How to Formulate Ideas

Every weekday morning I walk the dog along the beach for half an hour.  It is a wonderful time of reflection and day dreaming.  This is usually the time I work out my ideas.  Sometimes I’m thinking of blog posts, sometimes I’m working through a problem at work but mostly I’m thinking of things to write.  But I have to ask myself: “Do I have a method and process for generating ideas?”  The answer is yes.  I get the answer quickly too, because I’m talking to myself.  Nice.

The Start

I start with a broad premise.  For example for Angel Bones I started toying with the idea of writing a super hero story.  The broad premise automatically creates questions.  I thought to myself: “I want to write a super hero story, so what sort of hero, what setting, what flavour…” and so on.  As I walk along the beach I take each question and run through possible answers.  I did this for a few days, just walking the beach, thinking through super heroes, what their stories are and what they do.  I then moved on to step two.

Making it Concrete

I had spent a few days just thinking on my super hero idea before I started writing.  I then began jotting down bullet points of possibilities.  I went through all the different types of super heroes, their power levels and their origins.  By doing that got to taste each and decided on what flavour I liked best.  By that I mean what I thought suited my style and voice.  I’ve got a big document with lots of bullet points regarding Angel Bones and all the possible ways I could write it.


Having worked through my idea enough to have a good feel of it I write some chapters.  I write enough so that I can see what my story is really about.  It took 28 chapters for me to see what The West Queen was about.  That is, I had to pretty much write a complete 120,000 word manuscript before I realised who the main characters were and what the underlying story was.  That sounds silly, and in some ways it is, but you could easily outline several stories from the one source.  For example you could say Star Wars (the original, episode IV) was the story of R2D2 and his adventures through space or you could say it was about Princess Leia.  You’d be right but also wrong.  And so it is with my ideas some times.  I think I’m writing a story about a super hero gaining his powers and learning to live with them and becoming a hero when in reality I’m writing about the imminent and unavoidable collapse of a failed society built on fear.  I use an allegory of the biblical Armageddon  to describe man’s self defeat through social loafing and herd-like fear behaviour.  That is the real story.  That is where the super hero shines through.  Not in his powers or his ability to fight big bad guys, but as a symbol of courage and human spirit in the face of our own bleakness.  But I had to write about 10 chapters before I discovered that.

Spitting it out

Having come up with a base premise, having considered all the various questions that sprang up and day dreamed about it at the beach and finally writing some experimental chapters about it I have a solid idea.  By going through this process I like to think I come up with quite interesting and original ideas.  Many people have said they are impressed when someone comes up with a story idea, but I suspect they are more impressed that someone has managed to execute it well.  After all, creative ideas are so easy even uneducated children come up with hundreds every day.  The real trick is having a method for developing and capturing those ideas, a way to crystalise them for ingestion. mmm, ideas.

About sjohnhughes

Author, nerd, father, runner and more View all posts by sjohnhughes

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