Ideation: Where Do Ideas Come From?

“Where do you get your ideas?” Every writer has been asked this at least a dozen times. In fact, famous authors have come up with outrageous answers, so they don’t have to go into it. Think I’m kidding?

“From the Idea-of-the-Month Club.” – Neil Gaiman

“The Idea Book. It’s loaded with excellent plot ideas,” he said. “I have a subscription, of course, and as soon as I get my copy I write in and select half a dozen ideas and get clearance on them, so that no other subscriber will go ahead and write them. Then I just work up stories around those ideas.” – Lawrence Block

I don’t get them, they get me. – Robertson Davies


I’ve always been fascinated by this subject. At the same time, I’m reluctant to talk about it. Because I don’t know. After all, if you’re not in control of the ideas, they could just stop coming, and then where would you be? It’s probably my biggest fear as a writer. Every new idea I have for a book is golden, because I wasn’t at all convinced I’d get another.

Stephen King said once (sorry, I can’t find the exact quote) that it’s like there’s this invisible stream over our heads, and writers tap into it, and the idea flows to them. Someone also said an idea is like a buried stone you trip over, and you think, “What is that’?” And dig until you see it all.

Michelangelo had another version:
Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

Wherever they come from, our job is not only to recognize ideas, but to get GOOD ones. Who hasn’t had their interest piqued by an interesting tidbit, only to realize that it’s not enough for a full-blown story? (And the goal is to discover this before you write the whole book, right?)

I don’t pretend to know where ideas come from, but I do know where I’m more likely to get them. I don’t mean a physical location—I mean my state of mind. My best ideas came when I was bored. I got my very first plot idea on the back of my husband’s motorcycle (I hadn’t started riding my own yet). We lived in Southern California, and it’s hard to get anywhere without going through desert. Nothing against deserts, but after hours, your mind wanders, plays, and begins to put disparate things together. That’s the state of mind we avoid in our busy everyday lives, but for me, it’s where ideas live.

I’ve talked to a lot of artists—painters, writers, musicians—many of whom have had great ideas on trains. The only explanation I have is all that stuff is coming at you while you’re relaxed, so somehow it kicks you into hyperspace in terms of brain function. – Peter Gabriel

Neil Gaiman told his daughter’s class of seven-year-olds: “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any. – Orson Scott Card

Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up. Stephen King

Like the ideas for some of my other novels, that came to me in a dream…I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, “I have to write this story.” Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel. – Stephen King on Misery

One night, I was lying in bed and I was very tired, and I was just sort of channel surfing on television. And, I was going through, flipping through images of reality television where there were these young people competing for a million dollars or a bachelor or whatever. And then I was flipping and I was seeing footage from the Iraq War. And these two things began to sort of fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that is when I, really, I think was the moment where I really got the idea for Katniss’s story. – Suzanne Collins

Where do you think ideas come from? What is your state of mind when ideas come to you?


  1. Jenny Hansen on November 22, 2019 at 1:32 am

    I think ideas come from conversations, from listening and turning what people say over in your mind, and then daydreaming about them. Or, the ideas just show up. But they don’t show up unless your brain is open for them. So stay open. 🙂

  2. Cara Achterberg on November 22, 2019 at 8:33 am

    Elizabeth Gilbert talks about that stream of ideas that is floating over head idea in her book Big Magic. I’ve often thought it is some kind of magic. My ideas can come from a feeling evoked by a song on the radio or by people watching, but most come from long hikes with my dogs when my mind is free to wander.

    I don’t worry that they will ever dry up and you shouldn’t either. I agree with Elizabeth and Stephen (not that I’m on first name basis with either of them) but I do believe these ideas are independent of us and we just happen upon them when we are listening well. As long as our hearts are open to them, I have no doubt they will always come.

    • Laura Drake on November 22, 2019 at 10:39 am

      I SO hope you’re right, Cara – here’s to ideas!

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