Thursday, February 11, 2010

How to Write a Novel 1: Developing Ideas

Quote: “Good ideas are common—what’s uncommon are people who’ll work had enough to bring them about.” ~Ashleigh Brilliant

Song playing: What It Is to Burn by Finch

Today I thought I would blog about something really basic, since it just might be the single most asked question of writers: Where do you get all your ideas?

But once I started writing out my thoughts, I realized that finding ideas only scratched the surface to writing a novel. So, for the first time on this blog, I bring you a post series! It’s called the How to Write a Novel, and each post will cover some aspect of writing. I will try to keep the post length manageable, and stay with my personal experiences, rather than cover every single aspect of the process. There are (wonderful) entire books written on the subject that can explain it in more detail than I can here, so this series will hopefully serve as a springboard for the newbies and maybe jog some ideas for seasoned writers.

So, without further ado, I bring you:

How to Write a Novel: Developing Ideas

See, there’s this magical land of ideas. They grow like weeds over there, and the citizens of Idea Land can’t seem to get rid of them. When you become a writer, you get a special key to unlock the doorway to this land, Narnia-style. Some people use their wardrobes, some people use their closet, mine is in the basement near the laundry room. You go to Idea Land with a basket, and pick up a bunch of ideas that seem like they would fit, but there’s a limit on how many back you are allowed to bring back with you, much like trying on clothing in a dressing room. Usually the limit is three, but when you get to be really popular/talented like Stephen King or William Faulkner, you can bring more back with you…

Just kidding. There is no such place as Idea Land, sad as that is. Or there is, but it’s actually just the plain old real world. Not quite as magical and mystical, and there is no idea limit (thank heavens, that would be more annoying than the clothing limit. You’d have to keep going between the real world and Idea Land and trying new ideas on, “No, do you have one with purple monkeys? Those hedgehogs make my butt look big,” Or “I want to write another book with Scud in it, do you have any plots that he might participate in?”).

Sometimes lightening does strike, and out of nowhere, you get an amazing idea for a plot, theme, characters, and conflict are all laid out for you on a silver platter, like an early Christmas present from your muse. But you can’t wait for that to happen, and for me personally, those moments come more frequently when I am actively pursing ideas elsewhere (yes, my muse is a little fickle, what can I say).

Ideas are all around you. I know, you’ve heard that particular chestnut before, but it’s true. For reals, guys, for reals! All you have to do is be observant of your surroundings, of the people around you, and wave the magical wand of “What if” and the magical staff of “Why?” (or “Why come?” like I asked as a child) and presto chango! you have more ideas than you can shake a kitten at.*

Let me give you some examples, which have actually happened to me. Witness a writer in her natural habitat!

I used to work at a gas station. I had a regular customer come in every Friday and buy a six-pack of cheap beer. One Friday he says, “You wanna see a picture of my daughter?”

I nod, and he whips out a battered, fake leather wallet. He opens it to a picture of a magazine clipping. It’s a pretty, young brunette, modeling a green sweater. The picture was obviously clipped out of a department store magazine, but he has it tucked into the plastic picture holders.

I smile and nod, and he leaves. Most people who are saner than I would simply shrug it off as weird, and move on with their lives, but not me. I was intrigued. My brain whirled away, wondering all sorts of things. Is that woman really his daughter, or is he stalking her? Is he mentally unstable from losing his entire family in a car wreck, saw a woman in a magazine one day who resembled his daughter, and convinced himself the young woman is his daughter? Or is that woman really his daughter, and he had a bad divorce, and his ex-wife won’t let him see her or even have a picture of her, so the only way he can see her is through her modeling career?

You see how that works? One little event, and I suddenly have all sorts of ideas. I could pick any of those questions and flesh them out into a plot. I could let it stew, and combine it with another, previously unrelated idea that together, make an amazing book.

And it doesn’t just have to be stranger’s weird little idiosyncrasies, though I once saw a checkout girl wearing white gloves. Of course I wondered why, and thought she might be afraid of germs, or have poison ivy, but again, it doesn’t just have to be when someone does something a little off. It could be a mundane situation, and you ask yourself why, and what if until you have an interesting tale.

For example, you see a mother pushing a shopping cart full of groceries and kids, but she’s dressed for a night out on the town. You could ask yourself what would prompt someone to do that. Why would she get all dressed up to go the grocery store? Is this the only time she gets out of the house, so she wants to look nice, even if it’s just to the store? Is she divorced and hoping to catch the eye of the store manager?

Conversely, you could start with a situation, and move on from there. Like, what if someone got into an accident that disfigured their face? What if that person was a movie star? What would she do then? Try to continue working? Get plastic surgery and pretend it never happened? Hunt down every picture taken with her scarred face? What if one of those photographers didn’t want to give it up? What would she do to get it back?...

