How to Get Good Ideas. Seriously.
Ideas are the blood of creativity. It’s up to you to get them moving but nothing works without ideas to start.
So before I attempt to answer this preposterously large problem with a greatly simplified answer, let’s look at a related question a lot of creative people seem to dread and what author Neil Gaiman has to say about this question.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?
I’ve done some light editing but essentially Neil Gaiman, in the video below, says the following about getting ideas…
“They come essentially from daydreaming. I suspect it’s something that every human being does.
Writers train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea. It’s not that they have any more ideas or get inspired more than anyone else.
We just notice when it happens a little bit more but you’re just thinking. You go… well… you know… everybody knows that if you get bitten by a werewolf when the moon is full, you will turn into a wolf.
You know that.
There’s that moment where you’re sitting thinking… so what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?
… and suddenly you have a story… so a lot of it is daydreaming.”
What Can We Learn from Neil Gaiman’s Answer?
At the end of the video, Neil suggests that people are looking for more prescriptive directions. In other words, people are asking… is there a series of actions that Neil takes that I can take to have ideas appear for me also?
There are some tools we can use to help spark ideas but generally, we already have to approach those tools or techniques with a creative mindset to get something out of them.
But what is this mindset? Let’s look at Neil’s answer and ask some questions to see his answer from a different perspective.
What is Daydreaming?
Neil states that ideas come from daydreaming and he gives the example of a werewolf that bites a goldfish.
What Neil’s doing here is asking questions about something he’s interested in. He’s interested in the story possibilities around monsters and he’s asking a specific question about one kind of monster.
To consciously start generating ideas you generally need two things; an area that you’re interested in and an interesting question about that area.
What Are You Interested In?
Let’s start with the first component. What interests you? If you were a writer, what would you write about?
Do you like time travel, doomed relationships, mother/daughter relationships? Do you like farcical comedies, steamy romances, interstellar sagas? Do you like sad things? Happy things? Mostly clever things? Do you like a mix of these things?
Getting to know what sparks interest in you is the foundation from which you can start.
It’s could be related to the kind of media that engages you. What kind of books or movies do you love? Starting here can be very helpful in figuring out what moves you if the answers don’t come easily.
Questions Create Ideas
This is the real answer in very simple terms.
You get ideas by asking questions.
While this is true, it’s not entirely super helpful in such a compact form so let me fill in the details and hopefully make things a little bit more useful.
There are two types of questions that people ask when creating ideas.
Asking Conscious Questions
First, there are conscious questions. These are questions you ask yourself in a very deliberate way.
Imagine like Neil Gaiman, you start with a specific thing that interests you. Let’s use his werewolf example.
Our basic knowledge on this specific topic can be summed up as “when a werewolf bites someone on a full moon that person will become a werewolf.”
Let’s take what we think we know about the werewolf concept and examine a couple of the pieces to see what we can find.
We’ll begin by asking a few questions off the top of our heads. Questions like these…
- Questions about “A werewolf”.
Can other animals be were-creatures? Are there werewolves that change back into something different other than a human being? Or are their true werewolves that never change into something else? That are werewolves all the time?
- Questions about the “bites someone” part.
What happens when a werewolf in human form bites someone on the day of a full moon? Is that human cursed in a different way? Does a human with false teeth become a werewolf with just gums, incapable of biting someone? Are werewolves cannibals? Do they ever eat people or is just an act of murderous rage? Is it the werewolf saliva that turns you a werewolf? Could you put some werewolf saliva into your breakfast smoothie and turn yourself into a werewolf?
By focusing on what you know and poking and prodding the cornerstones of the concept, you’ll find that something you like soon comes tumbling out.
After that, it’s up to you to polish that little bit of an idea and use it as a cornerstone to make your own building.
If you’ve set aside a regular block of time to work on creative ideas, using a very conscious approach like this can be a super-effective way to start your creative engine and avoid the terror of a blank page.
Asking Subconscious Questions
Subconscious questions power the eureka moment. It’s when something awesome surfaces seemingly from nowhere like an unexpected gift.
This is basically what we call inspiration.
Inspiration is the process by which your subconscious asks questions you cannot hear and the conscious mind declares answers to them that we must deal with.
Three Points about Creative Inspiration
Inspiration is not a phenomenon that only occurs to artists. Everyone gets ideas but artists have learned to do a few things differently. Specifically, they do three things that make a huge difference.
- They notice
They pay attention to the moment. They don’t dismiss or ignore the idea and let it fade away. When you dismiss your ideas on a consistent basis you are in a way being dismissive of yourself – of who you are. I know that it’s easier said than done but give yourself a chance. Your ideas have worth. Pay attention.
- They don’t
They don’t negatively judge the idea. They don’t say immediately say, it’s too silly, dumb, or absurd. They delay judgment on it and play with it awhile to gain perspective on the idea. They know that sometimes the greatest of ideas are the scariest ones. The ones you want to dismiss right away are often the ones to pursue. This is not to say we don’t all have dumb ideas but delaying judgment on an idea can sometimes bring an almost there idea into a place where it truly shines.
- They document
Creative people have a way to document the idea. To capture it in amber. To avoid letting it fly away never to be seen again. They carry a notebook or jot things down on their phone. Or if circumstances permit, they engage with it right away and start creating.
How to Become More Inspired
Here are two seemingly contradictory facts that we should know about inspiration.
You can’t be at the mercy of inspiration and you can’t live without it.
- You can’t be at the mercy of inspiration. If you just wait until you’re inspired to create then you will suffer through long painful droughts in the desert of your imagination. You will never be productive enough if you spend the majority of your time waiting for those perfect moments to happen. You need to find ways to actively coax inspiration out of its hiding spots. Good god, there are a lot of unsuccessful metaphors in this paragraph.
- You can’t live without it. You can pragmatically create worthwhile art by just employing a very conscious and deliberate mode of questioning to get some of your ideas but you will still need to hear the wildness of inspiration from time to time to keep things from getting too predictable.
The more time you take to develop your analytical skills for looking at creative problems, the sooner you’ll discover that inspiration will now show up more often in your life.
For instance yesterday, I wrote the part of this article about using consciously questioning the werewolf concept to coax out creative ideas. But it didn’t end there.
Today, out of blue, my brain said to me, “what if the werewolf was on the moon? What if the werewolf lived on the moon? What would happen?”
And I almost instantly thought, “ah… there’s been a murder on a moon base in the future and no one knows what’s going on until it becomes clear, after more murders, that there’s a werewolf on the loose.”
This could be the start of a great little grade B sci-fi/horror movie. If you’re into genre stories, this is a fun little germ of an idea to work off of.
I had started the creative process with very logical intent and in doing so I had engaged my subconscious to keep thinking about the idea.
I wasn’t sabotaging the forces of inspiration with logical reasoning, I was giving it fuel to work on.
So to repeat… to get good ideas, you need to start with questions.
Make asking questions part of a very deliberate creative process and your brain will start giving you answers, even when you’re not asking questions anymore.
This is how you get good ideas. A creative mind is a questioning one.
Start with a question.
That’s the answer to how you get good ideas.