I wrote last time about learning to apply ambition to your ideas, rather than finding ideas for your ambition. But it raised the question—how do you find “your” ideas? Your true, unique, ultimately “you” ideas?
This gets into the territory of “Where do you get your ideas?”—but it goes beyond that. You can get ideas almost anywhere, from a song or an image or a person. And if you have a fluid sense of your own creativity, you can shape stories out of almost any idea. But what if you need a little better process for evaluating and developing ideas that are uniquely you?
My first disclaimer is that your “unique” ideas may not be all that unique. At least, speaking for myself, my ideas are almost never all that unique; they are plagued by cliché and familiarity that I simply cannot avoid. Part of it is because I am often inspired by other people’s works. Another part is that I choose to work in an incredibly crowded genre which is growing more crowded every day, and thus I can hardly have an idea without some part of it bumping up against someone else’s work. And another part is that, because of my ambition as well as my personal preferences, I’m usually shaping my idea with a more commercial framework that has less room for experimentation and wild ideas than what a more artistic work would allow.
And I’ve often been afraid of this lack of originality, not because of the moral implications (I do sincerely try to avoid egregious violations of others’ creativity), but because of the potential backlash of “rip-off” and bad reviews. So… other people’s opinions. Valid opinions, certainly, but still—other people’s opinions. Not my own, so it should not be a part of my creative process.
So how can you go about finding some ideas that speak to you?
First, figure out what you love.
You might know, just from thinking about it a bit, what you love in a story. Or it might be easier to determine what you hate or don’t like in a story, and then stay away from those things. The only thing to watch out for there is the elements of a story that you really don’t love, but which may be necessary for the mechanics of the story. (I wrote a post “Daydreams vs. Work” which goes into this a little bit.)
If you struggle to figure out what you love, or you can’t trust your own answers because how much other people’s opinions might have warped them, start by identifying what works you truly love—especially ones you love in “secret.” Things you love that are not popular, that are maybe even hated, but that you love anyway. Try the “desert island” test, asking what three (or five, or ten, or whatever) books you would bring with you if you could only read those books for the rest of your life. Which books comfort you? Which books do you reread? Which books do you buy?
One thing I would caution you about is using works from other mediums—unless, of course, you’re writing in those mediums. It’s tempting to think about movies or TV shows that you love, but it’s harder to tell when you might be influenced by aspects of the medium that books simply cannot duplicate. Maybe you love the actors (and think you love the characters more than you would if they were just in writing). Maybe you love the pacing and the action in film more than you would in prose. If you can identify specific elements or aspects that might translate well into prose, such as a dialogue style or a tone or a relationship, then by all means, use it. But just be aware of how the difference in medium might significantly change your opinion about that influence.
But what if, as is often the case for me, what you really love also embarrasses you? Doesn’t sell well? Wouldn’t be liked by anybody (but you, apparently)?
If you’re brave, write it anyway. That’s really the best advice. But sometimes, I know, you just can’t do it. So my other advice is to look for compromises—start by finding works that you really love that are also successful or prestigious or whatever your particular desire; if there are truly none, then start with what you desire and find the works that you like best from that group. Then, look at the works you really love and zoom in on what specific elements you love the most, and then try to see how you could add just those elements to the framework of what you desire. Maybe the juxtaposition of those elements will make it more unique; maybe you can find a way to compromise and shave off some of the most embarrassing or unworkable pieces; and maybe, if there’s no other way, you can write it that way anyway and then edit those pieces out and either save them for yourself or post them for free online as humorously embarrassing “extras” (“Ha ha, look at this porn I cut out of chapter ten!”).
Second, look for what interests you.
This is a little trick I’ve come up with while working at the library, where tons of different books pass by me every day. As I read the summaries, I ask myself—what intrigues me? What do I seriously think about taking home to read? What should interest me (based on the genre or hype), but doesn’t? Why does something interest me when it shouldn’t?
You can do this by browsing bookstores, or reviews, or by subscribing to recommendation lists (like my library supplies in e-mail for different genres). When a summary makes some part of you sit up and look closer, stop and try to figure out why. Is it the mention of romance? Of violence? Is it the setting? The idea of using parallel perspectives? The subject matter of WWII?
Also think about the books you can’t wait to read—the next book in a series, the next work of an author, the random book someone mentioned at a party. We’ll read all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons, but certain things we hear about entice us more than others. Certain books we are waiting for will make us anxiously look up the release date, or keep clicking on the author’s website looking for excerpts, or find other fans online who are making gifsets and playlists and fanfiction.
Now, here’s the second part of that trick (if the book is already out)—don’t read it yet. Wait and think about what this book will be like if it fulfills everything you want from it. A lot of times I’ve realized after I read a book that my imaginings about the book before I read it were more what I would like to read than what the book actually was. Try and preserve that vague vision of what you want the book to be, because that tells you more about what you want from a book than just loving a book in retrospect (when you know all its flaws and accept them because you accept the book as a finished product).