You get the point. To find ideas, all you have to do is wonder what would happen if someone was put in a situation, or wonder why they are in that situation to begin with. The situation could be normal, like shopping at the store, or it could be extraordinary, like the predicaments our friend Jack Baur seems to find himself on 24.

But I am sure you’re vaguely aware of this method of Idea Hunting, so let me impart a few different ones on you.

In addition to the song-lyric method I mentioned in an earlier post, I also like to think about major figures in history. And wonder why? And what if? Like, what if a character was in a position like Judas? What would it take to betray your friend and mentor? What if in the end it wasn’t worth it, the goal you were trying to achieve failed? Would you ever forgive yourself?

Or the infamous dictators of the world. What would it take to get someone to that point? (this is assuming you want a sympathetic character, not “He’s a dictator because he loves squashing human rights, grrr!”) What if he had the best of intentions? What if because of the economic stresses of the time, he had to become stricter with the national policies? What if he honestly thought he was doing what was best for his country? What if he thought he would make the moral sacrifice for them, and become the “bad guy”, like a sin eater or Batman in the Dark Knight, in order to protect his country?
(Disclaimer: I am in no way endorsing the actions of history’s dictators (I am looking at you Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, etc) but just trying to show you how you can put a different spin on things. I now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.)

Or you could look at historical events, and wonder why. Actually, history is pretty ripe for the picking as far as ideas go. If you research, say, the events that lead up to the World Wars, it could give you ideas about how seemingly unrelated events can be connected.

Most of my ideas arrive to me as a situation between two characters, or one character in a really tough spot. I find it helps develop the plot if I have a back and forth dynamic. These two characters can be lovers, friends, enemies, family members, but it usually starts with two people in a situation.

This is of course not a plot. Please don’t confuse the two. “A man loses his family and is obsessed with a magazine model that looks like his daughter” is not a plot, nor is it even a premise by some definitions (by some definitions, a premise also includes the resolution of the idea: A man loses his family and becomes obsessed with a magazine model that looks like his daughter. He stalks her until he gets thrown in jail, where he subscribes to her new magazine). A plot includes the conflict and sometimes even the theme of the book.

Once you have the idea, the premise and the plot become much easier to develop. Sometimes you think of them all at the same time, but usually one piece of the puzzle will come to you first, and it’s up to you to coax the idea into something you can write an entire novel about.

Which is what our next post is about: From Idea to Plot.

How about you? Where do you get your ideas from?

*No actual kittens were harmed during the making of this post.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Elizabeth,

    Great topic! I like all of the humorous interjections you include in your posts as well. It makes for a fun read. "Shaking kittens"-oh, if I had a nickel for how often I did that. And not only at ideas. Sometimes it's just fun to shake the little bastar--wait a sec. I shouldn't be telling you this...

    Oh, right--ideas! I enjoyed reading that you gather your ideas from life experiences. I feel that stories derived from true life encounters feel more believable, and far more real than anything made-up could ever be... I wonder why that is...

    Life just happens, and you can't really predict what oddball thing will occur when you least expect it. Even a seemingly trite observation can turn into a story element; a character's thought, a bit of dialogue, or even a piece of narrative...

    [... Just the other day I was walking downtown when I came to a coffee shop with big ol' ceiling-to-floor windows. There was a group of three people sitting at a table that faced out toward the windows, and as I walked past I took notice of one of the people and thought, "Oh-my! What a man-ish looking woman." It was one of those moments where I didn't want to be rude, but my eyes were fixed in awe. It wasn't until my head was nearly turned backward that I realised, "Oh? What a woman-ish looking man." I had to go inside to get a better look. ...]

    I get my ideas directly from my own life experiences, and, because I enjoy writing strange and unusual stories, I try and allow myself to be taken away by the strange and unusual whenever the opportunity arises. I don't recommend this method, as it's placed me in some dangerous situations at times, but it's also lead to some interesting encounters that I will never forget. I like to keep a small notebook with me at all times for this very reason.

    I gave this bit of advice to a young writer in a forum not too long ago--I'm not trying to give you any advice, you're just fine--but the young writer was having some trouble gathering ideas. I simply said: If you want to write about life you have to live your life. You can't lock yourself away for days on end praying to the idea faeries for the plot to your next book. You want to be inspired, go out and live an inspiring life... or read a newspaper.

    Well, that's my 10-cents. On to part two!

    P.s. Sorry for writing at such length. Something about your blog is extremely comfortable, maybe the colors, or perhaps the notebooky look. If you don't ban me for rambling, I think I'll come back here often.

    Take care,