All students of imagination have the same reaction when they see something new and amazing within the scope of their craft, “Where did they get that idea?” Well, in actuality it can go two ways, the first involves stomping up and down screaming, “it’s not fair, I thought of that way before that guy.” The second being the complete dumbstruck awe and depression that you’ll never come up with anything worth a damn. Fear not my dreamers, for all ideas come from the same places, you just have to know where to look. I’m going to make a statement here and list the top 5 places (in no particular order) new concepts and ideas are born.
1. The what if? contemplation – alone
2. The what if? contemplation – collaborative
4. Raw Experience
Exhibit A. – What if? (alone, usually in the shower or before bed)
‘I should really expand on my idea about killer sports equipment. What if footballs all turned to kamikaze explosives? Tennis racquets and bats beating the hell out of people would be AWESOME too!’
‘What if there was this vampire kid that fell in love with a human girl? Like they could be in high school and stuff. There would be werewolves too, but not like Lycan werewolves, they are slobbery and gross. My wolves would be sexy, way sexy.’ … ‘Nah, that will never work. Good Night.’
Exhibit B. – What if? (collaborative)
Mr. Idea: “What if Robots came down from outer space? What if they wanted to plunder all our secret caches of blow-up sex dolls?”
Mr. Idea’s Buddy: “We have secret caches of blow up dolls? Why?”
Mr. Idea: “Because that is what powers their fuel cells!”
Mr. Idea’s Buddy: “That’s not what I asked…”
Mr. Idea: “Dude I don’t know. Maybe because like the women are all going extinct.”
Mr. Idea’s Buddy: “You have my attention. Perhaps there should be killer tomatoes for good measure?”
Mr. Idea: “HELL YA! This is why I have you around man.”
The what if? is effective done alone, but can be deadly powerful in groups. Bringing minds together and bouncing ideas off of a peer group has lead to many successful collaborative efforts. This has also lead to many dismayed parents seeing the family car turned into a cardboard pirate ship. We see these efforts in cinema a lot, and even with novelists who work together to write great books, musicians as well.
As we can see from exhibits A and B, the what if? question is a tool for entertaining all sorts of ideas. From the outlandish to the very serious marketable ones. You are no doubt asking yourself, “Damnit Danny, where do the what if? questions come from?”
The what if? question is designed to help you flush out an idea that you only catch a fleeting glimpse of. The seed of an idea if you will. An abandoned car on the side of the road, for example, can lead to all sorts of what if? questions:
What if that car had the president in disguise inside it and he is hitchhiking cross country?
What if that car belonged to a criminal on the run?
What if that criminal was wanted for…?
Abandoned buildings, a piece of trash, a fragmented grocery list found on the ground, the two seconds you remember from your dream last night, new paths for other ideas ex. “What if Vader was gay? How would Star Wars be different?”, are all examples of where a what if? question can be used. The possibilities are endless. A solid 90% of all successful ideas and concepts are based on what if?. The lucky ones (Twilight anyone?) well have a successful idea in a dream.
Dreams are good places to pull ideas from for a number of reasons: it’s easy, your brain power is more efficiently used on expanding instead of idea seed creation, reflects a part of your inner self so you can identify with it, how else are you going to imagine getting chased by an eight legged spider with the head of your Dad while you run naked through a field of wheat?
Personally, I keep a dream journal. It sounds silly but going back and reading dreams that I’ve forgotten has lead me to some good creative juice. I highly recommend getting a note pad next to your bed. If it is a long dream just make short notes about the sequence of events and go back later to expand on it. Your brain remembers it all, you just have to jump start it to pull it up front.
Lets get away from the dreams and imagination for just a minute and talk about, “raw experience.” Besides sounding like the title of a Monster Truck Rally, “raw experience” is the most effective and credible means for any creative person to paint a picture or tell a tale. A person who has been to prison is going to capture it’s true essence better than a researching book worm. The guy who climbs mountains is going to describe the feelings of his protagonist mountain climber better than the writer who watches Cliffhanger 100 times. They say, “Write what you know.” What you know is from getting your ass out of the chair on the weekends and having adventures. Experiencing life and trying new things is the only way to make yourself a more dynamic individual with expanded creative horizons. Which brings us to the number five, environment.
The environment a creator of any medium finds themselves in is going to influence what comes out of his idea pot. People who live in Southern California don’t churn out many songs about rainy depressing days and the Beach Boys didn’t write “Surfin’ USA” in the middle of a corn field in Iowa. What you surround yourself with is going to influence your thought processes. If not noticeably on a conscious level you are certainly finding yourself subconsciously influenced.
If you have a lot of friends named Sean, it is quite the coincidence that the first name for any character you create starts with an S. Weird. If you walk to work everyday passing a certain Cafe it is just a matter of time before you imagine a) two people falling in love who meet there, or b) a hostage situation (whatever side of the spectrum your morality falls on isn’t my place to judge, so whatever floats your boat). Environment I find plays more of a major factor in little details of my creativity. A character name, or a new way interactions between people take place. I’ve even gone so far as to snoop on conversations of strangers. The world around you is a mountain of ideas for characters, their interactions, settings, and what if? questions. Pay attention.
In conclusion dear reader, creativity is fueled by imagination grown from planted idea seeds.
Those seeds are EVERYWHERE!
