Friday, February 11, 2011

How Do You Come Up With GOOD Ideas?

 Sometimes, even for those of us who are comfortable spending a lot of time in our right brains, it's difficult to come up with a GOOD idea. It's like sifting through my mother's old button box to come up with exactly the perfect button: it can't be one of those clear ones with the four little holes because they're [pardon the cliche] a dime a dozen.

Sure, we come up with ideas--but they're mediocre. Or as the late Nancy Bulk (aka Dee Holmes) once explained in a writing workshop she conducted 20 years ago, they're the same ideas other people come up with. As in: our readers are going to spot what's going to happen two seconds into the scene.

Based on Nancy's excellent advice, whenever I'm plotting or searching for a GOOD idea, I use the 10 item rule. I'll grab a pen and paper and cluster (i.e., brainstorm or free-associate) to come up with a scene, or some dialogue, or character motivation that will knock my readers' socks off.

This is how it works. Let's say my heroine is in her house, alone, at night, and we know the stalker's coming to get her. How can the stalker get into the house without her knowing and then scare the pants off her?
  1. He'll use a key he stole from her purse or beneath the flowerpot outside the back door.
  2. He'll cut through the screen in the spare bedroom.
  3. He'll sneak in through the bulkhead door in the basement.
  4. He'll climb a tree in the back yard, spider-walk across the roof, and get in through the attic vent.
  5. He'll knock on her door, claiming to need to use the phone because his car broke down.
  6. He'll make a bunch of noise out in the back yard so her dog barks. When she lets the dog out, he temporarily immobilizes the dog. When she goes out in the yard to see why the dog doesn't respond, he sneaks into the house.
I've just run out of quick and easy responses. Now I have to put my thinking cap on to come with another idea. Which means that none of these is going to knock the socks off my readers ... because they came easily to me. If they came easily to me, guess who else will they come easily to? Right. My readers.

So where do YOUR good ideas come from? Can you give me numbers 7 through 10?

[photo credit:]


  1. I usually find an idea only becomes good when you link it with another - seemingly unrelated - one and each feeds the other. Sometimes they even generate a third, which is even better than the sum of its parts. When that happens it's a lovely feeling.

    As for adding to your list, I could only come up with two - and again, I don't think they'd fool the reader.

    He’s already there. He’s a guy who has stalking down to a fine art so he’s observed her daytime patterns and learned enough to know when she leaves a door open to put out the trash, lock the garage door, or whatever. He got in during the afternoon and is hiding, waiting.

    He’s already visited the house during the day (maybe more than once) dressed as a police officer and making door to door enquiries. He visits neighbours, too, so that his legitimacy is reinforced. A repeat evening visit is no surprise to her.

  2. Good point, Bill. The unexpected is a big part of a GOOD idea. Thanks for adding to my list.

    I wonder who's going to come up with that knock-your-socks of idea?

  3. I have a lot of 'good' ideas. The ones I run with are those that stick with me and won't leave me alone. Then I'll explore the feasibility of the idea (research needed, my knowledge of the topic, scenes to include, characters involved, etc). If I'm still hooked, I'll start preparing an outline.

    Addition to the list - It's a cry wolf scenario. You have several scenes where the stalker breaks into her house, sneaks up on her in an empty break room at work, catches her in a gloomy alcove of a store...but, it's all in her mind because she has some mental problems and can't convince anybody there really IS someone after her. Then of course, near the end, the 'vision' isn't, but rather the actual stalker. You can even throw a little Gaslight in there and have the stalker be her boyfriend/husband/boss/best friend.

  4. Stephen, Thanks for sharing. I like the "cry wolf" scenario. VERY frustrating for the character ... and suspenseful for the reader.