“Where do your ideas come from?” It’s a question many writers roll their eyes at, maybe because they don’t truly know the answer. But instead of being vague, mysterious, or flippant – let’s shine light upon magic and get down to the nuts and bolts of good idea generation.
Very simply – ideas are fueled by the world around you. All you need to do is pay attention, then link things together in interesting ways.
To generate intriguing ideas – something which you could turn into a successful comic or play, for instance – you need to ensure a wide variety of inputs. By that I mean, you need to do things other than write and sit in front of a computer. In the course of having a varied and fun life you’ll naturally stimulate your mind and emotions with a range of experiences from all kinds of sources: family and friends; literature; new places, tastes, and smells; interesting people, unusual events. The more random and unrelated these stimulations are the better.
We’re talking about a way of life here – being inquisitively open to new experiences – and it doesn’t have to be complicated or exotic. Real imagination comes from finding the wonder in everyday things. Simply going to the zoo or an aquarium is a good start; all those unusual shapes, textures and movements act like a refreshing spa for the mind. Idea generation is rarely literal, in my experience. I’ve never gone to the zoo to get a great idea about Zebras. But it does seem to stimulate my brain into being a little more creative.
Coming up with useful story ideas takes a fair amount of practice – filtering your thoughts into workable narratives. You need to study the mechanics of storytelling to do this. There are certain dramatic techniques that people have found work well over the years. They’ve helpfully written these techniques down in books, and if your business is writing it’s dumb to ignore them. At least be aware of what you’re rejecting, or subverting. What these storytelling guides are not is blueprints. Don’t treat them like military plans that need to be followed to the letter. There are things no storytelling guide can provide – like originality, passion, heart and instinct.
Books on writing that are worth a look:
Syd Field, ‘The Screenwriter’s Workbook’. Vol. 5. Dell, 1984.
William Goldman. ‘Adventures in the screen trade’. Hachette Digital, Inc., 2012.
Robert McKee, ‘Story’. Dixit, 2001.
Stephen King, ‘On writing’. Hachette UK, 2001.
There are lots of others. Find what works for you.
Once you’ve got a sense of what makes a good story you need to start recording your thoughts. I write mine down in a small notebook or on my computer, depending on where I am. Ideas often come at the most inopportune times. In my experience the best one’s tend to arrive when your mind is engaged in an automatic task – like washing up, swimming, running, or driving. (The science of how neurons link together in unusual ways when parts of the brain are occupied with a repetitive task is really interesting, and you’ll see some of it crop up in Death Sentence.) I also get a lot of ideas early in the morning when I’m dozing in bed. Basically when you’re not actively thinking about anything in particular a wider range of neurons are free to fire together, linking things you’ve experienced to make new ideas. That’s why you need those nourishing inputs. Sometimes these ideas appear so good that you can’t possibly forget them. But you can – as I’ve found to my cost – so write them down fast.
I generally write down five ideas a day. Sometimes just the briefest note for a plot point, character, or synopsis – other times pages of story and incident that seems to flow like a raging river. I don’t evaluate what I’ve written, initially. I come back and take a look a few days later, when I’ve forgotten most of it, and judge each idea as I would a stranger’s work. That means a lot of entries get rejected. But every now and then an idea contains a nugget of gold, or even a rich seam. Those are the ideas I write up.
Often I’ll keep an idea in my book for a long time, because while there’s something interesting about it but there’s also an element missing. Later I’ll come up with an unrelated idea, and realise that if I apply it to the older idea I can make something really exciting or original from the fusion. Audiences and readers are very savvy – we’ve all seen the same shows and read the same comics, more or less – so combining separate ideas together in novel ways helps to generate something surprising.
Anyone can throw an original notion together – a Giant Black Hole Devouring Zombie Badger, for instance – but doing it in ways that create an appealing story is where the skill comes in. Developing a plot takes craftsmanship. For a start you’ll need some characters that your readers can relate to. It doesn’t matter how interesting the concept or the plot is if no-one gives too hoots for the people in it. Once readers are engaged you can spin events off in stimulating directions without losing their interest. Your mission is to catch people’s attention and then take them on a wild ride, twisting and turning through surprising loops.
The character part’s pretty easy. What type of people intrigue you? What qualities do you find attractive in some people, but not others? What are the flaws in yourself or other people that you find compelling or amusing? What do the people around you want, and how does it differ from what they actually need? These are the elements that make great characters. And character is plot, in that your protagonist’s personalities are revealed through their actions and decisions. A plot has to put your characters under pressure to gradually reveal their true, often hidden, nature. The mechanics of good storytelling isn’t complicated.
The mistake a lot of people make, it seems to me, is to generate their ideas from other comics, books or films. Media mirroring media. None of the essential ideas in Death Sentence are inspired by other works of fiction. Everything important comes from real life – which maybe helps people to relate to the story. Sure, there are extra normal powers in Death Sentence – and lots of other things that have no doubt occurred to other writers too – but the fact that I initially developed the comic as a personal interpretation of the world around me meant that it felt fresh and a little bit different.
So – once you have a cool idea fizzing away what to do with it?
More on that next time.