Help with how to generate an orginal idea?

Warning: Numpty Alert - if you have little patience, read something else

What is the best way to come up with an original idea? I’ve been brainstorming lists of story ideas / themes and keeping them all in Scriv, but whenever I go back to the lists, I look at each item and think “oh, wait, that’s a bit like that film / book / website / anecdote from…” It just seems that everything I can think of has already been done in some way. :unamused: Which I suppose is logical, as theoretically all my thoughts must have a root somewhere in an experience I’ve already had.

Maybe I need extra help with this because the only writing I’ve done for many years is academic and sciencey (yes, I know it’s . Did my creativity die after childhood? Was I ever creative to begin with? Am I doomed to inept brainstorming such as I’ve often seen take place in business meetings? I’m starting to doubt that I am capable of original thought at all - in fact, it would hardly surprise me if this entire post has already been written by someone else :frowning:

Any and all thoughts, comments or ideas on how you do it will be gratefully received - anything to stop me disappearing up my own b*m-hole in a cyclone of self-doubt, or drowning in my own damned self-pity. :open_mouth:

Actually, I’ve just read all that back and I wouldn’t answer this post, I’d probably tell me to get a grip. Or a therapist. :blush: I shall settle for gin and tonic, it being Friday and gin o’clock long since gone.


Two thoughts:

  • ideas may look familiar, already tackled, but that needn’t disqualify them. Sometimes the novelty is in the execution, not the idea itself. Or, even if the basic idea and execution are very familiar, they may only need the tiniest seed of originality to distinguish them. Hollywood and television are stuffed full of examples;
  • often you can achieve something new by putting two or more (two is usually enough) dissimilar pre-existing ideas together and seeing where they may take you. Fiction has plenty of examples of that.

Often what people lack isn’t ideas, but confidence.

OK, three thoughts.


Now there’s an original thought!


Culturally speaking, I feel the extension of existing forms is of more importance than the grand original idea—it is typically of more use to society. As humans we appreciate variances more than normality (and I could go on at length on that topic!), and it is in our nature as creators to want to take that principle as far as possible. But the radical departure is seldom very interesting to anyone but the fringe and specialists that already lean in that direction and are curious to see how far the form can be taken. Chances are, when you say you want an original idea, you don’t really mean that; you are already taking certain normalities as assumptive foundations, so the trick is finding what you mean by new ideas, and then developing those as carefully as possible. You may find a story in that, or you may find a way to apply one of your ideas to it. If creating something partially new is important to you (and it’s a good thing to aspire to, I think), then I’d work from the angle of finding the new thing first, and only then applying it to plot and form rather than the other way around.

Just my opinions—all stated before no doubt. :slight_smile:

Humankind has a fondness for certain types of stories, and we’ll listen to them again and again if the storyteller does a good job of it.

Just write. Write as much as possible, eventually the ideas will come. Write first and foremost to please yourself.

I don’t agree about writing to please oneself. How many times have I looked in the mirror and thought, Dude, you are so hot. Then someone takes my photo, and it’s Dude, you are so not!

Writing is communication, using words to reach others. They are readers, not friends. They are busy, impatient, very sharp, but also dull. They never walked in your footsteps; you need to walk in theirs.

I also think it’s wrong to seek an idea first. Look for experiences instead, and see if you can get them on paper. Writers have two best pals: a notebook and a waste basket. Put something every day in a notebook or journal; make mental snapshots of your life and mind:

Squirrel back-lit with sun: every bristle of hair tinted red-gold.
Oak leaves have a dried-paper look, thin and shaking in the breeze.
Two girls wearing identical green scarves: Twins? Initiation? One is crying.

Any one of those bits might become a story, film, bit of dialogue, or essay. And ideas will spring from them, without being imposed or forced. Originality is not so much an invention or creation as it is an attitude, a way of looking and seeing, then finding the words. And yes, confidence helps.

Oh, here’s one more sententious tip: write about what you know best, from your immediate experiences. Often the early years are a gold mine, because you remember that time and filter it through everything else that comes on later, whether better or worse.

I wouldn’t care if one of my ideas sounds a little like another one. A book, a movie, a painting, is more than just the igniting idea.