Danny Machal May 6th, 2009
When it comes down to story structure there are two schools of thought: planning out the major plot points and filling in the blanks or, starting with a blank paper/screen and winging it. As a new writer I’m still trying to discover the only consistent advice (if you can call it that) I ever hear, “find what works for you.” I don’t think that finding what works for you is something that can be done blindly, life is just too complicated and time is too scarce. I have tried both methods, and right now I’m leaning toward the “just go for it” way of things. Mainly because I still haven’t truly discovered a subject matter that I can write about on a regular basis and not get bored with. On some bigger projects I have stuck with (novel) outlining has saved me from sitting in the windless sea of writer’s block.
There was an assignment in my writing class (now over) that involved outlining. I took advantage of it and outlined my novel. Just by sitting down and figuring out what happens next worked wonders. I didn’t have to write chapters only to scrap them later, just a couple sentences about each sequence of events. You can experiment with your stories very quickly this way, and in large projects that is what I will need to do. When I become a successful writer and have to work with a deadline, outlines are going to save me much wasted time in throwing out chunks of precious word count. I take a different approach to short fiction, you need to explore ideas to their fullest before they are tossed.
Just the other day I opened up my word processor and I waited, just staring at the screen. I imagine my brain like a scrolling marquee of ideas. After watching the ticker for a bit I just picked one and wrote it. I was able to expand off of this and got about a 1000 words during a lunch break. I like the story and I plan on keeping it fairly short (2000 words max I think). This method of “winging it” has worked but also failed. The Las Vegas story I scrapped last weekend was a wing it session. I explored some ideas to maturation and they just didn’t work.
So do you outline or do you wing it? That is your question to answer. I can only speak for myself. What works for me is outlining the big ones and winging the short ones. If you are not even pondering this sort of thing try what I am trying. If it doesn’t work then try something else. The simple fact that you trying anything at all sets you apart from all the other people out there who stop at the “want to” portion of their writing career.
Danny Machal April 10th, 2009
When you really get into writing and decide to make it part of your life you start experiencing the real hurdles. You think, “Man, it was hard enough to actually decide to do this and now it just gets harder?” (insert tears and brain pains). I’m a new writer, I would classify myself as an infant even, and new challenges are thrown at me everyday. Today I scrapped a solid effort and it was sad.
I wrote about 2,500 words for a piece I was hell bent on submitting for a contest and I scrapped it all. It was about five hours worth of work and I got to a point where my story lost all focus, and got so far gone, there was no saving it. Writers count words like the calories of a fad diet, every single one matters. A few months ago I would have pushed forward with it, thrown my ideas down and called it good, words didn’t matter so much to me then. While I feel that is extremely valuable for brainstorming and word vomiting ideas that are not quite flushed out, it has downsides.
As you grow as a writer you start to loath the tiresome process of editing. Sometimes if you write something to horrendous and incomprehensible in the beginning, you will spend twice or three times as long crafting it into something readable. I’ve discovered that the more I write everyday the easier it is to recognize bad writing as soon as it hits the page. Just like with any skill, writing is practice, practice, practice, so hang in there.
This is the opening paragraph of what I wrote today, the rest of the piece didn’t carry this tone at all. I thought I would be able to introduce my characters and come back to this, but it never happened, so it was cast into the ether to die.
“…The riddle of the century was asked of me when I was only twenty-two years old. Smoke filled lounges, liquor stained carpets, and counter tops with sugary adhesive puddles were to be my world for the next two days. Revolving bundles of fruit set in motion by hands on large levers make loud dings as eyes light up around the room. Each one of those hands attached to an individual dream, a life without hardship, the new American Dream. Faces beaming with smiles or barred teeth are illuminated by the flashing sirens of blue, red, yellow, and green. What was that riddle? Where is the only place where you can be anyone but yourself? Where what happens supposedly stays for eternity? This is Vegas baby, the new gold rush, land of the free, and home of the destitute…”
The battle was lost today, but victory was gained on another front. I learned quite a bit about what it will take in the future for me to stay on track. Onward!
Danny Machal April 5th, 2009
For my Week 3 assignment in my Fiction class I was asked to answer some of the most basic questions about my protagonist. ie. What is their biggest character flaw? … I was floored. I honestly could not list one flaw, I had my idea of who this person was so diluted, that it made them almost inhuman when in fact they are supposed to be very human. No one is perfect, and I’m not writing a book about Jesus, so they need flaws.
It was a real eye opener for me that I need to invest more in my characters. So where does one even start to get to know a person they made up? It isn’t like you get to spend time with them and meet their family, it is all in your head. I scoured the internet looking for character sheets, and they all list things that make you see them as objects and don’t really ask the right “What is this person like?” types of questions. I sought out some of the questions I felt would be more helpful, and I compiled them into this 12 page questionnaire – complete with box to sketch their portrait. I’m going to try and use this as a tool to help me, and if you REALLY want to get down and dirty with who these people are in your Stories/Novels, than fill this out.
Danny Machal March 3rd, 2009
Early today I went over the list of things I needed to do tonight (yes I make lists). I have several different activities on this list that are 100% geared toward writing and getting the brain exercised. I noticed that I had overlooked a deadline for a weekly writing contest that I wanted to take a stab at, it is TONIGHT!
*panic! gasps for air! WHIZ! BANG! POP!*
Normally in a given day I have about 10,000 ideas that I can pull from thin air. If I’m given a prompt to write from I can easily generate all sorts of ideas for the criteria. However tonight I’m drawing blanks and just can’t seem to get past a couple sentences before I run out of gas. I think maybe my brain is just fried. Anyone who knows me or can read the top part of this website knows I have been hitting the words pretty hard lately (everyday for hours), and I just need a break.
I can’t think anymore and I’m struggling to even finish this post. I’m taking the night off unless by some miracle that one great idea comes to me but I doubt it will.
Danny Machal February 17th, 2009