Vampire Robots and Cyborg Dinosaurs

PortraitThis post by Craig Snider.

There are many types of writers in the world, but when it comes to story ideas there tends to be only two: those with ideas pouring from every creative orifice and not enough time to write them all, and those who would have more luck getting blood from a stone than a good idea from that mush in their heads they call a mind. For those of you who are the former, just remember that it is often the quality and not the quantity, and you can also take a long walk off a short pier. I am the unfortunate latter. But, for we who are idea-challenged, I may have found a way to get around it.

For those new to writing, just the process of coming up with a story can be very daunting. Then, there is the challenges of short stories versus novels. But, for the sake of this post, let’s just clump the idea generation process for both types together.

Coming up with a story idea should be easy enough, and for many it is. But, I often find myself getting stifled either by the simplicity of the idea, or the fact that it is not original enough. When I started writing, I used the simple “What If?” method to come up with something to start writing about. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to generate any kind of inspiring stories. Sure, I could come up with some interesting avenues to pursue, but they would quickly peter out and I’d be left with yet another unfinished story on my hard drive. I needed a new method. Error Message (1)

Here are the two things I now implement in order to get past my idea block:

Chaff, Idea, Premise

This is actually an improv concept I learned from my friend and mentor, Steve Goff. The idea is that you create a back line of improv players. They are given a suggestion, usually a single word. Then, players will step forward and give an offer for what a scene based on that suggestion could be about.

Essentially, the offers will fall into three categories. Let’s look at them for a moment.

  1. Chaff: These are just simple tidbits of story ideas that don’t have much substance. So, if for example the one word suggestion was “library,” an example of chaff would be “talking too loudly.” It gives us something to start from, but no real foundation with which to create a solid story. It is a throwaway idea that would need a good deal of development before it becomes something.
  2. Idea: These are what you generally will get while sitting at your desk with a blank page and wanting to punch that blinky, self-righteous cursor right in his pixelated anger-computerlittle face. These are the “What If” ideas that are a bit more developed, but still are not a solid foundation for your story. An example might be, “What if the books came alive in a library?” Okay, that can places, and with some development could become a full story.
  3. Premise: These are what you want to train your brain to think in terms of. Premises are fully-formed story concepts that give you the bare-bones needed to create a full story structure. For example, “Characters in books come alive and take over a local library. The librarian must wrangle them back into their books before she gets fired,” or some such other thing. While that isn’t exactly going to win any awards, it at least gives us a good frame of reference to build from, and there is no one saying the story has to follow that concept to the letter. It can change. This is more about the inspiration to write a story than the writing itself.

Thinking in terms of a fully formed premise will also make it easier to market your books when a publisher or agent asks you what your book is about.

Framing

 

Framing is a term often used in journalism to indicate what “angle” a complex story will take. For example, it just isn’t feasible to do a five minute report or a single article on the issues in Syria. It would just be watered down drivel. So, reporters will instead do the story on the effect of the problems in Syria on refugees, or perhaps foreign relations.

In fiction, what this does is help alleviate the problem of a “What If” story idea from being cliched. Let’s say you’ve come up with the idea, “what if vampires use an advanced AI to computer-vampire-largetake over the world.” Well, okay, if you really wanna write that crap, because I most certainly would never write that very cool and amazing story… But, if those are the kinds of ideas you come up with, you have the challenge of making it new and interesting while avoiding a plethora of cliche pitfalls along the way.

But, what if you shift your frame? That idea is still there, but now instead of that being your foreground story, it is the background story. So, now the story is about a young couple in love, trying to make things work amidst the vampire-robot uprising. In other words, you protagonist(s) will not even directly interact with the vampire-robot overlords. They are merely affected by them indirectly or briefly within the story as a byproduct of that premise.

This is common in more “indie” type movies. The film, Monsters, by Gareth Edwards (director for the most recent Godzilla film) is a great example. It is a story of alien invasion, but the aliens take a back seat to the characters’ relationship. The aliens do appear off and on, and at the penultimate scene, but that is just a bonus to the main story line.

The problem with framing is that it can cause your “What If” idea to appear as a cheap gimmick, thrown in to give the story more mainstream appeal for an otherwise character-driven story. Be cautious about your style. A straightforward approach will not work. Think more “literary” stories, or non-mainstream styles. A good example of a novel that does this would be Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. We know there was some global, man-made disaster, but we don’t know the how or why of it. It doesn’t really matter, because that isn’t what the story is about. It is about the man and the boy. And, cannibals. Lots and lots of freakin’ cannibals.

Okay, so those are two new tools for your writer’s toolbox. Use them or not as you like. Perhaps they are not new to you. That’s okay. You’re probably one of those “I have sooo many ideas! I just don’t know what to write about first!” kind of people. If so, please send me your name, and you will die horribly in my next story about an elderly couple seeking to requite their love after 50 years apart, amidst the dangers of a portal that is spitting out cyborg dinosaurs intent on turning our planet into their sex den.

