by Travis S. Casey
February 9, 2001

"Where do you get your ideas?" That's the question that writers, artists, game designers, and a lot of other people in creative fields will tell you they get asked the most. Many people seem to have the impression that ideas are a gift – you get them or you don't, and there's nothing you can do to change that. Well, I'm here to tell you that that isn't the case, and to tell you how I get ideas, in hopes that it'll help you get ideas too.

In the beginning was the idea... well, not quite. Every once in a while, you'll get an idea that seem to spring from nowhere, but most ideas aren't like that – you have to go out and find them. What's more, just one idea isn't going to get you very far in building a world or creating a story; you need more ideas with which to develop that first idea.

The best place to find new ideas is by looking at old ideas. Find one that strikes your fancy, and then try to find a way to freshen it up – to make it new. So, let's start with finding ideas.

Where to Find Ideas

You've probably already got a general idea of what you want to do – create a new fantasy world, come up with a plot for a science-fiction stage, whatever. With that in mind, you can start looking for a specific idea. One place to look is in the area you've already chosen – the fantasy or SF genres, to use the two general ideas above.

Immerse Yourself

The first way to look for ideas is to immerse yourself in the area of the idea – read and watch everything you reasonably can about it. You don't have to turn into an overnight fanatic, but you do need to become reasonably well-informed about the area. This will do two things – first, it will expose you to lots of specific ideas in that area. Second, it will let you know what the cliches are in that area, so you can avoid them.

Three recommendations when immersing yourself:
  • Read fan fiction. Some of it is very good, and can be mined for ideas. Some of it is very bad, and will help show you what things to avoid. Either way, it's helping.
  • Read parodies. They're the fastest ways to find the cliches of a genre.
  • Go back to the original sources. For example, for fantasy, read Dunsany, Greek myths, Arthurian legends, and the like. If you haven't read the originals before, you'll often find that things that are now the assumed orthodoxy of a genre were just one of many variations.

Look Elsewhere

If you're already familiar with the area in question, immersion isn't likely to help you any further. An alternative, then, is to take other areas you know about, and start thinking about how you could fit them into or adapt them to the area you're looking for an idea in.

These will help you find old ideas, but what do you do then? How do you make new ideas out of old ones?

Idea Recycling

The trick is to use old ideas as a jumping-off point in looking for new ideas. Here are three tricks for taking an old idea and "recycling" it:

  • put it in a different context
  • twist it in a new direction
  • take a cliche and break it

Let's bring in some examples. George Lucas took the hero's quest, which is usually seen in a fantasy context, and put it in an SF context to make Star Wars. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez took a basic horror story, twisted it by making it a pseudo-documentary, and made the Blair Witch Project. Anne Rice took the cliche of the vampire, broke it by making a vampire who was the protagonist of a novel and who didn't want to be a vampire, and wrote Interview With the Vampire.

Now, before someone else says it, of course those core ideas aren't the only things that make those movies and that book good. A core idea is only a start; you have to develop it with other ideas – but the same methods will help you to find new supporting ideas to develop your core idea with.

Another trick is to play "what if?" games with what you read or watch. Think about different ways that the ideas and events could be changed, and what side effects those changes could have. What if the first Death Star hadn't been destroyed? What events could have followed from that? This method is especially good for getting new ideas for settings.

Think about what doesn't get shown. Books, and especially movies, tend to leave things out – both minor things, like characters eating and eliminating, and more major things, like how different characters met, who provides support for a team of heroes, how pieces of information were found out, etc. These things can be developed in such a way as to be interesting in themselves, and can give ideas for adventures or settings that fall outside the 'normal' areas that get covered – and which will therefore seem fresh and new to most people.

Lastly, some old ideas are old enough that most people, even fans of the genre, may think they're new. For example, the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer has vampires which are demons that have taken over the bodies of dead humans. This might seem like a new idea, but it's actually a very old one – indeed, it was a popular explanation among theologians in medieval Europe for how a vampire might exist. Since few people today had been exposed to it, however, it seems like a new idea to most.

But What About Originality?

Right about now, someone out there is thinking, "but I want to come up with original ideas!" To them, I say that original ideas aren't ideas that don't relate in any way to other ideas that already exist – they're just ideas that haven't been used yet. Most people aren't going to care how 'original' your ideas are – they're going to care about how interesting they are, and how well you've developed them. Shakespeare used old plots to write his plays, and look where it got him. Look through a list of great movies, books, and games, and you'll see that most of them don't have original ideas at their heart – what makes them great is how those ideas were developed and presented.

By the same token, no matter how new you think your ideas are, sooner or later someone's going to come along and tell you that someone you've never heard of has already done them. Don't let it worry you – like I just said, originality isn't the most important thing about an idea.

Eating Popcorn

Coming up with ideas should be like eating popcorn – you don't want to stop with just one. A good central idea will prompt you to start asking questions, and you'll need more ideas for answers to those questions. The same methods will help you to come up with these supporting ideas, and coming up with them will bring you a good part of the way along the road of developing your idea – which, amazingly enough, will be the topic of the next column! See you in two weeks – or before then, in the forums.

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