When hunting for that singular idea that’s sure to turn your story world on end, it’s all too easy to find yourself staring at a wall of white, otherwise known as writer’s block. But there’s a secret to escaping the straight jacket. The key is understanding how the brain works.
The mind, you could say, is like an unstaffed library, and we’re vague on its version of the Dewey Decimal System. If we go about searching the shelves for a precise word, we’ll be at it for weeks. If we widen our parameters, though, we’ll soon find an entire wing devoted to that word. Wisdom, in most cases and in this case, is paradoxical—it’s easier to come up with a slew of ideas than it is to come up with a single idea.
By definition, creativity abhors a box. And in reality, we’re always coming up with ideas—only not the ones we’re looking for. But if we wait for a choir of angels to descend with our muse in tow, days will tear from the calendar before we write a sentence. Instead, let’s dupe creativity into working on our problem by making it think we don’t care, that were just playing with random associations. I guarantee your muse will show up (she’ll be wearing horn-rimmed glasses with a pencil tucked in her bun.)
Question the Premise
Let’s say that two brothers are fighting on opposite sides in the Civil War and will eventually face-off at the battle of Gettysburg. That’s the gist of the story idea we’ve been struggling to flesh out. Now what? Well, it’s time to interrogate.
Don’t shoot for an orderly approach or try to hone in on the end-all-be-all question. Ask whatever comes to mind and keep asking.
- How old are the brothers and what’s the age span between them?
- Is either an experienced hunter? Are they marksmen?
- Has either killed a person before?
- Has one of them been injured in a previous battle?
- Does either brother have a limitation that would impact his ability to defend himself?
- Are both brothers of equal rank? Do both brothers receive equal respect and support from fellow soldiers?
- Which brother’s army stands a better chance in the next battle? In the final battle?
- Are their parents alive? Do they support both brothers or have they aligned with one side of the war?
- Is the family split over the brothers’ decisions to fight on opposing sides?
- Does either brother have a wife and children, maybe a baby on the way?
- What did their lives look like before they enlisted? Did they leave unfinished business to accrue interest? What cost is the war extracting from their personal worlds?
- How do their civilian lives affect their emotional readiness for battle?
- What was their pre-war relationship like? Is there a history with unresolved issues that drives either character in unhealthy ways?
- Has either brother dealt with the possibility of having to fight against and perhaps kill the other?
- Have they resolved to pull the trigger? What motivations prevent them or make them believe they’re capable?
Not bad, eh? We’re on to something. At first glance, it might not seem like much, but take a closer look. We’ve got layers to work with and avenues to explore character, theme, and plot.
By freeing ourselves from restrictions—from searching for thee idea, the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack notion—our muse navigated the shelves of our mind like a career librarian and gave us everything she’s got. And we could have kept going. From a one-sentence pitch, we could have raised hundreds of questions—each of which would suggest answers… which would lead to developments that expand our storyline.
SO LET’S DEVELOP
Take one question at a time and toss out some answers—as many as you can for each. Same carefree, no-holds-barred manner.
- What is the age span between the brothers? One year, two years—6, 8, 10? Are they twins?
- How old are they? Twenty-one and twenty-two? Seventeen and thirty? Maybe they’re not brothers but father and son with a good thirty years between them.
- Are they experienced marksmen? One’s been hunting all his life. Both have hunted side-by-side. It was their time together when they’d talk about profound matters. Perhaps one taught the other all he knows, and both are aware of the other’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Or maybe one is a bookish-sort the other nicknamed “Aunt Prunella”.
- Has either killed anyone? Neither. Both. Maybe one watched a man’s slow death, and the other spared a soldier’s life.
- Maybe it’s not the American Civil War, but the French Revolution, an uprising in Yugoslavia, or an intergalactic battle set in the future.
Question the Questions
Here’s where we turn our muse loose on the answers. That’s right, we’re going to take our list of answers and pepper each with question after question.
- What did the brothers talk about on their hunting ventures? Did they discuss their dreams or fears? Did they make plans for the future?
- How did the bookish-sort feel about himself and the way his brother treated him? Is the other plagued by remorse for having taunted his brother? Is he compelled to fight for more time together, for second chances? What direction will his remorse take and at what price?
- Why did one of them let his enemy live? What enabled to other to watch his enemy die?