My screenwriting teacher, Tonino Guerra, says that everybody has an idea, but to make a movie you need hundreds of them. Just take the starting idea of some of his most succesful works:

  • Fellini’s Amarcord: Memories of growing up in a small town.
  • Antonioni’s Blow Up: A man is found killed in a public garden.
  • Tarkovskij’s Nostalghia: An expatriated poet is on travel to find information on a dead composer.

If the starting idea must be original, I guess those movies would never had been made.


Consider a single image. Play with it. Elaborate on it. Proust began À la recherche du temps perdu with the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea. Michael Ondaatje imagined a small plane, burning in the desert; he worked backward and forward from that and wrote The English Patient


Likewise, you can take an anthology of short stories, preferably in a genre you like, and use the titles as a springboard. Some of the titles will fire up your imagination. Jot down your ideas and see if anything takes hold. Obviously you shouldn’t read those stories whose titles have inspired you.

Everything has already been done.

But it hasn’t been done by you. Your vision, your style, your way of looking at the world is far more important than the uniqueness (or not) of your ideas.


Only seven plots in the whole entire world… mebbe even the whole entire universe. It’s not about the idea, it’s about the details of the particular incarnation of the idea.

I do hope that sounds confident. I myself am in a similar state of unconfidence to yours. I have the “idea” and much of the world for my story, but I’m struggling to find my way around and hear what my people are really saying. My collection of bits in Scriv, apart from reams of research notes, is disconnected scenes or phrases which wouldn’t total 5,000 words and which probably won’t be part of the final book anyway. My latest idea is write notes of interviews with my characters. I was a tech writer and I’ve done a lot of interviewing, so I’m trying to listen as hard to these fictional voices as I did to the incoherent voices of subject matter experts in my former life. And to not think about schizophrenia. Or about putting words into people’s mouths.

Making fiction really is a peculiar craft isn’t it.

Here’s to Numpties.


Wow - I’m stunned at the quantity of food for thought that you have all contributed as a response to what I had thought was probably a stupid question. Thank you! And all this weaves into a great dialogue…

Hugh: All three of your two thoughts ring true when I think about it - you point out what should have been obvious. In an academia, often the concept of an ‘original contribution to knowledge’ is tackled in exactly the ways you describe, because it is given that your contribution (or the need for it) should arise from present knowledge and ideas. It never occured to me that could apply to fiction, which I suppose is something I’ve always thought of as “truly creative”[1]

… which brings me to Amber: Thanks for pointing out that little is “truly creative” [1], or valued as such. I’m with you on the bell curve stuff - straying too far from the tails is indeed a gamble. So it seems that a reinterpretation of what I deem ‘creative / original’ is in order!

… which brings us to Druid (and the point about originality being an attitude): Keeping scraps of observations, essays, experiences and sketches is something I’ve done since a youngster (thanks to Harriet the Spy), and continue to do. I’ve always thought of the scraps as ‘practice’ and a lucky-dip of snippets to use elsewhere - but now I can review that and start thinking of them as seeds from which stories might grow, given the right conditions.

… and thus we find ourselves with Paolo: hundreds of ideas? Seems I have a drawer-full of them, now that I’ve re-evaluated by scraps! Your point weaves nicely back to Amber’s thoughts on pushing originality from the edges of what we already know (my interpretation of your words Amber, please say if I’ve misunderstood!).

…PJS: Your suggestion sounds like meditative practice - which appeals to me - and also sounds like the instructions on how to ‘grow’ a story from one of my ‘seed scraps’… beautiful!

… Geo: Using other writer’s titles as a springboard - up until 10 minutes ago would have felt like going against the grain, or stealing. Now it looks like a daring way to seek out something new, I like it.

…Katherine: you bring me full circle back to the whole ‘it’s all been done already’ thought, but this time I visit it feeling curious instead of defeated. Using the criteria from others’ posts, it’s now (for me) a challenging exploration rather than a depressing whine!

… Ghoti: You do sound confident, so here’s to Numpties: crafting the peculiar because, after all, it’s more fun and satisfying than a lot of other things :slight_smile:

This thread is a rich, heartened discussion with thoughts on the very nature of originality and creativity, and not at all a ‘how to’ formula, and I’m so pleased at that. This could only happen at L & L. How lucky I am to be here, doing this, with you people - thank you. I think I might have enough material to keep me busy for some time!

