Friday, March 6, 2015

Brainstorming: Building on The Idea

Let's pretend you have an idea. Don't be alarmed! It happens to the best of us.

Walk it off.

As I've pointed out before, sometimes you can't shake the idea off. It sticks to you. It won't go away. It keeps you up at night, like a dryer that squeals because it's lost that little felt ring that stops the metal drum from rubbing against the housing as it goes around and around and around squeaking and squealing intermittently until you jUSt cAn'T TAkE iT aNy mO.... ahem.

So. There's that. What do you do with the idea once you have it and it won't go away? What if, and this is a big if, What if you like the idea? As in, cute little kitten or puppy "like" the idea? I've found one of the best things to do in that case is to hide around a corner until it sticks out it's little head and then BASH IT IN with a crowbar!

The idea!!!! Not the puppy or kitten!!! NEVER the puppy or kitten!!!! You MONSTER!!!!

Now that you've subdued the idea, it's time to shape it into what you want it to be. Whether that's a soul-stretching, heart-wrenching, teary-eyed horror novel, or a pulse-pounding, hair-raising, can't-sleep-without-the-lights-on romance comedy, or any other sort of compound-modifying hyphenated-verbing, run-on-sentencing goodness... is entirely up to you. It's your idea to inflict upon the world.

Let's dig into the meat on how you could go about the exercise of expanding and improving on that idea.

To be fair, some of these processes will work better for Outliners than they will for Pantsers. Others should work just as well for anyone. I'm not covering how to build your entire story, only how to go about brainstorming a single idea. Of course, that idea could be a character, plot point, scene, world, what have you.

The key to story brainstorming is to ask questions, and then keep on asking questions. The same principle questions we were all taught in Primary School. Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Take your idea and expand it by asking those questions. As for where you get the answers, there are a few avenues you can take. In all cases though, you should always consider looking past the first and obvious answer for a deeper, less expected answer.

And make notes (while you brainstorm, not while you read this post... unless you want to)! This is where I usually break out Scapple if I have my MacBook, or Google Keep if all I have is my phone.

I used to think research was boring. Ok. In so many cases it still is. However! I've found that researching a topic that I'm genuinely interested in can be exciting. So much so that I've lost entire weeks worth of writing time digging into actual, real-live history research! I passed history in high-school with a 51%, exactly what I needed to never do it again!

That said, history isn't the only subject you can research. There's plenty of science, psychology, economics, and so many other things. I urge you to find reputable sources of information for any research you do. It's great to dig into something on the black hole that is Wikipedia, but make sure you source anything you intend to use. I'm not saying you need to put a bibliography at the end of your work (ugh). Just be warned that if you do put something that is both real and inaccurate into your story, people will call you on it.

Remember to take whatever you find and expand upon it even further by asking the principle questions, not only for how they fit the subject of the research, but for how it fits into your story.

It never hurts to talk it out. I use this one all the time. My wife and kids hear about sticking points and ideas in my stories constantly. Often they don't even have to respond. Simply throwing it at them seems to help. That said, no one will find gaps or flaws you need to fix in an idea faster than someone who doesn't have a whole lot of context.

Try it. If they're paying attention, I guarantee no matter how much you explain it, they'll have some of those principle questions at the end. Those questions can be the grease that keeps your wheels turning.

A small caveat: One experiment I've tried that you may, or may not, want to avoid is picking a subject of debate and choosing a fixed and intentionally contrary point of view to present to people. Without proper framing and context, this can lead to some very heated arguments (which can still be good). Chances are you want the person you're discussing your idea with to still talk to you afterward.

Last week I covered some methods of kick-starting your idea engine (oooh, idea engines... sounds cool! I'm going to write that down). One of those methods involved theft. Theft is a fantastic way to expand upon an idea, but here you have to be careful, especially if you stole the idea in the first place. But as I always say: A little larceny is good for the soul. So let's work with theft.

You've got your idea. Find things that have something similar to that idea in it. If you stole the idea and you aren't intending to write fan fiction (and there's NOTHING wrong with writing fan fiction, it's a great way to exercise your writerly muscles), you should really look for similarities in something unrelated to your original source.

That doesn't mean you can't use the same source, but you're only making your work harder on yourself than it has to be. Oh! And comic books or adaptations/sources count as the SAME source, so no you can't claim that the Serenity comics are a different source than Firefly or the Serenity movie.

So, once you've found your source, dig in. Ingest a bunch of it, just like you did for finding the idea. Unlike that searching process, take notes on the ideas and tropes that flow through it. But try to stick to the points that directly relate to your idea, you don't want to steal more than you have to, or you're going to let someone else build your playground for you. You don't want that for an original work.

Then walk away from it and try to think of everything you loved and hated about it and write it down, but in this try to be non-specific.

For example: I've been watching a lot of Buffy and Angel on Netflix lately (I'm not justifying that here, Whedon is a master!). Taking the idea of "My main character is a monster hunter." my following lists could work for one or both.

Tight-knit group of friends
Witty banter
Kick-ass fights (yes, they're cheesy, but fun)
Protagonist who just wants to be normal fighting against insurmountable odds
Real-life complications

Chosen one
Destiny/Fate overtones
Whiny protagonist
Dumb predictable villains
Same old monsters

From that I get some pretty nice launching points that come back to the principle questions.

  • Who are their friends?
    • Where did they meet?
    • Do their friends know what they do?
    • What sort of conflict do these friendships create for the protagonist?
    • What do they talk about?
  • How do they fight? 
    • Where did they learn to fight?
    • Are they good at fighting?
  • What do they want to do with their life if it's not fighting monsters?
    • What sort of hobbies do they have?
  • If they're not a "chosen one" how did they end up a monster hunter?
    • Why do they do it?
    • Why don't they stop?
  • What kind of monsters are they fighting?
    • What special methods are needed to fight those monsters?
    • Are they killing the monsters or trapping them?
    • What do they do with them once they're killed/caught?

And so on.

Last but not least...

This is one of my personal favourites. Take two ideas from wherever it is you hide them, and mash them together to see how they taste. Without such a genius method of creation we wouldn't have the wonders of Dark Chocolate covered Pretzels, Dinobots, Firefly, Star Wars, or Jim Butcher's Codex Alera.

The ideas don't even need to be similar to be made into something fantastic. The total can absolutely be greater than the sum of its parts. It may take some work to get two (or more) things to fit together, and all things likely won't fit together without getting a little bit creative. But you're a writer. That's what you do.

I use some or all of the above methods to build on things before I start writing, while I'm writing, and sometimes just for fun. Whatever methods you use, always chase the answers deeper. That's how you make a unique and compelling story.

Let me know what methods you use to expand upon your ideas down in the comments.


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

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