At the risk of upsetting beginning writers who agonize over figuring out what to write about, I’ll admit this is one problem I do not have. Whatever other deficiencies I have as a writer, a lack of ideas is not among them. I’m awash in ideas, flooded with them. Not bragging, since it’s a curse in some ways.
Unfortunately, like some star baseball pitcher who’s a “natural” at the game but can’t pass on his technique to others because he can’t describe what he does, I’m not sure I can put into words just where my ideas come from. For me, it’s just plucking from the Idea Tree—they’re free for the taking, and all around me. You, on the other hand, might have to visit the Idea Store, and it will cost you. I think I can at least give you the store’s address.
First, let’s clarify. An idea is not a story. An idea is not even a plot. The idea for Moby Dick might have been something like, “I’ll write about a sea captain obsessed with hunting a particular whale.” The idea for the Harry Potter series might have been, “I’ll follow the adventures and maturation of a young boy who’s attending a school for wizards.” Both reasonably good ideas, but my point is that it’s not the ideas that make those books great. The skill put into the writing of the books, the fleshing out of the ideas, matters much more. So don’t think your idea has to be unprecedented, astounding, or unique. Your story idea can be simple, mundane, overdone, even stupid, but if the story you write based on that idea is well crafted, it will sell.
I’ve found that most story ideas consist of two elements that I’ll call the ‘seed’ and the ‘twist.’ The seed is something really basic, perhaps something from everyday life, or something in the news, or something you read in a book or magazine. For Herman Melville, his seed might have been the sea captain. For J. K. Rowling, the seed might have been a boy going through school.
The twist is some adjustment you make to the seed, some new way of looking at it. It’s where you examine the seed and ask, “but what if—?” Turn the seed over in your mind and alter it in different ways. “What if my sea captain was obsessed with a particular whale?” “What if the school was for educating wizards?”
Here are a couple of examples from my own writing. For “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” the seed was a steam-powered ship. The twist came when I realized that the power of steam was known in ancient times but never put to any use other than with amusing toys. What if—? For my story, “Within Victorian Mists,” I set out to write a steampunk romance, and I knew I wanted it set in the Victorian era. I’d recalled reading somewhere that lasers were invented late; that is, the basic materials had been available earlier but nobody had hit on the concept, even accidentally. Moreover, holograms are an extension of laser technology. What if—?
Story ideas need not involve technology, of course. Often the seed for a story is some previous proven story line by a historical author, or a successful genre. The twist is simply to bring the story up to date, put it in a different setting, turn a tragedy into a comedy (or vice versa), or tell the same story from the point of view of a different character. You can even take an event from a classic story that seems unlikely or too coincidental and make that event happen differently, then explore how that would turn out.
This idea of seeds and twists for story ideas is akin to the concept of TRIZ in engineering problem-solving. Genrich Altshuller reviewed Soviet patent applications and realized that after a technological breakthrough occurred, he could predict the follow-on patent applications that would arrive. They were all twists on the basic seed technology. How many times have we seen this in the electronics industry? Think of VCRs, PDAs, PCs, etc. The first gadget to hit the market is large, boxy, and black, with rectangular buttons. The follow-ons become smaller and smaller, then come in different colors and more stylish packaging.
Back to story ideas. In a later post, I’ll talk about a technique for improving your creativity. In the meantime, try taking some simple seed ideas and giving them a twist. Write down your ideas, even the stupid ones, because they can often spark a good idea. That list is what you just bought at the Idea Store for the price of a little thought. Earlier, I said you can write a good story from a stupid idea. That’s true, but it’s a low-percentage shot. I suggest writing from your best ideas first.
Good luck, and feel free to write to the Scribe if this blog post worked or didn’t work for you.