Friday, February 27, 2015

The Idea: Something from nothing.

It all starts with an idea. For me that means it can be a character, a scene, a theme, a line of dialog. You name it. That idea can be just about anything and can occur at any time. Which means it's usually in the shower, or while I'm driving, or in the wee hours of the morning when I'm supposed to be sleeping.

That idea is like a piece of sand caught by a clam... except I don't want to be a clam... how about the piece of grit at the heart of a raindrop... no, again, starting with dirt. It's like a random beautiful word, found in the heart of a dictionary, or one of those "word of the day" calendars... wow... NERD ALERT!

Anyway, it nags at me and needs me to do SOMETHING about it. So I'll turn it over in my head until I can write it down (where or how I write it down is very dependant on where I am and what I have available, see The tools I (mis)use).

Ok, so not all ideas are like that, but after it's written down I have one of two choices, dig into it now, or shelve it for later. The deciding factor is supposed to be whether or not I'm in the middle of writing something else. What it often ends up actually being is whether or not I can find some way to fit it into what I'm writing.

That's a key thing for me with "the idea". It doesn't wait for a decent time to show up. It doesn't wait for me to be sitting idly, daydreaming and wondering "What should I do next?". No. The idea is the drunken friend that calls me in the middle of the night, or shows up wearing nothing but a bathrobe and 3 days of unshaven, unwashed growth on their face smelling of stale beer and old cheese. The idea is inconsiderate of what I'm doing. It doesn't care whether or not now is a good time.

Basically, ideas are bastards. But they're my bastards, and I'll take them whenever and wherever they show up. Which is to say, often. I'll take them often. Because they never stop coming.

I'm never one to want for ideas. Writers block as it's depicted in movies and TV will likely never be my problem. Staying on track and moving forward with a single project to completion is... and not getting too caught up on my own insecurities is... but those are other stories.

However, if you're someone who struggles with finding an idea, there are a number of solutions. Want some suggestions?

You'd be amazed what going unplugged or simply letting your mind wander can do. Go primitive for a bit. No Twitter. No Facebook. No Wikipedia/Youtube/Tumblr black holes. Walk away from whatever is on those screens and get BORED. Let your mind wander. You'd be amazed what you can come up with.

Another option?
It worked for Shakespeare! Even Star Wars (the original trilogy) is largely stolen from The Seven Samurai (which itself is based loosely on Japanese folklore), which of course also spawned The Magnificent Seven and about a bajillion other stories. Retellings are EVERYWHERE, and how obvious they are all depends on how good of a job the writer performing the retelling does at filing off the serial numbers and making it their own.

Chuck Palahniuk claims that Fight Club (the book) is a retelling of The Great Gatsby, and as someone who's read both, I certainly couldn't tell.

The key point to stealing an idea is to make it your own. Steal just the idea, not the entire plot, or cast of characters, or setting. You can steal the nuances of all of them to one degree or another, but the more you twist the original into your own thing, the better it will be for both you as a writer, and for your audience. But that's getting into brainstorming.

The last suggestion?
What if?
Simply put, take a situation, or technology, or existing story and ask the question What if...? I LOVED Marvel's What If? comics growing up. They took my favourite superheroes and asked often ridiculous questions. What if Spider-Man was more spider than man? What if certain heroes had been villains? etc. Many of their "What if?" scenarios intrigued them so much that they eventually became Marvel canon (Bruce Banner's brain in the Hulk's body...).

There are a few ways to go about this yourself. A technique I'd recommend, is to ingest a lot of information about something. Whether it's by reading a bunch of books (fiction or non-fiction), digging into some articles about new tech, binge watching a TV series, or reading an entire comic book run.

Whatever you do, just pack in a bunch of something if you can. Then ask the question: What if?
What if the heroes lost?
What if this technology was exploited for the best possible reasons?
What if this technology was exploited for the worst possible reasons?
What if this technology/product/cure was extremely effective/ineffective cheap/expensive safe/dangerous?
What if the government had made this ruling?
What if Indiana Jones had been a woman?
What if the radioactive spider had bitten Gwen Stacey instead of Peter Parker?
What if the apes/spiders/cats/tree frogs tried to rise up and take over the world?

Some of the BEST stories come out of that simple question. And it's a question you should continue to ask throughout the writing and revision process.

These are by no means the ONLY methods of generating ideas. They're just a starting point. But, you get the idea...

What are your techniques for generating ideas? Let me know in the comments.

- Alex

This is the second entry in a series of posts about my evolving writing process.


  1. I've taken a couple of workshops but the only one that has really stuck is Holly Lisle. She has a free mini-workshop that is pretty good.

    1. I've never done a workshop! That's a great suggestion.