In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of Buried Bestsellers. Good story ideas seem to come quite literally out of nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky.
Where do good story ideas come from? It’s the big mystery. When I think back on all eighteen books I’ve written thus far, and the two I still mean to write in the near future, I realize the kernel of the ideas change from book to book.
But I’ve never sought out an idea. I’ve never surfed the web to find something that might make an interesting book. Almost never do I get an idea one day and then start writing the first draft of that novel the next.
Sometimes a good novel idea comes from an experience I recently had. My novel Happy Birthday to Me came from a night a waiter gave me a free birthday dessert… even though it wasn’t my birthday. My novel The Vampire Underground was inspired by a real-life visit to the creepy Bodie Ghost Town. I worked as a wedding videographer for two summers… so I wrote a so-far unpublished YA novel about a teen wedding videographer called Magic Hour. I had a horrible experience at the dentist in early 2015, so what did I do? I wrote a creepy horror novel called Toothache.
But I’ve also gotten ideas that came out of nowhere. King is right in that sometimes the best ideas don’t stem from personal experience or a tale your best friend tells you one night over drinks. Sometimes a great idea will hurl toward you in a flash, and often the best of these will stick with you for many weeks and months.
For me, when the idea doesn’t come from experience, it comes to me in an image. One day, out of nowhere, an image hit me of a teenage girl zipping herself into a suitcase on the conveyor belt at the airport. I didn’t know what to do with this image at first, but weeks went by and I slowly came to develop what is still to date my most outrageous, weird, hard-to-define book: Over the Rainbow.
My recent novel Monster Movie, currently agented and on submission to editors, also started with a single image. One day in 2015 I saw a twelve-year-old boy holding a video camera and pointing it at a giant, fire-breathing grizzly bear.
That novel in many ways comes from personal experience — I made tons of movies with my friends when I was twelve — but the excitement for writing the novel came from that image. I wanted to explore that story, at that moment, and find a way to get my protagonist to a point in the narrative where he was faced with a massive grizzly bear.
King does say that the best ideas stick with you. He says you don’t need a “Story Ideas” book to write in every day. I think a notebook is important to jot down details about the story idea you’re excited about, and give breakdowns for your major characters.
But a drawer of Post-It notes with a thousand story ideas sketched out everywhere? Not useful, because, as King says, the best ideas will stick with you. The bad ones will float away. And Lord knows I’ve had some bad ones over the years that thankfully disintegrated from my mind before I had a chance to develop them further. The good ones will stay, and you’ll spend time thinking about where the idea can go, who the main character should be. The excitement will take over, and then you’ll know that’s the story you should go with.
So if you don’t have an idea for your next novel yet, don’t panic. Don’t go searching for an idea. Don’t struggle. Go about your life, take some walks, clear your head, and something will hit you at just the right time. It always does for me.