“Where do you get your ideas?” is said to be the question above all others that writers hate getting asked, both because writers are so often asked it and because they often don’t have a good answer. You often aren’t thinking about where an idea is coming from, you just know to make use of the idea when it arrives. Also, each writer discovers ideas in their own separate ways, often in ways unique to them, so what may be a font of inspiration for one person may be a dry well for another. That said, to any aspiring writer on a quest for ideas, here are a few generally reliable sources:
- Your Own Life
Many cartoonists in the underground comics movement preferred to write deeply personal memoirs instead of the outrageous superhero comics that were popular at the time because they strongly believed that “the stories that make up our lives are more interesting than the stories one usually encounters in comic books” (Chester Brown, The Little Man, p. 169). Even if your stories are full of superheroes or weird magic, you can give them depth by incorporating real feelings or events that you experienced. Stan Lee’s comics were ground-breaking in the 1960s because he made his superheroes, such as the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt just like he did, which made the characters far more engrossing than the two-dimensional superheroes published by other companies. Always be aware of what is happening in your life and think about how it can be brought into the stories you create. Every person has experiences that can serve as powerful inspiration.
- Your Passions
What do you love to do? What dominates your mind? Alan Moore developed an intense fascination for Jack the Ripper that he couldn’t quite explain, and from that produced From Hell, a graphic novel that explores Jack the Ripper and the culture of Victorian London with extensive detail and vision. Neil Gaiman was always compelled by the blurring distinction between dreams and reality, and from that created Sandman – the story of the king of dreams, and perhaps the most influential comic book series of the 1990s. What is important to you? Is it medieval Spain, baseball, the city of Medicine Hat, or Korean mythology? How can you present it in a way that is uniquely yours? What do you have to say on the subject that could be explored through a story?
- The World Around You
Things are constantly happening every day, and you can receive inspiration for a thousand pictures and a thousand stories just by going for a walk and being attentive to what is going on around you. A strange inscription in chalk on the pavement, a tired old woman who looks like she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, a snatch of conversation overheard on the bus, a man screaming at his pet gerbil – all of these could be woven into some grand narrative. And then, of course, there is the news. Open a newspaper, and you encounter shocking events on the front page, detailed biographies in the obituaries, curious beliefs in the editorials – a wealth of ideas there for the taking.
- Other People’s Works
The one piece of advice that all creative writing teachers give is that the best way to improve your writing, much more important than taking lessons, is to experience a lot of whatever kind of story you seek to create – an aspiring screenwriter watches a lot of movies, an aspiring novelist reads a lot of novels, and an aspiring cartoonist studies a lot of comics. By seeing how a lot of other people have done the sort of story you like, you learn what works and what doesn’t. You can also use their ideas as a springboard for your own, taking them in a new, creative direction. However, don’t be afraid to incorporate elements outside your chosen medium. Many movies have taken inspiration from novels, novels have taken inspiration from plays, etc. A large part of the success of the graphic novel series Sandman was that it took many of the ideas and sensibilities of the fantasy novel (detailed internal narrative, complicated story structures, etc.) and adapted them for the fantasy comic book.