When people at the proverbial (and occasionally real) cocktail parties ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”, any writer will have their go-to answer. Some of the best ones I’ve heard include Neil Gaiman’s classic response (“‘I make them up,’ I tell them. ‘Out of my head.'”) and Jim Jarmusch’s line from The Golden Rules of Filming (“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”).
I think, however, for a lot of writers, some of the best stories we can ever come up with start with 2 simple words.
That’s all it can take. Anyone can write about their day, or tell an amusing anecdote to a group of friends, but there’s a big gulf between those ordinary experiences and the extraordinary circumstances that make someone want to pick up that book or start watching that movie.
For example, what if a farmboy on a desert planet found two droids carrying a message from a rebel princess in danger?
What if the youngest son of a powerful Mafia Don suddenly had to take over when his father was shot?
What if an American living in Morocco during World War II suddenly met up with his old flame, who was now traveling with a freedom fighter being hunted by the Nazis?
What if, in a world where talking animals coexisted alongside people, one of those animals was a horse who happened to be a washed-up Hollywood actor trying to make it big again?
Sometimes even the biggest stories come from the most unusual premises. Fantasy author Jim Butcher got the idea for his Codex Alera series when he took on a challenge from the Del Rey Online Writer’s Workshop to write a story on a lame idea. That idea? “The Lost Roman Legion meets Pokémon.” Totally bizarre, and yet just crazy enough that it worked.
Anyone can write a story that’s based on their childhood experiences or make an homage to someone else’s story. But even that goes back to the “What If?” formula. Moulin Rouge! by Baz Luhrmann is “What if we retold The Lady of the Camellias or the opera La Traviata with popular music and Nicole Kidman?” Ralph Fiennes adapted the Shakespeare play Coriolanus by asking, “What if this ancient Roman general were a modern-day soldier in a similar war-torn nation?” All these questions produced a cohesive theme to bind the entire production together.
Any writer, new or experienced, should be ready to work with this question. If you have enough ingredients bubbling inside your brain, “What if…?” can be the key you need to produce something that both you and your audience will find engaging.