I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good ideas come from bad ones. This is true of every aspect of storytelling, but especially when it comes to the ideas that inspire a main plot. Carrie started out as a metaphor for puberty, The Hunger Games originated as a theoretical twist on the game show Survivor, and The Lord of the Rings began as a simple notion of creating an English mythology.
If we could hear the original kernel from which each of these stories grew, no doubt we would see little resemblance to the stories we know and love. On their way to becoming robust enough to support sixty thousand words or more, an idea must take on nuances and changes that render it all but unrecognizable. It must gain a back story, characters, all the supporting elements that will take it from a vague notion to the written page.
The good news about this is that we all know how to come up with bad ideas. I’m sure that if you started typing right now, you could come up with a dozen or more in the span of a few seconds. I’ve found that the true key to distilling these into a story idea is getting to the core of what you want to write about. The task isn’t necessarily to come up with ideas alone, but to come up with ideas that fit your motivation. What was it that brought you to the computer in the first place?
You want to write a good story. No, that’s not enough motivation. If that’s what you’re aiming for, you’ve got it all wrong. Writing at its heart—or at least, good writing—says something. It makes a point. It has a fundamental theme that brings both writer to the computer and reader to the store. Realizing what this point is should be your true purpose.
I’m going to assign you a task for whenever you feel as if you don’t have a good story idea. Sit down in front of your computer, laptop, or even tablet. Now write down the first ten or so things that come to mind. They could be characters, scenes, locations, or anything else. If you reach ten and don’t want to stop, then by all means keep going. But once you get close to ten or feel as if you’ve gotten all your ideas out, I want you to look at that list and ask yourself some questions. How are those things connected? If there’s no obvious connection, is there a way to tie them together? What’s the underlying theme, if there is one? Can you bring two seemingly unrelated ideas together to create something that nobody’s ever written about before?
As you can see, I’m a big fan of utilizing dialectics in planning my writing. That is to say, starting with an original idea (or thesis), introducing a new idea (antithesis), and combining them into a foreign concept (synthesis). You can look at just about any modern story and see that—at some level—it was written this way. Harry Potter: a combination of witch lore with the modern world (and some Nazism thrown in). Vampire Diaries: modernized and humanized vampires. Walking Dead: slow zombies, with a focus on the degradation of humanity and the moral questions posed instead of the traditional horror theme.
The thing about dialectic thinking is that it builds on the pillars of what came before. To use the examples above, you can’t have Lord of the Rings without ancient mythology; you can’t have Harry Potter without the Salem witch trials. But it also benefits from out-of-the-box thinking, in that the less related an antithesis is to the original thesis the more unique the final idea will be. So say that I paired a modern high school with exorbitant wealth. I’d get something like Gossip Girl, which isn’t really that unique at all.
Now say that I paired that same high school with ritual sacrifice. All of a sudden there are hundreds of questions that come to mind. Why do they believe in ritual sacrifice? Is this still the real world? Maybe ritual sacrifice actually works in this city, introducing something of a moral question.
And there you have it. If I wanted to write a horror/fantasy novel, I would have just arrived at an idea. The process is easy enough to understand: first dial yourself in to the kind of story you’re looking to write, and then combine some ideas to see what you come up with. Once one of them piques your interest, you’re well on your way.
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