Putting The 'So What?' In Your Plot
In my previous post I talked about creating stories from ideas, and how not every Great Idea For A Story can actually be turned into a Great Story. At the end of it, I promised to explore the process of growing baby ideas into stories, to see if there were methods that could be applied to make it easier and more effective. And since I like to keep my promises, here's the first instalment.
For the purpose of making this a proper, in-the-trenches experiment, I've decided to take the example I gave in my previous post of a Great Idea For a Story that turned out... not to be. At that point I'd decided it just wasn't man enough for the job - but maybe I was too hasty.
Let's find out, shall we? Here's what we've got to work with:
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?
And for this to have any chance of working, I would argue we need to have two other conditions met as well. Number one: the lab rats would need to be implanted with these chips at birth or very soon after (because you can't un-learn any 'corruptive influences' you've already been exposed to.) So they'd probably take a bunch of newborns as their test group. This brings us neatly to condition number two: you'd want to monitor their progress very closely, checking everything was going according to plan and adjusting the implants on the fly as more and more 'corruptive terminology' needed to be blocked (what with language and society evolving over time as it does.) So... the lab rats would need to be confined to one place all together, preferably in isolation from the rest of society, where the Guys In Charge would have quick, easy and constant access to them.
Well, so far we've got ourselves an interesting premise... but that's all it is. Now we need to dig a little deeper to see if we can unearth some story-bones - and that means asking some questions. And the first question is:
Why would anyone do this thing?
The Why is important - there has to be a why, or you'll never get any further than writing 'Chapter One.' And for our example, the most obvious answer is... to control the thinking of anyone implanted with the chip. Some authoritarian group somewhere has decided the world needs some people whose minds are untainted by 'bad' words and ideas - the assumption being that, if all exposure to such corruptive influences is 'blocked,' they will never get a chance to learn such behaviour and therefore remain 'pure' and 'good' people. Whatever their definition of 'pure' and 'good' turned out to be.
Okay then, we've got our Why... the next important question is Who?
And, to kick off this particular story, that Who comes in two flavours: who are the people implanting the chips and who are the lab rats being implanted? To figure that out, we need to look at our Why again - what kind of people would want to be in these roles for the reasons we've established? Let's start with the Guys In Charge - the ones implanting the chips. Who would desire to have that level of control over a group of people's minds? Most likely it would be people with some level of power already, wishing to control a group of people below them in some sort of hierarchy; rulers of a city or state wishing to control the citizens perhaps, or leaders of a religious cult wanting to keep their disciples in line. They could be doing it in the name of good, as a well-meaning attempt to create a Utopian society with (in theory) no prejudice, no hatred, no bullying. Or they could be doing it for evil, Machiavellian motives, bwah ha haaaa....
Great, we've got our Why and some options for a potential Who... but what now? Where do we go from here? Even with all of this extra information, we've still only got a premise for the story, not the seeds of the story itself. To add to that we need the next level of enquiry, which is:
Why Now? and Why These People?
Well... 'cause they want control of a bunch of people's thoughts, 'cause - well, there are always people out there who do want stuff like that, aren't there? And they want it now because.... well that's the sort of thing people like that would want all the time so of course they want it now as well as - as any other time in the history of... uurrggh! 'Cause I want this story to work, dammit and so it just has to be this way, okay?
...It's not really working, is it? With our original idea as it stands, all this stuff is supposed to happen 'just because' - which is the most rubbish reason for anything to happen in a story. What's missing is the motivation. Why are we setting all these plot wheels in motion right here, right now, with these people? What's the 'So What?' in our Plot?
Unfortunately, our original idea isn't going to give us that, no matter how hard we crush its little innards to try and wring the last few creativity-drops from its withered flesh. As I surmised in my previous post, it's just not man enough for the job on its own. Aint never gonna get a fully-fleshed story out of this baby.
Which means... we need another story idea. But not to replace what we've got - to add to it. Adam needs his Eve, Yin needs her Yang.
So let's have a think. What's going on in the world at the moment that might fit our needs? Well, here in the UK we've got a General Election coming up, and the politicians are in full campaigning swing. I'd bet they'd love a crack at some mind-control via brain-implanted chips! Hmmm yeah, maybe... Alternatively, The Voice UK has its Grand Final this week, and then after that Britain's Got Talent starts - how about a tv talent show's head honchos putting the implants in the heads of their contestants? Possible, I suppose... oh wait, what's this? The Mars Project has made its final selection of 100 people who will be sent on a one-way mission to colonise Mars in 2024...
This is perfect, because it gives us our Why Now? and our Why These People? as well as tying nicely into our Why? and Who? If you were looking to start a colony on another planet, you'd want a sample of the best of humanity to do it; it's a chance for mankind to start afresh, after all. So why not keep a bunch of people isolated from birth, chipped with these mind-censoring implants to stop them taking the corrupt ideologies out to the New World with them? Oooh, even better - it doesn't have to be Mars the people in our story are heading for. What if they were heading out to some really distant planet that will take a spaceship at least a generation of human lifetime to reach? That would solve both the newborn and the isolation problem; the implanted people could be the offspring of those chosen to begin the journey to that planet, born and raised on the spaceship, ready to become the responsible adults who will be the first colonists when they finally reach the New World! Yeah, that could work.
So let's see how far we've come then. We started out with some vague premise of a bunch of people having their minds censored of 'bad' words and ideologies via the use of a chip implanted in their brain. Turns out that wasn't enough on its own, but once we'd added another idea into the mix, we came up with:
A group of space travellers are on their way to a distant planet to build a new colony of humans. Because of the vast distance they're travelling, by the time they reach their destination they will all be elderly, which means the responsibility of establishing the new colony will fall to the next generation, conceived and born on the spaceship. In a well-meaning attempt to create a 'better,' more tolerant community of humans to eventually colonise the New World, they implant those children with the mind-censoring implants, monitoring and adjusting their functionality as and when required to ensure any 'undesirable' thoughts are quickly squashed and censored in all implantees before they can 'spread.'
We've got our What if..? and now we've quantified that with our Who?, Why?, Why These People? and Why Now? We've put the 'So What?' in our plot!
But this is only the start. We've still got a lot more work to do. If we want to make this into a proper tasty story-stew, we need more ingredients. Which is where Part Two comes in...
(If you have any ideas for what else we can throw into the mix, please let me know in the comments. I'm all about sharing the fun - and who knows what we might end up with?)
>>Part Two: "So Tell Me, Why Do You Want This Job?"