Monday, March 26, 2012

Generating Story Ideas #1

by James Duckett

I believe the genesis of a story is the idea, therefore I'd like to do a series on generating story ideas. Therefore I posted a question on my blog asking how writers find their story ideas, and I noticed one common element appeared in most of the answers. It was dressed up in words like, "ponder and wonder" (via Jessica Foster) and ridiculously inquisitive mind (via Shelly Brown), but fellow blogcker Donna K. Weaver summed it up perfectly: "Ask lots of questions." While this series will approach different methods of generating story ideas, all of them are going to be rooted in the concept of asking questions.
Several years ago I attended a writing workshop with the master, Orson Scott Card. We had one session where we developed a story idea as a class. He started by putting a stick figure on the board and asked, "What is the gender of this person?" The classroom settled on male. And Scott continued asking questions. Not once did he interject any of his own ideas, he just followed the direction of the class. "What does he do?" "Is he married." "What is special about him?"

As things progressed we actually started focusing on his girlfriend who was pregnant with an alien baby. "How did this happen?" "What was the guy's impression of the pregnancy?" "How did she first meet with an alien?" "Does she know?" "Will the birthing process be different?" Question after question after question. We did this for about an hour and before we knew it we actually had the basis of a pretty good story.
Can you see the power of asking questions? Do you see how it can tap right (write) into the creativity center of the brain?

As you look for inspiration, ask yourself questions. After answering them, ask more questions. Of the main question types (How? Why? What (if)? Where? When? Who?) the two that are most important are "Why?" and "What if?"

The other day I was pondering the fact that my neighbor has been digging a hole in his yard for the last few weeks. Go ahead, ask yourself some questions. The first obvious question I asked is, "Why is he digging a big hole in his yard?" and that lead to a lot of "What if?" questions. Some of the "What if's" may change based on your genre of writing:

Mystery: What if he is trying to bury a body? What if he is trying to hide some evidence? What if he is digging and finds a pile of bones?
Science Fiction: What if he is digging and finds a radioactive meteor that gives him super-powers? What if he digs up an alien artifact with instructions on how to cure cancer but it turns out to unleash a new disease on Earth?
Romance: What if he buried his mother's wedding ring as a teenager and is now trying to remember where he hid it so he can give it to his girlfriend during a proposal?
Fantasy: What if he finds a gateway to Narnia if he digs too far?
Horror: What if he unleashes a demon on the neighborhood? What if a demon possesses my neighbor and at night he turns into the boogeyman?
Action/Adventure: What if he finds a map to a buried treasure, and the ancestors of the map want to take it from him?

See, all of these "What if's" stemmed from one simple question: Why?

Try it yourself! Look around and see if something stands out. Start asking questions. See if something germinates from the experience. Share it with us if it does.


Donna K. Weaver said...

James, I have a book by Scott Card that talks about what you described in his class. Amazing isn't it?

I love how you brought up the questions and then showed us some examples of where they might lead depending on genre.

Excellent post!

Turtle Finance said...

Very good discussion.

Mithu Hassan said...

Excellent post! Great job !!

Melanie Jacobson said...

I'm teaching a class on this at the Storymakers conference this spring. I haven't read or taken OSC's class on this subject, but this is the exact concept I've found works for me as a writer. I'd take it step farther and say that plot-driven writers tend to ask "What if" and that character-driven writers tend to start with "why" but that's a personal observation that may or may not be right. Anyway, good thoughts here.

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

James, I think you should move. I'm just sayin'

Oh, and good post.

Monster said...

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Renae W. Mackley said...

What if I left a comment but had to run off because people were chasing me because . . .
Great stuff. Thanks.