Where Do Great Ideas Come From? Neil Gaiman Explains

neil gaiman

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Every cre­ative writer gets asked the ques­tion at least once at a social event with non-writ­ers: “Where do you get your ideas?” To the asker, writ­ing is a dark art, full of mys­ter­ies only the ini­ti­at­ed under­stand. To the writer—as Neil Gaiman tells us in an essay on his web­site—the ques­tion miss­es the point and mis­judges the writer’s task. “Ideas aren’t the hard bit,” he says.

Cre­at­ing believ­able peo­ple who do more or less what you tell them to is much hard­er. And hard­est by far is the process of sim­ply sit­ting down and putting one word after anoth­er to con­struct what­ev­er it is you’re try­ing to build: mak­ing it inter­est­ing, mak­ing it new.

Some­times hard­est of all is the “sim­ply sit­ting down” and writ­ing when there’s noth­ing, no ideas. The work’s still got to get done, after all. Gaiman used to treat the ques­tion face­tious­ly, answer­ing with one of a few wag­gish and “not very fun­ny” pre­pared answers. But peo­ple kept ask­ing, includ­ing the sev­en-year-old class­mates of his daugh­ter, and he decid­ed to tell them the truth, “I make them up, out of my head.” It’s not the answer most want­ed to hear, but it’s the truth. As he inar­guably shows, ideas are like opin­ions: “Everyone’s got an idea for a book, a movie, a sto­ry, a TV series.” And they can come from any­where.

Gaiman, feel­ing that he owed his daughter’s class­mates a thought­ful, detailed answer, respond­ed with the below, which we’ve put into list form.

  • Ideas come from day­dream­ing. “The only dif­fer­ence between writ­ers and oth­er peo­ple,” says Gaiman, “is that we notice when we’re doing it.”
  • Ideas come from ask­ing your­self sim­ple ques­tions, like “What if…?” (“you woke up with wings?… your sis­ter turned into a mouse?.…), “If only…” (“a ghost would do my home­work”) and “I won­der….” (“what she does when she’s alone”), etc…. These ques­tions, in turn, gen­er­ate oth­er ques­tions.
  • Ideas are only start­ing points. You don’t have to fig­ure out the plot. Plots “gen­er­ate them­selves” from “what­ev­er the start­ing point is.”
  • Ideas can be peo­ple (“There’s a boy who wants to know about mag­ic”); places (“There’s a cas­tle at the end of time, which is the only place there is”); images (“A woman, sift­ing in a dark room filled with emp­ty faces.”)
  • Ideas can come from two things “that haven’t come togeth­er before.” (“What would hap­pen if a chair was bit­ten by a were­wolf?)

Grant­ed some of Gaiman’s exam­ples may be more intrigu­ing or fan­tas­tic than what you or I might pro­pose, but any­one can do these exer­cis­es. The idea, how­ev­er, is just the start­ing point. “All fic­tion,” he writes, “is a process of imag­in­ing.” So what comes next? “Well,” says Gaiman, “then you write.” Yes, it is that sim­ple, and that hard.

Tell us, read­ers, do you find any of Gaiman’s idea sources help­ful? Where do you get your ideas?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rod Ser­ling: Where Do Ideas Come From?

Neil Gaiman Gives Grad­u­ates 10 Essen­tial Tips for Work­ing in the Arts

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Read Neil Gaiman’s Free Short Sto­ries Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Kevin Middleton says:

    It’s nice to hear a relevent con­tem­po­rary author like Gaiman reaf­firm the idea, orig­i­nal­ly from Aris­totle’s Poet­ics, that plot springs organ­i­cal­ly out of an idea. That said, I read sim­i­lar writ­ing advice all over and what is hard­er for me is for­mu­lat­ing coher­ent and fresh ideas. Does any­one know of any resources that could help in that area?

    • An Aimable Friend says:

      I think the coher­ence of an idea is deter­mined by the process of actu­al­ly mak­ing it tan­gi­ble (writ­ing it). And there are no com­plete­ly fresh ideas (orig­i­nal­i­ty is a very debat­able con­cept). nnnWhat I took from Gaiman’s reflec­tions are that when you engage in cre­ative writ­ing, ideas can very much sprout out any moment, but the most dif­fi­cult chal­lenge is to actu­al­ly giv­ing it a form in the papers, and that is also what I think you mean by hav­ing the chal­lenge of “for­mu­lat­ing coher­ent and fresh ideas.” nnnPer­son­al­ly, I think of ideas all the time, but I would dis­card most of them; the ones that are for­tu­nate to be writ­ten, well, there are but only a hand­ful, and that is the hard­est job of all.

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