Until next time, write on brother.

cyborg-dinosaur

This would be a great place for the casting couch…

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15 Responses to Vampire Robots and Cyborg Dinosaurs

  1. Doris says:

    Craig, I’m still laughing at your last line. My oh My. I did love the post. Great information delivered in great style. Doris

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  2. Great ideas and tools to keep for future use, Craig. Thanks. I, too, loved the last line. That’s quite an idea and I’ll just bet people would buy a book like that in an instant!

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  3. Nancy Jardine says:

    The former or the latter? Slot me into that last category, Craig, for the present – but maybe a re-read of your entertaining post will jump start me. 😉 I have an outline plan, have had it for ages for one of my projects but i keep changing it after chapter 2 because I’m doing more and more research and finding I don’t like my ideas well enough! there’s an elusive perfect still round the corner. That was fun reading.

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    • Craig Snider says:

      Thanks, Nancy. I feel your pain. I tried to do NaNoWriMo two years ago, got to chapter 2, then realized I had no idea where the story was going.

      I’ve just recently started tackling it again, and having the same problem you are. At this point, I think I just need to write it, and work out the kinks later. Good luck to us both!

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  4. Mike Staton says:

    Framing? Maybe I went to J-school too early — 1971-73, at Ohio University. Never heard the term framing. Back to the basics of your piece… coming up and framing your story, novel or short story. I just outlined my civil war novel, and surprisingly it went remarkably easy. I thought it would be torture. I’m on the first draft, page 95, about to start chapter 10.

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    • Craig Snider says:

      Mike, you’re probably right. I came up with the term in my head, then tried to look it up to see if anyone else used it that way. The only thing I could find writing-wise, was an article about a journalism class at a university.

      But, it seems to make sense when I think of some of the books and stories I’ve read that do that.

      Glad to hear the novel is coming along! It is nice when the pieces come together after so much work. Keep at it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. S J Brown says:

    For those of us that are the former the challenge is which idea to focus on first. BTW it would be totally conceivable to have a wildlife photographer chasing Cyborg Dinosaurs

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    • Craig Snider says:

      That’s very true. Luckily, I don’t have that issue. But, for the sake of discussion, how do you decides which one to tackle first? Do you do it by which interests you the most, or by which is the most viable, or some other method?

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      • S J Brown says:

        I start writing everyone of them. The ones that interest me or are more viable have a longer shelf life. Some sit for long periods of time before they are tackled in earnest. I rarely trash any idea. Yes there are dozens of WTP that are just a few paragraphs on my computer.

        The work I just completed I was about 20 pages in and I thought I was giving the reader a bad impression of my sister. I sent it to her. She liked it and thought I had captured her pretty well. That conversation sparked the collaborative effort we just completed.

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  6. Hilarious post, Craig. Since I never outline (I wish I could) and instead bang my head against the wall as I try to come up with the next scene in my current WIP, I most definitely fall into the latter. I usually have a character or scene in my head that gets me going with a new story, but do I have any idea what the story is going to be about or how it’s going to end? Nope. I also tried to do NaNoWriMo and gave up after day 4 or 5. I always second guess my idea or where I thinnk the story is going. Thanks for a humorous post as well as some great writing prompts.

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    • Craig Snider says:

      Thanks for reading Sarah.

      I am still a pantser when it comes to my short stories, but I actually did finally do an outline for my current WIP this time. Though, now that the outline is nearly finished, I’m not sure I’ll use any of it. But, just having that framework has helped give me a safety net.

      I think that if you have your Inciting Incident, First and Second Plot Point, your Climax, and your Ending, that is probably enough to get a good pantser started. Good luck!

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  7. What a great entertaining and educational post, Craig! I LOVE the pictures, especially Writer Error!! I’m sure many of us can relate and learn from your insights. I use Premise and Framing, likely because I’m trained in journalism and write a lot of feature stories in addition to my books. And, since my primary characters are animals (who don’t talk) I have to develop my settings and plots more thoroughly — they have to “speak” for the story. I have MANY ideas, but not necessarily the time or the creativity to develop them all — so many sit on my computer for years. They eventually “speak” to me again, like my dog rescue story for children, which has taken me nearly five years to wrangle. But, I see light at the end of the proverbial tunnel! Thanks for a wonderful, inspiring post!

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    • Craig Snider says:

      Thanks, Gayle.

      Wow, that would be difficult to write story where the protagonists don’t talk! I commend you.

      I have that too, where ideas will speak to much later than when I first wrote them. I love that. Often, my “chaff” will just be a single line or idea that meant something in my head at the time, but then going back to read them much later, I have no idea what I was intending. But, then it serves as my own writing prompt for a new idea. I love how the mind works.

      Glad you are nearing the end. That must be a wonderful feeling. I have yet to write a novel, so I’ll let you know when I get there too.

      Like

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