Sarah :smiley:

[1] And by that I mean something along the lines of: springs from nothing, suddenly manifests, a divine inspiration, if you like.

Dear Sarah

I agree of course with what everyone else has said.

Perhaps you are simultaneously being too hard and too soft on yourself.

As someone said earlier, there are no new ideas. There are only new combinations of things. And all of the ones that make good stories start with “What if…?”

Nor are there any new story structures. Aristotle said over 2,000 years ago that tragedy was a clear structure, and set it out. People still write according to that structure. Even TV reality shows follow it. Doesn’t matter it’s not new. Sonata form isn’t new. Perspective isn’t new. The three great story-types (boy becomes man; man stares death in the face; a stranger comes to town) aren’t new.

Doesn’t matter.

There are all sorts of experiments you can do. Here’s a challenge: every day for a month, take an “unoriginal” idea and then say “But what if…?”

Your unconscious mind will do the rest.

There’s a hit man. (But what if he’s sent to rub out a priest and he gets religion?)

There’s an old lady feeding the birds in the park. (But what if she was, half a century ago, the orchestrator of some terrible inhumanity?)

There’s a man in a smart car, utterly in control of his life. (But what if he is acting completely unconsciously because, twenty years ago, everything suddenly went black? And he suddenly somes to, in this car, in his suit… remember the Talking Heads song? And it actually happened, to a baseball player in the Seventies I think.)

There’s a man frying up something in a skillet. But what if it’s an alien that he found in his garden and killed with a spade?

There’s a guy whose life has been ruined because of his being a dwarf. But what if he’s not a dwarf? (You can’t have that. I’m writing him at the moment.)

There’s an avuncular professor who everyone loves. But what if she actually hates young people, all of them?

There’s a psychotherapist. But what if he’s an evil bugger who’s mining his patients’ unconscious only to feed it back to them and reduce them to whimpering wrecks?

See, most of these are rubbish. Most of mine are rubbish (and because, in this particular arena, it’s TV producers, they shout “Rubbish!” both affably and instantaneously so I can’t kid myself) and most of yours will be rubbish and most of everyone’s are rubbish but one of them will take root and you’ll find yourself thinking about it in odd moments, and that’ll be the one…

No such thing as an original idea. But you have an original unconscious mind and you can train yourself to conscious synthesis. So when you have one of your “unoriginal” ideas don’t be soft on yourself and say “I can’t DO this”. Be hard on yourself. Say “No.” But then say “but what if…?”

Report back. We want to know how you get on.

P.S. Of course the reason people are reading and responding to your post is that you’ve said you don’t know how to do something and you’re stuck and discouraged and can anyone help. Everyone responds to that sort of openness, I think. So what if a really stiff boastful rigid corporate type – one of the guys in your deadly brainstorms – suddenly opened up and admitted his vulnerabilities? There’s another one to think about.

P.P.S. You said you’re a scientist. I don’t know what your field is but… what if the most probabilistically unlikely event in your area of science were actually to happen?

I have been thinking about this thread ever since you started it, Sarah, but have been uncertain about contributing … actually, I don’t know that I can “contribute” as I don’t have any idea, original or otherwise, about how to find a story idea, original or otherwise.

I’m not a writer … well, I do write up my lecture notes for my (Chinese) students, and I have been putting a paper together with a colleague — 1 year and counting … we are both continually sidetracked but other demands, and I, for one, don’t have to write papers or do research, and she has written 6 others within that year! — but probably most of my written work is editing — rewriting, perhaps — into natural English, translations done by Chinese speakers. Vicarious creativity. But many, many people, both here and in the UK keep pushing me about writing a book; some want me to write books about my take on and my interests in linguistics, most think I should write a (fantasy) novel. My answer to the latter is always, “Tolkien wrote it! Anything I wrote would be derivative.”

But there are three things that struck me … firstly, that you are, I understand, a PhD student, and secondly, as many here have said, that there’s no such thing as an original story. The third is the contrast between here, China, and the west in terms of expectations in both research and literature.

On the PhD thing: of course, the fundamental characteristic of a PhD Thesis is that it must be original, so you have spent the last however many years of your life fully committed to originality. But if you are wanting to move on to writing fiction, you don’t need to see it in the same light as that PhD requirement.

Others have already said much about originality in literature and how to generate ideas, so I hope it’s not too far OT, but …

One of the problems, it seems to me, in the academic world within China, is that the ethos of study, research etc., particularly in the humanities where it doesn’t need to go out onto the international stage, is the inheritance of the literary past. In China, a great poem can be one which takes a poem by one of the great poets of ancient times and merely changes one or two characters/syllables/words — ancient literary Chinese was monosyllabic, modern Chinese is not, in spite of what so many in the west like to think — and, if successful, that becomes a new poem that achieves(ed) popular recognition and itself becomes the basis for other people’s elaboration. The same for the Confucian examinations throughout history … being original was a recipe for failure … being able to reproduce the wisdom of others with minor embellishments of language was the recipe for success.

So, literature was developed very much on the lines of embellishment of previous works, rather than the search for total originality. And that has come down into academic studies, that a thesis should embellish work done by the supervisor and respected academics, not search for originality at the risk of showing the supervisor or others to be wrong. It is for the supervisor and the famous professors to be original, not the students. The result is that so many MA theses — PhD ones don’t come my way — consist largely of quotations, even to the extent of what to us would be plagiarism, of the standard works and the papers of the supervisor. That is to show respect for those noted academics.

In a sense, the Chinese, without theorising about it, and under the umbrella of their cultural system, took all writing to be on the basis of the reproduction down a chain of embellishment of an “ur-text”. And that is really the foundation of our literature … Shakespeare didn’t invent Romeo and Juliet … that goes down a chain leading to Greece … and it didn’t stop with Shakespeare, the same “ur-story” has been taken up by creators like Bernstein in “West Side Story” and so on.

But culturally, we in the west, particularly the Anglo-Saxon west — try reading the plays of Corneille if you don’t believe me on that latter point — value originality, or the appearance of originality; the Chinese value knowledge of and respect for tradition.

To come back slightly more on topic, perhaps Sarah, as someone who has been struggling for the last few years in the epitome of western academic perception, you need to think a bit more in the Chinese way when it comes to writing that story. Or perhaps one could misquote Alexander Pope …

Great works are but old tales better dressed,
What oft was said, but ne'er so well expressed.



I agree with what I read as your intention, but disagree with your statement. If I write, it has to please me as a reader before it is ever going to please anyone else. If i write hoping to please someone else, I wonder who that someone will be. I may please this person, but not that one. Am I successful, then?

Most really good stories were written because the creator wanted to tell their story in their way to please themselves. In doing that, others sometimes like it as well.

That many…?
Tolstoy wrote that there are only two stories in the world: a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Which, I think, is really the same story told from a different point of view. From The Illiad to Batman this is essentially true.

Absolutely. Everything has been written, but not in your voice.

To generate an original idea, you’d have to find a way back to a time before writing. And even then, everything had probably already been told… But not by in your voice.


Thanks Michael, I shall add your ideas to my growing ‘toolbox’ and I’ll certainly report back at some time in the future :slight_smile:

I think the most unlikely event related to my field would be a pharmacological ‘cure’ for obesity, maybe with a mechanism based on manipulation of gene expression in living humans. The challenge there would be to make it interesting to read :smiley:

Mark, I’m coming to believe that you are absolutely correct on this point. This, I think, I should make “Rule No. 1” and probably pin to the wall above my screen. I need to have two different frames of mind: one for ‘work’ and one for ‘play’ writing.

Yes, this is a cultural difference I am having difficulty appreciating (probably because of a lack of experience of anything other than a British University / education). At our institution we have a disproportionately large number of plagiarism cases where the accused is from a collectivist society, and I gather that other Universities face a similar problem. In retrospect, this could be the root of my struggle with the concept of ‘originality’ - it’s deeply ingrained in me that using someone else’s material (even as a foundation) is an academic crime, that everything I can think of has already been done etc, ergo I am either a plagiarist or lacking creativity. I’ve already noted I need to somehow revise this attitude!!

