I see lots of writing sites that are driven by giving people help with their writing. I can understand needing help. Lot’s of people tell me that I need help, but that’s a different post. The problem is the way many people need help is not very helpful. What I see writers asking more and more for others to help them with their titles, their characters, points in the plot, even the core idea for the plot in the first place.
It is time to talk about the creative process. That is, the means by which we come up with the ideas that we later turn into stories. Ask any writer where they come up with their ideas and you will get either a blank stare or a sarcastic answer. This is because everyone has their own way of generating concepts for writing stories. I know authors who never leave the house without a little notebook in which they write ideas down about characters, situations, dialogue etc. It is a little disconcerting when they pull the book out in the middle of a conversation, but at least you know that you may be immortalized in their next book. Others research trends and try to find concepts that haven’t already been addressed. They place their stories in the cracks between other people’s stories. All my books have started with a single image or scene; a princess who didn’t get enchanted, a girl who befriends a tree, a devil who gets a chance at redemption. I read one author who when asked said that he found his ideas under cabbage leaves.
The point of all the different methods is that they imply an openness for the story to come and take up residence in the writer’s consciousness. So the real question is not “Where do ideas come from?” but “How do I open myself to the ideas?” If you only read one kind of book, you are only going to write one kind of story. If you only talk to a select few people, you will only have a certain kind of dialogue. I think you get the idea. The broader your experience and the more different people you encounter, the richer ground for ideas you will develop.
So how do you move from that initial idea to a full blown story?
Some people are outliners – they carefully set up each plot conflict and character point and arrange the time line to work best with the story. This is good. It means that you are in control of your plot, you aren’t likely to have holes for trucks to drive through and you can manage plots and sub-plots of great complexity.
Other people just start and they keep going until they stop. They have no idea how the book is going to turn out until they reach the end. Then they go back and try to find the inconsistencies and holes to fix them. This is good. It means that the story is fresh and exciting and can take wild turns at a moment’s notice. Character grows in an organic way.
Some people use a bit of both.
The important thing with however you plot your story is that you make the story and the characters your own. This isn’t about originality, or not completely. It is about taking the time to be open to what your story is telling you. How is your blond bimbo different from all the other blond bimbos? What does that difference mean to the story? That difference may become the fulcrum of the story upon which everything else balances. The same thing is true of setting and culture. The more you can own the setting and the people of your story, the richer it becomes.
So why is asking for plot ideas, or character ideas not helpful? It isn’t that it is bad. When I’m writing I will sometimes use random generators to give me words or names. The difficulty comes in that it is very much harder to use someone else’s idea to create a story. It is a stranger to us. We have to woo it and get to know it, maybe buy it drinks before it starts to blossom in our minds into a story.
If you are having a hard time writing your idea, spend some time with it. Play with it. Turn it around and twist its sides like a Rubix cube. At some point it will tell you what it wants you to do. Talk to your characters, push them and see how they push back. If your story is stuck, you may be in the Swamp, or you may have taken a wrong turn. Go back and read your story and listen for what it is telling you.
If you are desperate for an idea, any idea, go look under a cabbage leaf, there may be one waiting there for you.