Developing an Idea

There is a question all writers are asked all the time. In fact, if you’ve ever published anything – or even if you haven’t – I can more-or-less guarantee you’ve been asked this at minimum six times this year. I would even go so far as to argue this question is a primary reason somebody might decline to identify themselves as an author at a party with mixed company. The question is this:

Where do you get your ideas?

This question is totally understandable. All writers see where the questioner is coming from when they get this – obviously somebody who doesn’t spend their spare time coming up with weird little stories to entertain people might wonder how on Earth this process occurs. The problem is, though, that the answer to this question is too vastly complicated and esoteric to clearly relate. For instance, when I am asked this, I often feel like asking a series of follow-up questions:

Do you mean general ideas or specific ideas?

Do you want to know where the ideas originate spatially, mentally, or temporally in relation to one another?

Are you asking what my artistic influences are, or how I come up with ideas I term as original?

Also, what constitutes an “idea?” Like, what if the story originated with an idea I didn’t end up using? Do you want to hear about that?

Are you asking out of curiosity, or do you, yourself, wish to generate your own ideas and want tips as to how?

And I could go on. A lot of times, when asked this question, I shrug and say “a weird childhood,” even though that is not really true in many ways. Mostly I do this to see how seriously they want to know because, like, if you actually want to know, I can talk to you for hours and hours. And hours.

Like, you should probably get a beverage and comfortable chair.

For the purposes of this blog post, however, I’m going to skip past the original, general concept “idea” – the bolt of lighting, if you will, that strikes you and gets the wheels turning. Let’s just assume that happens by whatever eldritch psychic alchemy blesses all creative people and move on to what, for me, is the more interesting stage: Idea development.

What Do I Do With This Stuff?

GOBLINS!

It occurred to me recently that I really think goblins are cool and that I don’t read enough stories about their petty, vicious, mean-spirited little lives, brief though they are. This has begun to simmer on a back burner in my head. Let’s talk about next steps.

What kind of story will this be?

This is the first question I ask myself. What is the tone I want to evoke? Is my goblin story going to be funny, sad, mysterious, scary, angry – what? What, basically, will be the most fun for me.

How can my story create this mood or tone?

I begin to think about what my goblins will be like, in broad strokes – not so much individual characters, but things like culture and environment that would have shaped their behavior. If I’m trying to write a scary story, how can I combine the elements I want (scary and goblin protagonists) in a way that seems plausible, believable, and entertaining. This is where I stare to come to grips with the world itself. I start to map out big ideas – who has the power? Who doesn’t? Why is the world this way? How do the goblins fit into this world? Is this world evoking the proper mood or tone to fit the kind of story I want to tell? If not, how can I change it to do so?

Whose story is this?

This question and the next question sometimes swap positions with me, but a lot of times I get to character next. So, I’ve got this funny/scary/angry goblin world – who is my main character? How do they fit inside this world? What is the conflict they are seeking to resolve (i.e. what do they want?). If I have a boring main character, I don’t have a story, do I? My characters morph and change a lot before they actually appear on the page. It’s like forging something or maybe sculpting/whittling – I’ve got a raw hunk of material that needs to be honed and shaped into something useful and beautiful.

What happens in this story?

Next is plot (or sometimes plot is first). Just because I have a person living in this world doesn’t mean there’s a story yet. This is often a place where my ideas stall – okay, so I have a goblin character living in a goblins world doing their goblin thing but that’s not a story. Slice of life tales I find pretty boring, frankly. I want action. Honestly, silly as it is, I often find myself coming back to this meme:

Fake Leo Tolstory is kinda right, guys. I mess around with those three basic ideas and see if I can come up with something new and interesting.

Who is telling the story?

The last step I go through when developing an idea is this one: who is telling the story? Whose voice will best evoke the tone and mood I want? Is this going to be Third Person or First Person (please note that I cannot stand second person and won’t do it)? Will I have multiple POVs or just one? I can’t write anything until I know what the story is going to sound like in my head. My style is a bit fluid; I alter it to suit the tale. Perhaps this is a bad idea, but it’s one that makes writing fun and challenging and interesting for me.

Once that is in place – once I know whose story it is and what is going to happen and who is telling it and where it is set and what kind of mood I wish to evoke – the only thing that’s left is writing the damned thing.

The hard part, in other words.

 

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on March 23, 2018, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I think it’s interesting to note that although I’ve shared plenty of stories, even with non-writers, I don’t think anyone has asked me “Where do you get your ideas?”

    This may be because (a) I talk to other adults for a total of 5 minutes a week, (b) I haven’t published a book or story yet (and hence there are no strangers asking me), or (c) I inadvertently explain where the idea for a particular work comes from, in the course of a writing group or getting a beta read.

    The most common conversation I have, when I say “I’m a [optional: fiction] writer” is “What kind of books do you write?” I tell them, and they just say “cool” or “where can I read one?”

    Despite never being asked, plenty of friends do get asked, so I often wonder about the last follow-up you asked above: are you asking because you don’t have ideas and want to start having them? Or are you just curious about how the process works? I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I could say I have ideas for stories all the time, and I just don’t follow up with most of them. I was just at the town dump, and saw an empty envelope lying on the ground: just a piece of litter, but immediately I thought “what if there was something really private, controversial, or suspect in that envelope?”

    I don’t know what it’s like not to have ideas. That’s like being dead.

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