Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Ideas, Themes and Originality by Malachy Doyle

Where do you get your ideas from?  That’s one of the questions I’m most often asked. My imagination, I usually say.  Memories of childhood, I add.  Observation. Experience.

But ideas come from anywhere and everywhere.  A phrase overheard on the bus.  The person in front of you at the check-out.   A picture on a postcard someone sent you from Peru.  That silly/strange/funny thing you did/saw/heard/read/thought yesterday. 

An idea is just a starting point.  Starting points come from anywhere, and lead anywhere.  That’s the joy of creativity.

Folk tales are a great starting point, for example.  If a story’s survived, in all its many forms, for hundreds, thousands of years, then there’s something deep inside it that cuts to the quick of what it is to be human.  Something we can draw on to create a whole new story, a whole new world. 

It’s often said that there are only a limited number of themes, a limited range of plots that are appropriate for picture book.  That may or may not be so, but the joy of picture book is when the writer finds such a fresh, imaginative and engaging way of telling their story that where it stands in relation to anything that’s been written before becomes irrelevant.  It works. It simply works.

So, below, I've jotted down a few basic start points for stories. And then I’ve looked at some of my own picture books to see which of them might fit under each theme:

A puzzle that needs solving:  Who Did It?; Sleepy Pendoodle

Someone or something that’s lost and needs to be found: Charlie is My Darling; The Snuggle Sandwich; Teddybear Blue

The need to find 'home': Antonio on the Other Side of the World Getting Smaller; Big Pig

Triumph of the youngest / smallest: Too Noisy; Collywobble; Danny the Duck with no Quack; Digger and Lew.

Going on a journey / quest:  Little Chick and the Secret of Sleep; The Bold Boy; Blast Off!

Finding a friend: When a Zeeder Met a Xyder

A child’s relationship with a grandparent: Owen and the Mountain; The Dancing Tiger; Tad-cu’s Bobble Hat; Jody’s Beans; Granny Sarah and the Last Red Kite.  

Dealing with an odd/annoying member of the household: Albert and Sarah Jane

Helping, and making friends with, a monster: Hungry! Hungry! Hungry!
Having fun with folk tale: Peek-a-Book; Hen’s Cake; The Great Castle of Marshmangle; Una and the Seacloak.

Looked at that way, you can see that even just in my work certain themes recur over and over (I seem to have a thing about grandparents… and being the little one in a big family... oh, and mountains... and getting lost in the woods... )
In most if not all cases I didn't start with the theme - I more often started with a character, a picture in my head, a phrase that came to me out walking.... 

So yes, as Lynne said in the last post, try to avoid things that have been recently done to death - but don't panic if you think you story isn't 100% original - nothing is.  The trick is to find something fresh, something captivating to say with each new story.  And to tell it in your very own style, in your very own voice.  Then it doesn’t really matter how often the basic theme’s been used before, because it's your story now.  And it's a good one - I know it is.  

How about you?  Do your books/stories use any of these themes as a starting point?
Has anyone got any other recurring themes they’d like to offer up?  Or any killer one-offs? 


  1. I find sometimes you don't see the themes in your own work until you look back over years later. A lot of my books are based on the theme of swapping lives or re imagining a job or a person with a twist. So, Pirate House Swap involves pirates and humans changing places, The Mummy Shop imagines life with a different style of parent, The Fairytale Hairdresser puts an ordinary girl into fairyland. I guess it's because growing up in different countries and changing schools so often was so formative for me :)

  2. Yes, it's funny, Abie - often, when I show my wife a new story she says 'I know what that's about... where that's coming from' and I'd no idea!

  3. Quite a few of my picture books stories have sprung from a title.

    My four-year-old daughter spotted a piggy bank wearing a crown in a shop window and pointed it out to me saying "Princess Pig!". I thought this sounded like a great title for a story, so I wrote one, which was later retitled "The Princess and the Pig."

    1. Yeah, I was walking the beach once and found myself chanting, to the beat of my tread on the sand, 'Once upon a mountain stood a Zyderzee...' It survived all the way into the first line of my picture book 'When a Zeeder met a Xyder'.

  4. Interesting, Malachy. When I write a story I always ask myself what the story is really about - what's at the heart of the story. For me, that's when the theme comes in useful for concentrating the mind and preventing the story from meandering or becoming too complex.

    1. I don't think I do that till quite late in the process if at all. I think I'd be afraid it might cramp my style. Maybe I should try it! I sort of hope there's something true and real and heartfelt at the heart of each of my stories, but I try to avoid analysing them too closely in case the whole thing would freeze.