Saturday, 28 March 2015

Why An Idea for a Story Is Not Always a Story

One of the questions that bemuses, confuddles and even occasionally downright annoys successful writers of all genres (apparently) is that well-roasted chestnut "Where do you get all your ideas from?"

I can imagine why this question is irksome to a successful writer with a clutch of published works under their belt. It's a bit like asking a cyclist "how do you manage to not fall off your bike when you're riding it?" What you do, by that point, is subconscious; you're trusting on inner instincts that help you make decisions about what you're doing without thinking about the mechanics behind them. So you can tell people you just watch people, and life, and keep up with current events, and all the obvious things that work as sources for stories, but you can't tell people how to process that source information in a way that turns them into 'ideas.' That's just crazy magic mojo-shizzle that goes on inside the noggin, and there aint no brain-scanning machine that can record that happening just yet.

In short, to the successful writer it looks like those people are asking the question in the hope of finally discovering The Ultimate Secret. And the truth is - as any writer, published or otherwise, will tell you - there aint one.

But on the other hand, I can understand what drives many aspiring writers to ask that question of writers who, in their eyes, have already 'made it.' Because when you've just started out and you're still finding your feet as a writer, it can feel like the getting ideas part is something you struggle with. Oh sure, you'll get a ton of inspirational flashes every time you people-watch, pick up a newspaper or watch the telly. But getting them any further than that? That's the tough part.

Do you have a teetering stack of unfinished short stories hidden away somewhere? A sad graveyard of novels that never made it further than Chapter Five? Yeah, me too - and so has just about every famous and prolific author since the beginning of forever. Because here's the painful truth... not every Great Idea For A Story makes a Great Story. In fact, in ninety-nine percent of cases, a Great Story needs a lot more than The Great Idea For A Story can offer.

Let me give you an example. This week I responded to a post on Chuck Wendig's terrribleminds blog about the CleanReader app (a whole separate topic in itself.) While doing so an idea popped into my head: 'What if a group of people invented a microchip that could be implanted into a person's brain that could somehow 'censor' real-life, everyday situations and interactions with other people, so they would never have to hear anyone saying 'bad' words or expressing viewpoints that made them uncomfortable?' Imagine it - a whole section of society who, to all intents and purposes, would be living an entirely different reality to everyone else around them! How would that affect them - and what impact would it have on the world at large? Would they use this power for good or evil? But best of all... what a totally awesome and bell-rocking idea for a story, right?

And yet, after about ten minutes brainstorming on that idea, I was forced to admit... erm, no actually, it isn't.

No really, it isn't - because it's not enough on its own. Trying to make a great story out of just this idea would be like trying to make a cake when all you've got is flour. (You could of course say "screw you, Christopher" and give it a go anyway - but all you'd end up with is a solid block-of-flour-cake, and trust me, aint no fool gonna eat that can of mess.) This idea is a great premise for a story - an intriguing set-up for all sorts of potential shizzle to happen. But what's missing is that potential shizzle. It's just a backdrop - the green-screen in a George Lucas movie. We're gonna need a ton of other ingredients before this Great Idea can become a potential Story Cake.

When I look back through all my abandoned novels and short stories, it's clear this was the problem with all of them, and why they all petered out and died less than a quarter of the way through. They all started off promisingly, but once they'd made it out of the starting blocks there was just nowhere for them to go; no master plan to work towards, no destination at the end of the journey - heck, there wasn't even a view out of the window for them to check they were still heading in the right direction.

But y'know what? I'm keeping every one of those abandoned babies - and you should keep every one of yours too. Because there may come a time when you get another Great Idea for a Story that, when combined with one or more of those rejected ideas, has all the magical elements of a Great Story.  Don't look on your never-finished projects as failures - see them instead as potential ingredients in your store cupboard, just waiting to be transformed with the right recipe.

And how do we create those amazing recipes? Well, that's a question I'll be exploring in future posts - because there must be some method to it all, surely? Wanna come along for the ride? It could be an interesting journey...

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