Where Do Story Ideas Come From?

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story ideas

Ideas are all over the place.

Everywhere! The difficulty has never been to have an idea. Ideas are all over the place, so many of them that I have to kick them out of the way when I walk through a room. There they sit, whimpering, heaped high in corners, and begging to be chosen next.

Ideas are easy. It’s converting an idea into a viable, sellable, finished product that is hard. Making an idea over into a cohesive story that does it full justice? Time-consuming work, let me tell you, and not every idea, no matter how good it looks on its surface, can sustain a novel.

For example, here are four recently floated to the top. I can’t do anything about any of them at this point in my life.

story idea

Story Idea #1: Cars and Doors

So I was driving home from lunch with my friend, Anne. Hi Anne! Her exit on the expressway is one exit away from mine, a distance of about two miles.

I’m halfway to my exit when I realize that a Mack truck and a red oversized sedan are playing chicken at 70 miles an hour! They zoom past me, switching lanes like crazy people, at one point the sedan zipped around me, then back in front of the truck, and they switched lanes again. There was plenty of horn-honking and waving middle fingers out of the car windows. I let my speed drop and hoped to reach my exit before ending up in the fireball that was so obviously about to go explody.

The trucker vs. sedan challenge finished off with the truck about to pursue the sedan down the exit ramp (mine!) before swerving off at the last moment back to the freeway.

I couldn’t believe it. Those two men, and they were most assuredly male, were insane with rage and could have killed us all. Too much testosterone, I’m sure.

But this leads to the idea. Women can and do drive aggressively, but for sheer road rage, all the statistics say you have to be a man. Why would a woman drive like that?

How about … because she’s an alien fighter pilot trying to pass her final test in a real-world environment. A large city with its maze of highways large and small, on- and off-ramps, streets of every size, some of them one-way, and all of them loaded with drivers who you can’t control as they do their own thing, with their drinks and smartphones and texting and sandwiches, going their own way. Random chaos. No simulator could do this good a job and the aliens can use it for free!

The alien civilization (whose inhabitants look like humans) are involved in a great war (ah, space opera, this is). They need pilots of high skill and great daring. None of this “I hit womp-rats in my speeder back home” nonsense. This test is a great exercise to grade your piloting skills and reflexes. In your souped-up vehicle, equipped with an alien cloaking device to render you invisible, can you pursue a vehicle on a high-speed chase over, under, around, and through a major metropolitan area, surrounded by all the regular people and pass your test by kissing bumpers at 80 miles an hour?

Jane can’t. She tried three times, and as a result (these aliens are tough graders) she’s stuck on Earth. Left behind, you might say.

What happens to Jane next? Why she meets the driver of the big, battered gray pickup truck, whom she has cut off multiple times in the last few weeks! Why does he remember her and her chrome yellow roadster when the cloaking device should have made her and her actions forgotten within a few hours?

He, we’ll call him Brady, and Jane discover that there are other aliens living on Earth. They failed the test too and now they’re subjects of a second test; the one where Jane’s civilization sends assassins in training to cull the rejects in another real-world scenario.

What happens when Jane and Brady find out that the real part of the driving test was the part Jane wasn’t told about? The part the test was set up for. This wasn’t just a test of skill.

It was a test of ruthlessness.

Could Jane run over that child? That dog? That pedestrian, bicyclist, ambulance, buggy, etc. on her way to kissing bumpers at high speed with Alicia?

She did not sacrifice people to achieve her goal, and that makes Jane, in the eyes of her instructors and her people, a failure.

But the war isn’t going well. More pilots are being lost than can be replaced. Even less-optimal pilots. Jane is needed after all. Brady, the guy in the pickup truck, watches TV. He goes to movies. He asks Jane if she is familiar with the concept of “cannon fodder.”

What happens next to Jane and Brady? Short story? Novella? Novel? Series of novels? Write them as a romance with thriller and science fiction aspects? Sure, why not? Romance sells and romances with hot, alien sex sell better!

See, ideas are easy. It’s the execution of them that is tedious and difficult.

story idea

Story Idea: Carter Hunt, International Man of Mystery

Here’s another real-world example. Several years ago, my sister went to the Galapagos Islands to see turtles and finches or something like that. She left a postcard addressed to us in the basket on the counter of the general store. The idea was that, eventually, through the generosity of strangers, the postcard would make its way to us, here in Hershey.

And months later, it did! We had just sat down to a luxurious Sunday morning breakfast of locally sourced (because I buy it at the Giant down the street) scrambled eggs, sausage twirls, fruit, etc. when Carter Hunt, International Man of Mystery, showed up at our front door With my sister’s postcard in hand! And yes, he was tall, dark, and handsome! Timothy Dalton, you know? He joined us for breakfast and we had a lovely chat and he disappeared to wherever International Men of Mystery go.

(Note: Carter Hunt was his real name, but we’re not going to identify him any further. A quick check of Google shows a number of Carter Hunts, and I doubt any of them would be offended to be compared to Timothy Dalton. Sure, we could have used an alias, but I don’t think I can come up with a hero’s name more perfect, and there’s a certain honesty in writing this for you to realize that it really happened. It just wouldn’t work if I used something like “Slab Riprock.”)

What a terrific setup! So there’s our heroine, wondering if this is all there is, when Carter Hunt, International Man of Mystery, shows up with a postcard from her long-lost sister. The sister desperately needs rescuing and only our heroine can do it.

So that’s the idea. Now it has to be fleshed out.

Does our heroine, we’ll call her Kathleen, have a dull husband and a few whiny kids? A boyfriend whom she wants to marry and have a few whiny kids but he’s afraid to commit? What does the husband or boyfriend think of Kathleen running away with Carter Hunt to some place dangerous and romantic in Polynesia? Does the husband or boyfriend like Kathleen’s sister enough to let Kathleen go off to save her? Does he insist on going with them?

Does this revitalize the relationship for Kathleen? She realizes how much her husband means to her, along with those whiny kids. Or does she look at the dull husband and think, you know, I can do better than this. Does the husband turn out to be not so dull, but is instead the kind of man who will come through for you in a pinch while Carter Hunt abandons you to your fate once he has the treasure?

And what about the sister? What happens to her? Does she have a husband? boyfriend? an affair with Carter Hunt? or a contentious relationship with Kathleen?

Is Carter Hunt, so dashing and exciting, the hero, the villain or someone in between?

You can see how different the endings can be depending largely on what you choose to do with Kathleen’s dull husband or won’t commit boyfriend and what kind of man Carter Hunt turns into. The treasure hunt is secondary to the relationships between Kathleen and her sister and Kathleen and the men in her life.

(By this time, if you think this bears a relationship to “Romancing the Stone,” you win a No-Prize. To avoid that, the fleshing-out process will have to address this.)

Again, an easy idea that fell into our lap but fleshing it out would take some time.

Next week, we’ll look at two more ideas and how real-life sparked them and what we could do with them.