Another way to phrase this trick is to imagine your idea as a book and ask, “Would hearing about this book make me want to read it?” If you passed by it at the bookstore and read the cover, would you have to read it? Sometimes evaluating your own work, especially when it’s still vague and unwritten, can be really tricky. And this is often when other people’s opinions can sneak in and influence you once again. But if you could read it in secret, if it could somehow be everything you want in a book and nothing you don’t, what would it be?
And when you do read something, look at what parts you liked and what parts bored you. What parts would you want to see more of? What would you do differently?
When you use those little pangs of interest that are beyond your control, the feelings of intrigue for a book that just happen, you are glimpsing what you really look for in a book. And that should be what you put into your own book.
Third, build the right story.
So, the first two techniques might leave you with a list of influences and random story elements, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a full idea ready to write. Short of copying out the influence point by point (not recommended, though with enough changes, technically legal… I think?), you’ll still be swimming in the abyss without an idea, and thus still easy prey for doubt and hollow ambition.
The first step is to organize your thoughts from the first two exercises. A lot of times you’ll end up with a list of random elements, some of which may be contradictory. My suggestion is to first narrow your influences down to one primary influence, so that you have the clearest idea of what you want. Then add the other elements, some of which will add onto the base elements of your influence and some of which will subtract base elements of your influence. For example, if your primary influence is The Great Gatsby, you might add a female protagonist, subtract/change the setting, add more crime, etc.—all while attempting to preserve what you love most about the influence, such as the style of language or themes or unrequited love story.
This technique is not about copying an influence; it’s about organizing the mysterious abyss of your creativity into a focused path with a goal in mind. If your ideas flow without needing too much conscious guidance, then you don’t need to worry about this. But my ideas are all over the place, or nowhere, and I need to build them from the ground up to make them work. That being said, it’s important to deviate as much as possible from the original influence (unless you’re directly making an adaptation, which is okay with works in the public domain), add as much of your own original material as you can, and stay away from the truly original elements found in the influence.
So as you work with these elements, you should end up with a loose framework of different features that give you a clear idea of what you want—but they aren’t a story. They might suggest a tone, a setting, a type of character, a stylistic choice, but if that’s all you have, you’ll find yourself unsure where to go from there. So many times I’ve had a clear list of elements I want in my story… but no story.
And so we find the essential question: how do you find a story? And, more importantly, a story that is really you, that you love, that you will actually write?
Again, if stories just come to you, in a series of scenes or a clear sense of plot, then you don’t need to do any of this. And I hate you. 🙂
First, identify the plot type or structure, though it will probably be a loose estimation. This is where I start because it will determine a lot about how the story moves and where it starts and what the characters need to be. Is this a mystery? A fast-paced action plot? A romance? A slow literary exploration of emotion? This is where a clear influence (or a specific element from another story or just what you generally prefer) can help give you that vague sense of what the story will look like.
Next, find a character with a goal that will lead into that type of plot. For example, if you want to write a mystery, who is a character that wants to solve that mystery? Are they personally affected by it? Is that their job? Do they stumble upon it and have a reason to solve it? At this stage, you’ll have to think a lot more about the specifics of your story, since knowing what the mystery is will help determine who would want it or why. Or, start with the character and figure out what they want and how that becomes a mystery. For example, a detective will obviously come across a case to solve; but what if you know, from your influence, that you want a more personal story? Maybe you start with a character who loses a loved one, and then has a reason to try and solve it themselves—do they think the police did it? Are they naturally paranoid? Do they have something to hide?
As you can tell, I tend to start vague and then try to work my way towards specifics. The goal is to have something trigger a rush of ideas, piling question after question until it starts to do the work itself.
If you’re still having trouble, as I often do, then go back to your list of elements and try and choose the number one element you want for your story. Maybe it’s a plot, maybe it’s a character, maybe it’s a setting or a tone. If you can’t choose one that you want the most, think of the one that’s hardest to get or come up with after the fact; which one is the most fundamental or basic to the story? Then start there, and think about that element and different ways it could manifest itself in a story. Work your way towards character, conflict, and plot—the three interconnected heartbeats of a story. Ask who, what, when, where, how, and why?
Just keep asking questions, keep trying out different ideas and nuances, until something catches your thoughts. Some people say you have to find a story you can’t stop thinking about, and I do think that is the ideal, but don’t get discouraged if you can’t find something you obsess over. Just find something that you actually like thinking about—and one caveat, try and think about the story and the characters, not what other people might think about it. I know it can be fun to imagine movie trailers and reviews and fandom, but that’s your ambition sneaking in again, and it can speak louder than the story itself. When an idea is fun to think about purely as characters and story events, then you are that much closer to your idea.
I actually think there’s a lot more to say about getting from idea to story, but this post is already ridiculously long.
So tune in next time for “Idea to Story.”