By Margaret Lucke
"Where do you get your ideas?" is said to be the question that writers are asked most often. The simple answer is—everywhere. Ideas aren’t hard to come by. The trick is to train yourself to see them and to grab them as they float by.
Sometimes, though, that’s not what the questioners really want to know. They’re thinking, "I had this great idea for a novel, but when I started to write, the story quickly ran out steam. How does an author come up with an idea strong and solid enough to sustain an entire book?"
That leads to the real answer--one idea isn’t enough. You need three of them, all interacting and melding and making beautiful music--a trio, a threesome, or as I think of it, a ménage à trois.
You need a situation, a character, and a conflict.
Situation = something that happens, the incident or event that gets the story rolling. It can be anything. A boy meets a girl. Someone is murdered. A stranger arrives in town. A kid gets accepted at a training school for wizards. A courier arrives at the house with an invitation to the prince's ball.
Character = someone it happens to. This is a person whose goals or desires are affected by the situation you've come up with. The situation presents him or her with a challenge, a problem, or an opportunity. She must bring the situation to a resolution in order to achieve the goal and move forward.
Conflict = who or what gets in the way. Don’t make your character's path an easy one. Put boulders in her road. Let her map be misleading. Line the route with thieves and marauders and people who wish her ill or will benefit by her failure. Your job is to get her into trouble and then into more trouble.
The plot of your story centers around the character's attempts to overcome the obstacles in order to meet the challenge, solve the problem, or take advantage of the opportunity. How will she go about doing this? Will she succeed or not? The desire to find out answers to these questions is what will keep your readers turning the pages.
The initial idea can be any of these three elements. You see someone sitting at a nearby table in a coffee shop and an idea for a character pops into your mind. Great--what situation can you come up with that disrupt that person’s status quo and push her out of her comfort zone? Perhaps a newspaper headline triggers an idea for a story about a dramatic event. Wonderful--who would be affected by that event in a powerful and interesting way?
Starting with a conflict might be rarer but it can happen that way too. My novel A Relative Stranger began with a conversation in my head: A woman answers a late-night phone call from a man claiming to be the father she hasn't spoken to in years. Upset by the call, she hangs up on him. At that point I had no idea who these people were, or why he was calling her, or what made hearing from him so distressing to her. But clearly there was a conflict between which was worth exploring. So I played around with ideas until I came up with the other two elements of the book’s ménage à trois—who the two characters were and the situation that was bringing them together.
Whichever of the three you begin with, until you have a sense of the other two the story will refuse to budge.
That’s why I find that the most satisfying answer to "Where do you get your ideas?" isn't a standard one like "everywhere" or "from my personal history" or "from an idea catalog." It’s a description of how a particular book came to be, how the author found not just one idea, but then a second and a third and blended them into a satisfying ménage à trois.