IDEAS ARE NOT STORIES
Writers are like fucked up magpies. We’re strange people, we ask strangers strange questions and we’re constantly on the look out for interesting shit to think about, then write about. A huge part of this gig is being active and aware. Everyone thinks they have at least one story in them, right? I’d be surprised to find somebody who hasn’t at least thought of one thing that they want to write into a novel or tv show or film.
These ideas are usually high concept. A perfect example; at a recent writer’s meet-up I attended, an old dude was talking about having started writing four years ago. He has an idea, a word he seeded with mystical intonation. Problem is he can’t get past the first chapter. Why? His idea is a conspiracy. The conspiracy began 14,000 years ago. He has too much backstory to wade through, or so he says.
The real problem? He doesn’t have an idea for a story. He’s got a sequence of events in his head that he thinks sound pretty cool. Hey, that’s where it starts for most of us. We think of something that we want to read, and we stick it in the cranial slow cooker for untold time until one day it all makes perfect sense.
Problem is, it never just happens to make perfect sense. When my old beginner-writer colleague sits down to write, he has no idea where to go, because he’s never thought of how the idea translates to a story.
IDEAS ARE THE FIRST DOMINO
So, you’ve been outside for the first time in months. The apartment is beginning to creep you out, it smells like dog and you do not have a dog, the kettle has begun to shout at you and the internet has switched off in the dead of night. You decide to go for a walk, and at some point you begin to people watch. You notice something about what they’re doing, you overhear a conversation and BOOM. Your brain has handed you a little present. That’s a cool idea, brain. I wonder what I can do with it, can it stretch out into 90,000 words of a novel?
No, it can’t. Chances are somebody has already thought of that shit, too. So what should you do? Should you just pack it up and park it in the corner of your memory, to be revisited hazily at moments when you regret your entire life and the unfulfilled potential you once had?
Fuck that. Write your shit down. Doesn’t matter what depth you do it to. Make a note that makes sense to you about the important aspects of your idea. Dwell on that shit. Let it percolate for a day, a week at most. Next, we’re going to turn that idea into something useful.
MIND MAP THAT MOTHERFUCKER
Get yourself an app to make mind maps on your phone. Take that note you made earlier then start bouncing around, extrapolating from it. What’s the history of it? Why are you interested? What are the problems and positives of writing an idea from that premise?
Mind maps are not just for schooldays revision, or wanky meetings at work about synergy and low hanging fruit. No, mind maps are mana from heaven for a writer. They show you how you think. They visualise the process of peeling back the layers of a concept, showing you the web of connections that has convinced your brain that this is something you’d be interested in hearing about.
When mind mapping, there are things you need to think about, and ask yourself.
-What are the themes here? Is it a morality tale?
-Where is this taking place?
-What would happen if I took this in a completely different direction?
-What does it remind me of? Is it Nightmare on Elm Street meets the Tellytubbies? Rambo in space? Smashing familiar concepts together at an early stage can help you solidify a direction to take this thing
Once you’re three layers deep into the mind map, and you’ve covered a half dozen items or so, let it rest. It needs to cool down a little.
THERE ARE NO ORIGINAL IDEAS. ORIGINAL STORIES COME FROM CHARACTERS.
We have a cool idea. It now has a little context. We’ve created a mini universe centred on one concept that our mind can quarry. This is often the stage where people get stuck. How do you take it further?
Don’t start plotting out a sequence of events. This is the time to think of some characters. Give them names, personalities. Make them want something. Make them different enough so that if they’d ever meet, they would be suspicious of each other. Starting from your idea, think about what lives they might lead that would be changed the most by coming into contact with Freddy Tubby or Space Rambo. Now send them to work. Send them to their mom’s at christmas. Send them to church. Send them to a sex party. Now your idea is a chrysalis. It’s changing into something else, energised by the context and the people.
START AN OUTLINE
Now we’re going to take that idea, the context and those people and we’re going to make them do things. We’re going to put them in trouble, of their own making. Then it’s going to get worse. Then they’re going to change too, because of how their wants and needs relate to the idea from the very beginning. They’re going to fight over it, or it’s going to cause them to fall in love, or whatever. This is, at a very basic level, how you take something from an idea and make it into something that other people may want to read.