Questions, answers… questions, answers. You can take this process through as many generations as necessary. Before you know it, you’ll have outlined your plot. As you write, new material will come and you’ll work it in. When you get stuck, take a moment and dupe the muse. Question, question, question! Andre Dubus—
“… the deeper you go into questions, the deeper or more interesting the questions get. And I think that’s the job of art.”
Of course, you don’t have answer each item. Nor must you question every answer. But by investigating those items that suggest potential, you’ll find yourself sailing at a decent clip and gaining confidence in your vision.
You don’t have a vision. You’re stuck on the story idea itself. Fear not, the same trick applies.
Stories are about people, and people, however we vary, are polaroids of humanity. In other words, we all come from the same theme pool. So choose a theme, if you haven’t already, and if you need inspiration, check out Themes in Literature.
Once you have a theme, convert it into a premise. Here’s where you weigh in on the subject you’ve chosen. If your premise is love, you take a stand in the form of a statement: Love conquers all or love won’t pay the bills… won’t bring back what was lost. If your premise is justice, you might say: True justice is unattainable, or justice belongs to a power higher than oneself. If your theme is the power of belief, you could choose from: Beliefs have consequences or false beliefs can muck up your life. You can take it a step further and say, False beliefs, if rightly promoted, can change the course of history.
After settling on a premise, we need to form the all-important pitch. Again, no need to fear. I have another trick that will give us a starting point to throw our questions at. Go online and google quotes on [your theme]. Better still, google quotes on [your premise]. Cut and paste any that ignite a spark in you, even if you don’t understand why. Choose your favorite, and that’s what we’re going to interrogate.
Intrigued by beliefs and the power to alter the lives of many, I did a variation search on the premise and googled quotes on hysteria. I went with the second I read—
“There’s an overwhelming sense of paranoia in the suburbs. People there seem so much more paranoid to me than people in the city about their kids being kidnapped or their parties being raided or their drinks being spiked. There’s a kind of hysteria about that.” Meg Rosoff
I like it. Bad beliefs lead to bad decisions, and bad decisions make good stories. There’s nothing like a holiday from the constraints of reason to combust a writer’s imagination. Consider the possibilities—a paranoid suburbanite either lands himself in a heap of trouble, or his paranoia mushrooms into a mob mentality where others are caught up in the frenzy without proper cause. Delectable.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a suburbanite and it doesn’t have to be paranoia. Nor does it need to revolve around the children’s safety. It all depends on where our questions lead. But let’s start with what we have.
- Who’s paranoid? A man, a woman, a mother, a father?
- How old is he? (I’m going to go with a man for convenience)
- Is he married? For how long?
- Does his wife share his “concern”… or does she fear his fragility?
- Do they have children? Maybe one is a stepparent or recent partner. Maybe they’re childless but paranoid for the neighborhood children.
You see how the mechanism works. In subsequent rounds you deepen the questions and answers until you have enough details to nail down a pitch. Perhaps it looks something like this—
When tension in the neighborhood turns into vigilantism, Uri must choose between fighting for his marriage or his cause.
Well, that’s better than nothing, but it’s weak. Why is it weak? Because it’s not the whole story. Uri’s cause is based on delusion, and the pitch must embody the story. A vague pitch is a worthless pitch, so how are we going to work in the nature of this uprising?
When tension in the neighborhood turns into vigilantism, Uri must choose between fighting for his marriage or his cause, which is a based on paranoia.
Wrong. That’s awkward of on a few levels. And the problem isn’t with the writing style, it’s the lack of content. We need more Q&A. Why is Uri paranoid?
Remember, Q&A is without censorship. This is crucial to getting at the good stuff. For time and space, though, I’m going to abridge the process we’ve established. Here goes—
- Is Uri schizophrenic? No, let’s rule out schizophrenia. This story has too much potential for humor to base it on a bonified mental illness.
- Did he have a previous child who was abducted? No, too “on the nose”.
- How about his formative years? Maybe he had a sibling who was abducted? No, same as above. We can do better.
- Maybe he mistook some episode in his young life as a threat of being abducted? Hmm.
- Maybe his father abandoned him to the care of a stranger? Now this could work.
Okay, so how about this?
When Uri instigates a vigilante barring access to his neighborhood, he must choose between holding his ground or reconciling with his father to save his marriage.
Now that’s a pitch. Whether or not we can improve on it remains to be seen, and options abound. Maybe Uri was raised by doting, over-protective parents and, as a result, he is both tormented by fears and believes that attentive parents police their children’s worlds for ever-present dangers.
You know where to go from here. Q&A!
For more articles on generating and developing story ideas: