One of the questions most authors field all the time is "Where do you get your ideas?" Harlan Ellison, if I recall correctly, had a snappy comeback for this one; he used to insist with a straight face that there was a little old lady in Poughkeepsie, NY who would mail him a manila envelope full of story ideas on alternate Thursdays, or something like that.
The fact of the matter is that getting ideas is the easy part of writing. it takes a little practice, that's all. If you have a facility for daydreaming -- something any would-be writer needs to cultivate -- and omnivorous tastes in reading -- something else any would-be writer needs to cultivate -- once you get the habit of thinking about potential stories, you'll have more of them than you know what to do with.
May I insert a parenthetical comment here? If you ever want to give a writer something to chuckle about in private, or in conversations with other writers, come bustling up to him or her and insist that you've got a really great idea for a story and you're looking for someone to turn it into a book, and you want to split the profits 50/50. This happens to most authors all the time, too. One writer of my acquaintance likes to respond to it by saying, "Tell you what -- instead, we'll split the profits on an hourly basis; your share will be based on how long you took to come up with the idea, compared to how long it takes me to write the book." That ends the conversation neatly, which is of course the point.
Story ideas are easy. Every writer I know has more ideas for stories than he or she will ever find time to write. If you have a good story idea, great; you've taken your first step toward writing a novel. If you don't have one -- why, that's easy to fix.
Get some paper and a pen, or open a file in your word processing program of choice, or what have you.
***No, really. Stop reading and go do this, right now. The whole point of an exercise like this is to do it, and learn from the experience.***
Ready? Okay, now as quickly as you can -- without stopping to think or edit or critique what you've written -- write a brief (twelve words or less) description of a random character in the kind of fiction you like. (Examples: "An orphan boy living in a tree in the forest." "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron." "A blacksmith in a deindustrial dark age village.") Now, just as quickly, write nine more of them.
Turn the page (or scroll down a ways, or what have you). Now in the same way -- without stopping to think or edit or critique what you've written -- write an active verb in the third person singular, with whatever follow-on words English usage requires. (Examples: "discovers." "goes in search of." "escapes from.") Okay? Now write nine more.
Turn another page (etc.,) and now write down a brief description of something interesting that relates to the kind of fiction you like. Do it, again, without stopping to think or edit or critique. (Examples: "a map of pirate treasure." "a city at the edge of the world." "an army on the march." Now write nine more.
***Have you done this? Don't read any further until you have.***
Okay, now combine one character with one verb and one interesting thing. Repeat until you've got ten characters with ten verbs and ten interesting things. (Examples" "An orphan boy living in a tree in the forest discovers a map of pirate treasure." "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron goes in search of a city at the edge of the world." "A blacksmith in a deindustrial dark age village escapes from an army on the march." Got it?) You now have ten story ideas -- or, more precisely, you've got the seeds from which ten story ideas can grow.
Okay. Now go back through them again, and assign different verbs and interesting things to different characters. (Examples: "An orphan boy living in a tree in the forest goes in search of an army on the march." "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron escapes from a map of pirate treasure." "A blacksmith in a deindustrial dark age village discovers a city at the edge of the world.") You now have ten more story ideas.
Note the second example in this latter set: "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron escapes from a map of pirate treasure." Your first reaction was probably something like "That's silly -- why would someone want to escape from a map of pirate treasure?" Answer that question and you've got a really original story idea. Here's the baron's illegitimate daughter -- we'll call her Sylvie. Here's a map of pirate treasure. She sees it -- we can fill in the details later -- and immediately up and runs away from home to get away from it. Why? What could be written on a map of pirate treasure, or what could be implied by such a map, or what might other people intend with that map, that would make Sylvie stuff a few prized possessions in a satchel, slip out the window into the night, and hurry away into the darkness with no intention of ever coming back? As you think up answers to these questions, you turn the seed into a full-blown story idea.
Every novel involves at least one character who does something (thus the active third person singular verb) about something interesting. Of course you can have more than one active character -- in a novel, normally much more than one! -- and they'll probably all be doing things about a variety of interesting objects. The basic situation that drives a novel, though, can usually be summed up in exactly the form I've sketched out. "A hobbit sets out to destroy the accursed Ring of Power." That's the basic situation that drives The Lord of the Rings. "The heir of an interplanetary dukedom flees from his father's killers." That's the basic situation that drives Dune. I could go on.
Of course there's more to it, but the rest evolves from the situation as you ask yourself questions, like the ones I asked about Sylvie. How did the hobbit get the Ring of Power? Why does it have to be destroyed? Who made it? etc., etc., etc.
There are three ground rules I want to introduce here, before we get to the exercise. We're going to return to them over and over again, so get used to them.
Rule #1: Give your writing permission to suck. Your initial attempts to come up with ideas, write initial scenes, assemble them into a story and then into a first draft, will suck. Mine always do, and so do everyone else's. (Your library can probably get you a copy of The Return of the Shadow, the volume of The History of Middle-Earth that includes Tolkien's very first drafts for The Fellowship of the Ring. They suck. In fact, they suck, bite, chew, and spit out what's left. Read that if you have any doubts about Rule #1.) Quality comes into writing as you revise. Don't worry about it now.
Rule #2: Your first thought is probably a cliché. We've all got imaginations stocked with other people's stories, and that's what comes to mind the moment we start trying to imagine our own stories. There's a simple way around this: write down your first idea, and then do something else. Your first thought about why Sylvie is fleeing from that map of pirate treasure probably comes from somebody else's book; note it down, and then come up with some other reason. Better still, come up with half a dozen other reasons, and choose the one that makes you blink with surprise.
Rule #3: Nothing's set in stone until the first copies come back from the printers. You can change anything and everything as you go. Aragorn son of Arathorn, the last heir of the Kings of Numenor, first appeared in the early drafts of The Fellowship of the Ring as a hobbit named Trotter. Sauron the Dark Lord started out in Tolkien's writings as an evil magical cat named Tevildo. Don't worry about getting it right the first time around. Start, and make changes as you get a clearer idea of where you're headed.
Okay, now here's your assignment. Come up with a character who interests you, an action that looks like it'll kickstart a story into motion, and an interesting object for the action to be about. To keep it lively, make it an unexpected character doing an unexpected action about something you don't usually see in the kind of novel you like to read. Once you've got your character doing whatever it is about whatever it is, start asking those questions; why is the character doing it? Where did the thing come from, and where is it going? What else is going on in the world where the story is taking place? There are no right answers and no wrong ones. Give it a try, and write everything down; you may discard it all as you proceed with the story, or you may not.
Give it a try, and see where you end up. In a couple of days, I'll post what I've done along these lines -- and no, it won't be about Sylvie and the pirate map. Stay tuned!