Write On - What's the Big Idea?
(Seriously, its’ scientific name is “idea idea” – how cool is that?)
Your notebook is open to a blank page and your pen poised. Your wordprocessing file is open to a blank screen and your fingers pressed to the keyboard. You have set aside an hour to write, and have the appropriate amount of noise/company/solitude/silence for your liking. What now?
Possibly you’re one of the lucky ones, whose desire to write a novel has turned up complete with an idea that you want to write about. You don’t just want to write a novel, you want to write that were-cuttlefish romance with a kraken villain which will break the mould of formula romance forever and ensure the whole world has to fan itself whenever they look at ink in the future. If that’s the case, you can proceed straight to the “filling your idea out” section.
But don’t think you get off scott free! What happens when you’ve written this idea? Will another one just be waiting for you? Or will you too be left looking at the untrodden snow of a fresh page and wondering how on earth to get over it?
If so, join us too while we think about where to get ideas.
Assuming you’re not one of those people with more ideas than time to write them, how do you come up with an idea strong enough to support a whole novel?
As with all writing, this depends very much on what sort of a personality you have. You may want to test yourself. When you’re reading someone else’s books, do you often think “pah! That would never happen!” Or “Ridiculous, a dragon wouldn’t fill a person with warm fuzzy feelings like that. It would be more likely to turn its rider into a ruthless, cold hearted marauder.” Or “why don’t they ever ask the eagles to fly them to the mountain?” (Tolkien gives a good answer to that one btw, at least in The Hobbit.)
If you catch yourself doing this, note these reactions down in a notebook. Each time you disagree strongly with an author’s premise is a time when you obviously have a better idea, even if it’s buried deep down. Each of these is the germ of a story idea.
I don’t tend to find this happens to me with other author’s books. I don’t generally get inspired by other author’s fiction. But it happens to me often when I watch film or TV. I’ll see a character I find fascinating who (in my opinion) is wasted. (Generally it’s a sidekick or spear carrier or non speaking part who gets killed in the first act.) And I’ll want to pick him out of there, figure out what makes him so interesting and give him a story of his own. Or I’ll do that same disagreeing thing I’ve mentioned above with some point in the plot. Or there will be a visual – of a city, of a location, a special effect or a hero shot – that makes me want to tell a story about a city like that, or people with a ship like that etc.
If neither fiction nor TV nor movies pose any questions you want to answer, you could look through still pictures on the stock photo sites, on Deviantart and other artists’ sites, on Pinterest etc. Find a picture that speaks to you somehow and ask yourself questions about it. What is it a picture of? How did the scene in the picture come about? Who are the people and what do they do? Who lives in that house/on that mountain? What threatens them? What are they doing and why?
I also find that non-fiction is a brilliant source of ideas. Pick a historical period you know nothing about but think sounds interesting and read up about it. The chances are that many of the things they did or believed were quite bizarre, and bizarre things are often a good jumping off point for Fantasy or Historicals – why did they do that? What if the bizarre things they believed were actually true? What difference would it make if it was? What strange and interesting things would happen?
As you can see, the key to this process is asking questions, and refusing to believe the answers that other people may have given before.
Filling out your idea
Once you have the germ of a story idea, asking questiona and answering them is also the way you test it to see if it can be expanded into a plot that can keep a reader gripped.
Let’s go back to that idea that bonding to a baby dragon would cause humans to become colder and more ruthless (rather than full of confidence and warm fuzzies.) It’s barely a factoid at present. To expand it into a novel we start to ask questions about it, and to answer them. Where have these dragons come from? (Were they bred to replace cars, when petrol ran out and a post apocalyptic situation set in on earth?)
Why are humans being bonded to them to start with? (Were the first few dragon riders test subjects to see if the process was viable? Maybe when the bonding took with them, they decided they were now superior beings and broke out of the test centre with a view to propagating themselves as a new species?)
Do they only breed among themselves, or do they recruit riders from the surrounding populace? What do the dragons need to eat? How do they support themselves? (Maybe the dragons demand only perfect humans as riders, so they practice eugenics among themselves and also kidnap the best children from their surroundings? Maybe they force all the normal humans to grow vegetarian food for their riders and farm cattle for the dragons to eat?)
What would the non-dragonriders think of this? I can’t imagine they’d like it, but what could they do against a bunch of psychopathic fascists armed with dragons?
(Maybe one of the stolen children can think of something to do? Maybe one of the dragonriders resists the draconic influence and tries to undermine his society from the inside? Maybe it’s one of each and they team up?)
But the dragonriders aren’t just going to allow it, are they? How will they try to stop our heroes? Who has the most to lose of the riders? He’ll be your main villain.
If an idea is viable (as I think this one is), you’ll find that each question starts a cascade of new questions and answers, and now you only have to pick out the most interesting ones and put them into some sort of order.
Here we have an idea for a story in which innocent young people are pressured into a fascist cult by being bonded with ruthless reptiles. The rest of the world are being held in subjection as a food source and a baby farm. This bad state of affairs is going to be changed by a main character who is one of the kidnapped children, and a second main character who is a rider with a conscience. (Maybe she lost one too many children to the eugenics programme and wants to rescue this one to replace them.) They will be menaced and opposed by a villain among the riders who has a whole lot to lose.
Very soon, we can start filling in the details of the characters and the plot. But before we get onto that there’s one more preparatory step to go – to decide what sort of length you’re aiming for.
That’s what we’ll tackle next week in Write On – Size does matter.