As an author, people often ask me where I get the ideas for my stories. Usually, what they're really wanting to know is how do you go from a cool concept to a fully fleshed-out story. An awesome 'gee whiz' idea can only take you so far, and the key to making it work has more to do with depth and character than it does with the initial idea.
Getting Started--How to Generate Ideas
The method I use for generating ideas often depends on the specific book or story that I'm working on. One of my favorite methods is covered in depth on one of my favorite podcasts, Writing Excuses, and it focuses on the formula: familiar + familiar = strange. Basically, this is how you can be inspired by the creative works that you love, while still creating something original. Let's say you love Harry Potter, and you'd like to write something with a similar feel. That's great. Pick one element of Harry Potter that you'd like to focus on re-creating in your work. Let's choose an obvious one: kids with magical abilities. Now, choose another familiar element to add to the first one. Let's say you'd like your story to take place on an isolated island, kind of a Swiss Family Robinson type of thing. So, now we have kids with magical abilities who are stranded on a desert island. That's pretty good, but why don't we add at least one more element to the mix? Let's take something else familiar, like ghosts. Maybe the island is populated by the ghosts of all of the creatures who've died there. As you can see, we’ve taken three elements that have been used in a lot of different stories and combined them into something that is more unique.
Adding Character and Depth
As I've mentioned, the concept is not the same as the story. One way to bring our disparate ideas together into a story is to add in a character. Since we’re talking about middle grade, our story will probably focus on one main point-of-view character. When choosing this person, ask yourself who will be in the most pain, have the most difficult struggle and/or have the most agency within the world you’ve created?
In order to know that, we need to add more depth to our story elements by asking questions to build on our world. For example, what magic system are the students using? What is the basis of their power? If their magic is generated by pairing up with another person and harnessing their combined energy, then perhaps our main character is forced to pair with her arch enemy (which introduces ample opportunities to explore her emotional plot). If we choose that route, then we’re clearly setting ourselves up for a friendship story where the two enemies find a way to come together and tackle the ghost problem in the end.
On the other hand, what if the basis of their magic is something entirely different, say, they use their memories as fuel, so they have to be willing to forget their past in order to be powerful in the present. Perhaps the main character just lost someone she loves and is afraid to burn those memories, thus introducing an entirely different character arc.
As you can see, fleshing out your ideas has a huge impact on your story. There are so many things we don’t know: 'Why are all of the ghosts centered on this one island?,’ ‘Was it a coincidence that the students shipwrecked there?,' 'If animal ghosts have appeared on this one island, is it possible that they might appear elsewhere in the future?,’ etc. Don't sell your story short by stopping when you get your first neat idea and not delving any deeper. You may end up chucking many of your initial ideas for ones that come later, and, even when you do settle on an idea, you still need to unravel as many layers as you can to make it engaging for readers.
Now it's your turn. Try the exercise outlined above to generate your own story idea. Once you have the basics, ask yourself what character will be affected most by the world I've created. Flesh out your idea by asking as many what, how and why questions as you can. Remember, it's not so much the cool concept that keeps people reading, it's how your characters are hurt by and respond to the world that you have created.