William Saroyan in Tracy’s Tiger—
“…anything you ever got—anything that ever mattered—any thought—any truth—you got instantly. You could wait forever if you wanted to, and let it go at that, or you could get moving—moving into time and with time—working at the thought to be received, and then suddenly, from having moved into time and with time, and from having worked at the thought, get it, get it whole, get it clean, get it instantly. But you had to stay slow somewhere inside of yourself, too, to give the arrival a place to stop. You had to be going swiftly and you had to be almost not moving at all at the same time.”
Schedule a weekly Idea Hour. Find a quiet spot where your imagination can run unencumbered by distraction and allow ideas to come bubbling up as you immerse yourself in the exercises below. Jot down everything that comes to mind without censer. In fact, refrain from judging your ideas until several weeks have passed.
There’s nothing new under the sun. In other words, you’re not going to create a new emotion any more than you’re going to create a new vice or virtue. This is good news for writers and should take the pressure off. Originality begins with the fixtures of the human experience. By drawing from the familiar and linking reality with reality, flint—sometimes—meets steel. Creative sparks ignite in compelling ideas when the writer connects commonalities in an uncommon way (e.g., a depression-era circus and a ninety-three year-old resident of a contemporary-day nursing home).
Asking yourself what-if will help you make connections. This tact is useful at any stage of story development, but is especially fruitful when it comes to summoning ideas.
Start with some bit that captured your attention during the week—whether from a book or an article you read, conversation, dream you had, or something you saw on television—and take that lingering thought to the next level by asking, “What if…?”
- What if the wise-cracking John McClane of Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever (more broadly known as the super hero of the Diehard film series) was a humorless coward?
- What if your story idea didn’t take place in Patterson, New Jersey but in Lima, Peru?
- What if the protagonist wasn’t a man but a woman, or better still, a child?
- Instead of a plumber, maybe a pastor or priest orchestrated the heist.
- Or the small town kid to make it in the big city is actually a Congo refugee trying to navigate Manhattan while haunted by the violent sex crimes she’s endured. Perhaps she finally finds love only to learn that her would-be father-in-law is a Nazi war criminal on the lam.
You get the idea. The sky’s the limit. You won’t know what’s crazy ridiculous or genius until you give it a whirl.
Let your mind loose and write down whatever comes to you. Put the list aside for at least a few days, and then return to it. Tease out the ideas that seem to have a nugget of merit. Perhaps it’s not the idea itself, but an idea within the idea, something you stumble on by following this particular thread.
And if reality doesn’t do it for you, try unreality. Close your eyes and see yourself in Google’s innovation lab brainstorming with the scientists and engineers paid to explore their wildest dreams. What do they do all day? Ask What if?
- What if a car could be driven without a human on board? How would that change the world? How would it change your protagonist’s life?
- What if humans could be implanted with internet access chips? How would that change ambition, privacy, dreams?
Here’s the money question. Frame it however your imagination allows—What would happen or could exist if ‘X‘ was true.