Where do you get your ideas? (NaNoWriMo Day 1)

Today is the first day of NaNoWriMo 2015.

Last week I shared my tips for Speed-Writing Your First Draft. Today I’m talking about ideas. In the weeks to follow, I’ll give you some benchmarks and plot ideas to keep you from getting stuck.

NaNoWriMo is not about writing something that will see the light of day. It’s about writing recklessly, chasing plot bunnies, and sending your internal editor on a unpaid vacation.

It’s about generating lots of ideas and a big, sustaining idea to carry you through tens of thousands of words. Today we’re going to look at that question that writers are asked all the time.

Where do you get your ideas?

Unfortunately, that question doesn’t have an answer.

A book can’t be built upon a single idea. It’s built on many, and they can come in any order.

The “What If…?” Question

But let’s say you are flipping channels between teen reality TV and news coverage of the Iraq War.

“What if teen contestants in a reality show were literally at war?”

There’s the first idea that started The Hunger Games.

High-concept stories tend to start this way, with a big question filled with possibility.


What type of story are you telling? Sometimes genre dictates character and setting. Sometimes characters or settings dictate genre. Finding out which genre you’re writing will give you parameters to work in. It will give you a rough idea of where you’re headed and what might happen. You could have two love interests in the same house in the same city in the same year, but if you’re writing a domestic thriller, their story isn’t going to be the same as a romance.

If you’re not sure where to start with genre, look at your favorite books, television series, and movies. You’ll understand the tropes in those genres best.

You can write in a new genre, of course! But be sure to read heavily in that genre—then you’ll know what other readers will expect when they crack open your novel.

For more about genre, read What Genre Is This, Anyway? And Science Fiction and Fantasy Sub-genres.


The environment is your story’s reality. Is it set in our universe, with our laws of physics? What culture is your book set in? What are the climate and weather like? What time period? What region? City, town, country? What type of buildings? Who lives there? What’s the mood or the tone of the place? What props and furnishings are there?

Your novel needs to set a stage. It also needs to populate it with characters.


A character is a sympathetic being with motivations and goals.

Your character has a voice, quirks, likes, dislikes, fears, culture, relationships and occupations. Your character has an appearance, too.

These characters are affected by their environment and they affect their environment.

See my series on character for tips and free worksheets.

The Point

Some stories don’t have a theme. There’s no point to their story except “this will look the coolest” or “this will make them laugh” or “this will destroy the audience’s emotions the most.”

Many sequels don’t have a point other than capitalizing on a former success and milking the cash cow (Cars 2).

But stories that last—stories that are re-watched and shared among generations—tend to have a deeper meaning.

And as I explained during TruestSem, theme is not a single word. “Love” is not a theme. “True love casts out fear” is a theme—it’s what unifies Frozen.

Themes can be argued. 

They are proven and disproven by characters. Watch Frozen and notice how each character is a variation (positive or negative) on the theme of love overcoming fear. Look at how the theme forms over the course of the film. In Act One, we are introduced to characters who experience love and fear. In Act Two, those loves and fears are challenged. There’s one character who is loved but should be feared, and another who is feared but needs love. In Act Three, a particular type of love finally vanquishes fear.

Themes give you direction.

Movies often start with the ideas above. But some don’t have direction. Studios hire a story consultant. They bring in big name film editors. What do those story consultants do? They look for the point of the film. Then they delete everything else and rework as necessary. Terminator 2 once had a very different ending, with John (Sarah’s son) “fighting” in the future as a US Senator. That epilogue was quickly cut when someone understood that it didn’t fit with the tone of the movie. The focus wasn’t on hope or life moving on, it was the line, “If a machine can learn the value of a human life, maybe we can, too.” The new ending had greater clarity and focus.

Do you have all these building blocks for a story? 

They’re just blocks—it’s up to you to combine them and build them up. Are you ready for NaNoWriMo? Follow me on Twitter (@LaraEdits) and subscribe to this blog for more guidance and coaching, and don’t hesitate to ask questions!

See all my posts about NaNoWriMo here.

10 thoughts on “Where do you get your ideas? (NaNoWriMo Day 1)

  1. Zed Amadeo says:

    I find that “What If?” tends to be my biggest source for coming up with book ideas. When I did NaNoWriMo in 2009 I thought I already had a vague idea for what I would write about, but came up with a brand new idea a couple of days before Halloween while I was daydreaming and wondering “What If?” The rest of the story, such as theme, characters, and setting tend to take root from that essential question in my stories.

    • Lara says:

      Those big What Ifs are the hardest thing for me to come up with on the spot! I definitely need to be struck by the muse when I start there. The others I can come up with more easily because I can pick from things that already exist! 🙂

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