How do writers make original ideas?

Fantastic book. Whether you like King’s writing or not, the book itself is a great look into the mind of a professional writer.

I once read a short story that came about when the author spread out a bunch of newspapers and then randomly chose two words from the headlines. The two words were “angel” and “computer,” and the story was about a programmer who manages to code an angel. It was pretty neat.

Authors don’t come up with original ideas. Those have all been used up for ages. What authors come up with is original combinations of existing ideas.

Sometimes, even the combination of ideas need not be original. Most of Shakespeare’s plots were stolen wholesale from earlier works. But it doesn’t stop him from being one of the greatest writers in history, because his treatment of those plots was so masterful.

Hmm…so there’s nothing new under the sun? I’d heard that before, but it still seems a little depressing that people are limited to them.

There might be a totally original idea no one has yet come up with, but no one’s come up with it yet.

You can see how hard it is to be original even with a message board post. :wink: I would put it this way: what makes an individual work of fiction distinctive is not really the idea, which I think to most people would mean the plot. Any plot you come up with is going to be at least comparable to something that came before. The uniqueness, to whatever degree it exists, comes from the approach the creator takes to the story: the tone, the ideas the writer wants to explore, the themes, the details he/she highlights, and those kinds of things. If the writer has a developed voice and developed ideas, I think those elements will be individualized.

Good stories are about people. Period. You have science fiction and mystery novels in which the characters are cardboard figurines that are pushed around in service of a plot, but that’s Sudoku. Puzzles have their own appeal but have little to do with ideas and creativity in the sense we’re talking about here.

Since we still read Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights for their handling of people, that must mean that the basic psychology of human interactions is constant. There’s nothing new under the sun says only that people are people and we can’t invent new emotions for them. That’s not much of a restriction. Love and hate are unlimited in their manifestations.

Writing is largely an exercise in empathy. If you can imagine distinct characters, try throwing them in a room together and see how they react to different circumstances. We all have the ability to do this to a greater or lesser extent. The representation in your head of your old friend “Ed” is not the real, genuine Ed, just a mental construct.

I’ve started writing a story for my nephew, and I’ve been surprised how easy I’ve been finding it. I’ve found I can dream up entire chapters and hold them in my head. After that it’s mostly a case of typing them out and a few passes of editing.

Though I should add, that’s just my experience so far. Writing the early chapters has been easy, I have an overall arc for the story, and I know exactly how it will end. I can already see that marrying the two up in the middle will require some careful stitching.

I suppose the trick is to come up with a totally original idea that isn’t just random nonsense. For example, imagine the Beatles as four glass tubes filled with lard, and they’ve been strapped to seats on the Orient Express, which has been miniaturised and is steaming through Harrison Ford’s blood vessels. En route to his eyes. I’ll wager that no-one has thought of that before, but it’s not an ideal method of generating worthwhile creative ideas and if we’re being honest it’s not particularly appealing. I wouldn’t pay to see a film in which the miniature lardy glass-tube Beatles burst bloodily from Harrison Ford’s friendly face. But then again, perhaps someone else will. Who can tell?

Like the old mental game about predicting the future by using a white noise generator hooked up to a bank of video recorders; eventually, amongst the noise, it will also spit out every news report from the future, but there’ll also be an enormous quantity of plausible but fake stories and lots of complete nonsense, and you have no way to tell them apart.

Twelve identical copies of Brad Pitt waterskiing in a giant bowl of soup, and they’re wearing slippers. A semi-naked woman with no legs, covered in dollops of lard that looks rude, and there are two people in a pair of cars - connected with a cloth tube - and overhead a blimp flies past. They have paper coming out of their mouths.

Oh, hang on, I’ve just generated one of the Cremaster films. By pure random chance. Except for the part about Brad Pitt.

That’s how I generate ideas, by the way. I take something slightly silly and extend it into absurdity. And then I apply that template to something inappropriate. For example, the idea of Brad Pitt waterskiing in a giant bowl of soup isn’t particularly funny; but it sets up the rest of the joke, which is a series of seemingly-random observations that actually are from a real creative work, the implication being - in this particular case - pure random chance actually did come up trumps. The more I think about my own writing the more I realise how clever it is, on an unconscious level. Multi-layered, spiralling tubes of intertwined, innovative… internet. Interphase, that was a computer game. But there’s a distinction between something that merely seems complex and something that actually is complex. I mean, complex is complex, but there’s a difference between those drawings that people do when they’re on mescaline and a large-scale artwork where the lines have a purpose beyond simply saying “I can’t stop drawing lines, because I’m on mescaline”.

Yesterday I imagined the camera company Olympus as a lone snow wolf leaping through snowbanks with blood on its snowy mouth, and the humour came from extending this metaphor beyond all sense, so that Olympus had literally become a gore-splattered arctic predator rather than a large international conglomerate, which is what it is. Prowling for profits. I surmise this is how the Monty Python team came up with the Crimson Permanent Assurance short film; they took the idea of corporate raiders and imagined if it was literally true.

And of course even if the idea is complex, thought-out, clever, doesn’t mean it’s any good. So, as a creative person - I created five things today - I would say that the trick isn’t so much to generate ideas, but to sift out the few good pearls of gold amongst the rubbish.

And then, you have to actually do something with it. What was it Robert Heinlein said? The first rule of writing - write. The second rule - finish.