This 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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 little 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.
- 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 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 take 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.