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Author Neil Gaiman in the woods

Neil Gaiman Tells Us Where to Get Ideas from for Writing


In a generous article, Gaiman lists the places from which he takes his ideas for writing.

Something that one asks themselves when reading an author with such a rich and diverse work of the imagination as Neil Gaiman is where does he get his ideas from? In an article on the subject, he says something elemental about it: “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

We all have ideas all of the time. Above all, as Gaiman says, when we are bored or distracted. Precisely for that reason it is important to not only to learn to be alone, as Tarkovsky suggests, but to learn to be distracted and take note of what comes out of our imagination, even though it may be inopportune or unexpected, as often happens.

In this article, which was actually a talk he gave in his young daughter’s school to inspire children to write, Gaiman generously recounts his creative process and once and for all answers that commonly asked question: where do you get your ideas from? His premises are simple and totally replicable.

 You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…?

(What if you woke up with wings? What if your sister turned into a mouse?)

Another important question is, If only… (If only I could shrink myself small as a button. If only a ghost would do my homework.)

And then there are the others: I wonder… (‘I wonder what she does when she’s alone…’) and If This Goes On… (‘If this goes on, telephones are going to start talking to each other, and cut out the middleman…’) and Wouldn’t it be interesting if… (‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if the world used to be ruled by cats?’)…

Gaiman says that these questions, and the answers that they necessarily provoke, are one of the places that the ideas come from. But there are other places, other ways, such as finding starting points when beginning to create.

Plots often generate themselves when one begins to ask oneself questions about whatever the starting point is.

Sometimes an idea is a person (‘There’s a boy who wants to know about magic’). Sometimes it’s a place (‘There’s a castle at the end of time, which is the only place there is…’). Sometimes it’s an image (‘A woman, sifting in a dark room filled with empty faces.’)

What he then says has, unsurprisingly, a lot to do with this method of memorizing anything that suggests “imagining unconnected and strange things to make them memorable,” a form of metaphor.

Often ideas come from two things coming together that haven’t come together before. (‘If a person bitten by a werewolf turns into a wolf what would happen if a goldfish was bitten by a werewolf? What would happen if a chair was bitten by a werewolf?’)

All fiction is a process of imagining: whatever you write, in whatever genre or medium, your task is to make things up convincingly and interestingly and new.

And when you’ve an idea – which is, after all, merely something to hold on to as you begin – what then?

Well, then you write. You put one word after another until it’s finished – whatever it is.

Neil Gaiman brought a new dimension to graphic novels and illuminated the lives of so many people (above all with Sandman) from these brilliant but simple imaginative steps. The world is a little less boring with him. But as well as imagining and questioning and paying attention to the world, and taking note of the process, what a writer does is sit down and write and rewrite as much as is necessary. Where do I get my ideas from? I make them up.


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