Monday, 11 April 2011

How to keep having great ideas

You’ve spilled your guts and poured your heart into your latest project and having another idea, let alone a worthy one, seems like an impossibility. The best ideas you’ve had to date, drawing on a lifetime of experience - your blood, sweat and tears poured into the project - how can you ever come up with something like that again?

Because for those of us in the creativity business that’s what we’re supposed to do - keep coming up with good ideas again and again and again. How the hell do we find enough material to stimulate our creativity and hold our interest for the next project? And the one after that? And the one after that?


Your material comes from three areas: stuff you know, stuff you’re yet to know, and stuff you make up. And where do we go for that stuff? Right here:


You already know this but it’s worth repeating - read, read, read - not just on your subject but around it, and far away from it. You don’t think reading that book on quantum mechanics can have any bearing on that noir thriller you want to write? You couldn’t be more wrong - cross-fertilization of ideas is where true originality grows.


Communication is 80% listening. You’ve got something to say but if they don’t want to hear it, you’re wasting your time. To affect someone you need to know what moves them, what excites them - you need to know their prejudices and fears - you need to know how to get them to listen to you, and you can only do that by listening to them.

Not only that, listening to people is a great source of material, but it’s not just what they’re saying that you need to listen to, it’s what’s going on behind those words, what they’re not saying as much as what they are saying - how the story they’re relating makes them feel, how the event they describe could be interpreted by others who were there - how much of themselves they reveal unknowingly, and how much of themselves only you, the perceptive writer can see.


You could throw yourself into a wild lifestyle to gather new experiences for material, but the truth is you’ve already lived a fair portion of life already. Every day you recall many events from your past before dismissing them without a second thought for their creative potential. Stop that right now - capture them, reexamine them - something that at first might not seem appropriate for your germinating story idea could be made so by some reworking - could that emotion you recall be applied elsewhere? What if you changed the characters or situation? What if that scene from the playground was actually played out in an adult situation? Could it provide a new applicable dramatic dynamic? No? Then you’re not trying hard enough.

And what about right here, right now? You don’t have to be a secret agent to have a life worth writing about. So the board-meeting may be dull as ditch-water, but maybe the boss is ragging on everyone because his wife’s just found out about his affair with the secretary, maybe all that bravado is because he feels his underlings are better than him - once again, look for sub-text, read between the lines. Chuck Palahniuk got his idea for Fight Club because he attended a meeting at work with a black-eye and no-one mentioned it.


This is the bit where you can make up stuff you don’t know - but it’s also stimulated by the other three material sources defined above. You’ll know better than me what stimulates your imagination - but I find it’s the more abstract influences that gets mine going - music, weather, desire and love - to name just a few. This is a subject I’ve already covered, so I won’t bang on about it again here.

Don’t obsess too much about having an ‘original’ idea - there truly aren’t that many of them around - taking an old idea and presenting it through your own view of the world, coupled with a reinterpretation of it’s dramatic significance, the characters involved or the setting, can be all the originality you need. Think of Tarantino or Leone, who at the start of their careers basically re-imagined and re-shot foreign films they loved. No one accuses them of a lack of originality.


  1. Great post, especially the bit about listening. I've got quite a few ideas from strange anecdotes people have told me. As for reading, I'd add to not only read books - I find newspapers and history fertile ground for ideas too, fact really is stranger than fiction.

  2. Thank you, that's timely for me.

    I like the Fight Club story. In the middle of my large workshop hangs a trapeze, dating from the years my daughter did static trapeze at Circus Space. It's astonishing how many visitors don't mention it.

  3. Hey,

    It's true as well. The ideas are inside you all the time. Your subconscious just strings one memory to the next and voila, inspiration!

    Sometimes you go through a short while and you start to panic: maybe I lost it! But then a really good one pops into your head and aaahhhh.. you're alright again.

    Keep it up!


  4. Apologies to all for my tardy response to these comments - although I've been writing a lot in my notebook and my head - I haven't sat down at the hallowed keyboard since I wrote this post - so Girl Friday, Lexi and Marcel thank you so much for your comments. I'm pleased this post resonated with you and I very much appreciate the feedback of such esteemed writers as yourselves. Thanks guys.