Yet again, I go away from this thread with more to think about :smiley:


I stayed out, but now… you’ve done it again…

As a person with some medical background you recognize the mathematical improbability of 2 individuals, even twins, being truly identical. This is to say that each of us is unique. Add to this the physical impossibility of 2 individual occupying the same point in time/space and we can extend this uniqueness beyond the physical to the experiential. Since we have uniques physical and experiential identities interacting we can infer a unique psychological identity since most would agree that the psyche derives from the physical and experiential. Hopefully you agree with me so far.

Since you are you and only you are you, everything you do is unique. Since “it” is unique “it” is also an original as no one but you did “it”. Now the problem is in the comparison of your “it” to someone else’s “it”. All the “it” I create are pretty second rate and most are bad facsimiles of someone else’s “it”. But they are MY bad facsimiles. No one else created them. No one else could have created them. They are originals.

The point here is much as Mark and many others hinted at. The value of the “it” is not in its originality, but in the way all the other unique souls we call mankind receive and interpret your “it”. My “it” is only existing for 3 souls. If they value “it” then I have achieved my goal. My “it” may have no value to the remainder of humanity, but that is not my concern.

Problem is druid is correct.


What is my point: You and all you do is already original, the struggle is learning to see and communicate your “it” in a way that causes mankind to assign “it” a value.

Ok. I’m done. Before anyone bites my head off look over there -->
Remember someone beat you too it.

Go, Jaysen! You’re right. Or, as Brenda Ueland put it (and, unlike another forum member, I love her even when I don’t entirely agree with her), “Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.” I believe that with all my heart.

Madeleine L’Engle confirmed this, btw. She said that she showed A Wrinkle in Time to her husband, and he said, “That story has been told before.” She answered, “Yes, but it’s never been told my way, by me.” Fifty years later, kids are still finding, falling in love with, and being inspired by her book.

Hmm … I can imagine … But even in the sciences, to quote Newton, you are inevitably standing on the shoulders of giants. That your PhD is based on an experiment or experiments which are original to you is essential; but in thinking up your experiment(s), in designing it/them and in carrying it/them out, you must owe a debt to knowledge, techniques and technology that others have reached through the same process. You cannot be totally re-inventing knowledge, you must be extending it in new ways. It seems to me that the distinctions between the originality of your research and the background knowledge that comes from others are more clear-cut, or more perceptible, in the sciences than in the humanities because of the basis in experiment. But in both, the researcher will be building on existing knowledge in one way or other. The plagiarism problem is one of passing off, or attempting to, that existing knowledge as one’s own invention/discovery. And that is where the distinction west/east lies in the academic world …

Here, reproducing the words of a known authority is not seen to be passing them off as your own … it is showing your debt to that authority and — in theory at least — it is recognised or assumed to be that by the readership, audience. This is one reason why people from this kind of background run aground in matters of plagiarism when they go west.

A second reason is the huge pressure that young Chinese — I can’t talk about other groups — are put under to be successful; they must succeed at all costs … and at all costs in terms of a Chinese who goes to study abroad, costs is also literal! So where they fall down in the originality of thought — and they do — they need to resort to whatever they can.

And it has to be said, their education system here does not encourage original thought, does not encourage questioning. A brilliant 4th year undergraduate — her English was quite exceptional — told me a few years back that she had given up attending a Chinese-English translation class after she had questioned the teacher’s rendition of a sentence, only to be told, “I am the teacher and I am right.”

I also once had dinner with the then Dean of the College — this was long before I started working here — and during the conversation he said something which I considered outrageous in terms of the differences between the Chinese and English languages. When I said mildly that I didn’t think that was the case, his answer was, and I quote: “It’s true. It says so in my book.” !!!

But I think things are changing. One of the final year students told me yesterday that she had just had a meeting with her supervisor for her graduation paper. She too has very good English and is intelligent, and apparently her supervisor thought her paper was very good, but apparently raised a concern about whether it was plagiarised. Knowing her, I have no doubts on that score, but I thought “Wow, a Chinese teacher beginning to be concerned about plagiarism! That’s new.”

Oh, and I’m with you in feeling I have not an original or creative bone in my body! :slight_smile:


Uh, Mark?

Your bone cells are profoundly creative. You’re still standing up, aren’t cha’?