Monday, April 02, 2012

Generating Story Ideas #2

by James Duckett

A week ago I began my series on generating story ideas. There are many ways to find inspiration for a story or add to the one you are working on. Today I invite you to examine your and other real-life experiences to find ideas.

Your Real-Life Experiences

Real-life experiences can offer a wealth of inspiration. I reflect on some of my little adventures in high school and feel an entire book could be written. I may share some of them another day.

Of course, this can all be put in the guise of fiction. Or you can add fantastical elements to it. And that is where asking "What if?" can come in handy. So remember when the bully that threatened you for your lunch money? Of course, I handed over the cash, but what if...?

What if I stood up for myself? I might have been beaten to a bloody pulp, but if the bully got nothing out of it he might have left me alone in the future.

What if I ran for the nearest teacher? It might delay and escalate the conflict. It could be the first part of a try/fail cycle.

What if I had superpowers? This leads to other questions. Would I pretend to get beat up to preserve my secret, albeit nerdy, identity? Could I try to win the heart of the high school beauty by beating the tar out of the bully? Can I hit him so hard that it attracts the attention of a secret organization in search of kids with super powers?

As I've heard many times, write what you know. Look back on your life. What do you remember vividly? Which events changed your life? What is almost interesting but with a twist can become the next best seller?

Retell History

History is a rich source for story-telling. An LDS that comes to mind is Orson Scott Card's Homecoming Saga. In this series Scott retells the story of Nephi. But instead of starting in Jerusalem and heading for the promised land, this book starts on a faraway planet called Harmony with the MC headed for Earth. The MC is named Nafai (Nephi). He is the fourth son in a family. His oldest brother comes to hates him. Get the picture? Seriously, this is a scene-by-scene retelling of the first part of the Book of Mormon told as if it were science fiction. 1 Nephi 3: 7 is quoted nearly word for word.

Read history! History could inspire you on so many levels. You can learn how the greats did it, from George Washington to Joan of Ark. From Abraham Lincoln to the story of the original Apostles. History, with a study of significant battles and historical figures, can be a great place to find story ideas and heroes for your stories.

Success Stories

Real-life success stories are a huge inspiration to me. Most of them follow the same theme, overcoming great trials to reach their goals. Instead of three try/fail cycles, they usually have dozens of them.

My favorite is the movie Rudy. A decade ago I met the real Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger when I had a small hand in him buying two houses in Nevada. The funny thing is that the sales manager had not even heard of Rudy Ruettiger. Our conversation went a little like this.

Me: You've never heard of Rudy? You've never seen his movie?
Sales Manager: No, I thought he said something about playing football.
Me: That's right, he played for Notre Dame!
Sales Manager: Huh? That's college. He didn't go pro? How long did he play?
Me: For about a minute. He only did two plays and one was a kickoff.
Sales Manager: *Confused look*
Me: Seriously, rent the movie. You'll thank me later.

Needless to say, she was dumbfounded as to why this would make a good story, much less a good movie. Even more dumbfounded when I told her it was one of my favorite movies. It wasn't what Rudy did in his two plays that made it great (though it was certainly the icing on the top). The journey of getting there made the story phenomenal. He had to overcome opposition from his family, getting into the school, paying for school, getting onto the football team, being taken seriously by his teammates, and even getting to wear the uniform during a game.

Think of your main character. Wouldn't the readers be cheering if your MC had to survive such opposition to meet his or her goal? Wouldn't that make your readers care for your MC?

Just half an hour ago I was listening to Elder Anderson give his talk in General Conference where he shared a story from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Talk about a success story, one that almost had me in tears. I also thought, "I would love to read that story in its entirety." When it becomes available online, I'll be sure to update this post with a link to the talk.

Do People Watching

Watch people! Go sit at a busy park and find somebody who looks interesting. Try to make assumptions. Try to tell his or her life. See if something comes to mind that might make a great addition to your story.
Take the young man with the mohawk playing with the little girl on the swing. Is that his daughter? His sister? What is their relationship? What does he do for a living, or does he still live at home? Why the mohawk? How does society treat him? Could he be a hero, or what would it take for such a person to become a hero? He appears to be a hero to the little girl, why is that the case?

Listen to Conversations

Again, I'm asking you to become a stalker. Seriously, it is okay as long as it is for research purposes. Just to make sure we are on the same page:

Stalking for research? Great!
Lurking for research? Do it!
Peeping-tom for research? No! Bad, stalker, bad!!

Listen to conversations. Not only is it a good way to research good dialogue, but it is an opportunity to ask questions. Based on the conversation, what is the relationship of the two talking? What kind of history might the conversationalists have together? Read between the lines; it isn't just what they are saying but also what they are not saying. Make assumptions, that is where a lot of why and what-if questions can make their appearance.

Boy #1: I'm going to meet John at the gym. Want to come?
Boy #2: John? I owe him a knuckle sandwich. Right now might not be a good time for that.
Boy #1: Does he even know why you are mad at him?
Boy #2: He'll know for sure the next time I run into him.

What did John do? Why is there contention between John and Boy #2? Why might John not know the source of the strife? Does John know that Boy #2 is upset? Will it blow over if given enough time?

Most likely they are fighting over one thing: a girl. So that leads to the what-if questions. What if John made an inadvertent pass at Boy #2's girlfriend. Or sister. Or MOTHER?!? What if John was cheating on his girlfriend and Boy #2 found out and has lost respect for him? Oh, I could go on and on!


Dreams aren't necessarily real-life, but it was the best category in this series I could put this in. There have been an amazing number of books inspired by dreams. Of recent fame, The Twilight Series came from Stephanie Meyer having a dream about a sparkly vampire. Stephen King once had a dream while he was falling asleep on an airplane about an insane fan. That lead to one of his better books, Misery.
Stephen King wasn't the only horror writer to come up with something, most of the stories by H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe were inspired by their dreams.

Homework Assignment

Are you looking for an idea? Take half an hour and do one (or more) of these. Reflect on your experiences and life-changing events. Look at other real-life examples that could inspire you. Spy on complete strangers. Think of a dream you recently had that you can actually still remember. Most important: keep asking questions!


Turtle Finance said...

Thanks for sharing exercise ideas. I'll try it to see what could happen.

Donna K. Weaver said...

During NaNo we did a write in at a local chocolate shop that turns out to be quite the date night destination. It was hilarious listening to the conversations around us. Who had time to work on our WIPs? We were too busy taking notes!