Wednesday, March 23, 2011

So Whatever Became Of The Muses?

It happens almost every time. You’re attending a book signing by one of your favorite authors, or maybe you’re listening to her speak on a panel at a con. She’s been entertaining, thought provoking… maybe even inspirational. You can’t wait to have her sign your copy of her latest novel.

But before that can occur, there’s the Q&A with the audience. A forest of raised hands goes up. People get called upon. And that’s when it happens: Someone, at some point, asks the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a great answer, at least not one that would help a person come up with their own story ideas. Because that’s what I suspect most of the people asking the question really want to know: They’re folks who want to be writers, they feel the need to fill up the blank page… they just can’t figure out what they should put down on it. That’s the situation I was in when I first thought about writing stories, anyway.

The answers you do get are usually pretty vague. "Anywhere." "Everywhere." Harlan Ellison got so tired of the question he began telling people he got his ideas from a company in Schenectady, New York. (Amazingly, some of them took him seriously and tried to hunt down the company.) I once heard Richard Matheson talk about how The Incredible Shrinking Man came about when he put on a hat he thought was his own, only to find it was several sizes too big. But even that terrific and specific anecdote doesn’t seem very generalizable.

Looking back, I think much of the frustration I had trying to come up with story ideas came from misconceptions about how the creative process worked. You remember those little foam dinosaurs they used to sell? You’d get something that looked like a smashed salamander, but when you put it in water it would swell up into a giant sponge brontosaurus. Well, I used to think coming up with a story idea meant waiting for that salamander to appear in your mind. Once you got it, the story was all right there, just in miniaturized form. All you had to do then was expand on it, and a full-fledged novel or screenplay would be the end result.

I spent a lot of time waiting for that salamander to show.

Now, for some lucky writers it really does work that way. It must be thrilling, to get that zing! of a Eureka moment, to feel like you’ve captured lightning in a bottle, all in a flash. But when I try to develop a story I usually don’t get very far coming up with One Big Idea. I have to come up with lots of ideas, and figure out how they’ll all fit together to create the larger tale. Instead of growing the dinosaur with water, it’s like trying to chisel the dinosaur’s fossilized skeleton out of a sandstone cliff, one bone at a time, and figuring out how they’ll all fit together at the end. No single idea is the story all by itself.

But then how do you know when an idea could work as part of a story? This takes practice, but your brain will let you know, in its own way. You’ve just got to pay attention. Maybe you saw something on the news that you can’t stop thinking about. Or maybe there’s a single image that keeps popping up in your daydreams, the way James Cameron once visualized a metallic skeleton dragging itself along the ground, when he was sick one night (Terminator). That’s your brain’s way of telling you it wants to play with an idea. The idea might not be perfect in its original form – you might have to tweak it, reshape it, or even turn it inside out – but the fact your brain wants to do something with it is a clue that on some level, it knows there’s an answer there.

Once the idea is in proper shape, you’ve got to figure out how it fits into your story. This is where all that time you spent learning about the elements of story structure pays off; that knowledge will be the scaffolding on which you can mount your brontosaurus. Is the idea you have related to plot, character, or theme? Once you know, you can put the idea into its proper place, and not waste lots of time trying to put a thigh bone where a rib should be. Knowledge of structure will also give you a better sense of what you need to work on next: You might have enough ideas to create a complete character arc, for example, yet not have enough to make for a compelling plot. But if you keep going through the process, unearthing bone after bone, coming up with idea after idea, you’ll eventually put together your massive beast. All the hard work will pay off when you can stand back, and allow people into the exhibit hall to gaze upon your creation.

And you won’t have to have bought a thing from that company in Schenectady.


  1. Great post.

    But it does cause a question to come to mind.

    Where do those of us who want to learn about the elements of story structure go when we can't afford to take a class, or don’t have the time to take a class because we are married with kids and work two jobs, or just don't have a venue in our area that offers such classes.

    Can you recommend a good book or website?

  2. Hi Steeven,

    Most of the books I've read focused on screenwriting, but a lot of them are applicable to storytelling in other formats. One book I highly recommend is "Story" by Robert McKee. Brian Michael Bendis considers it "absolutely essential reading" for anyone who wants to be a storyteller, in any medium. And the creative people who work at Pixar swear by McKee's principles.

    Another book I like is Christopher Vogler's "The Writer's Journey." Very different approach from McKee, but I've found it to be useful as well.

    Hope that helps! And thanks for visiting the blog!


  3. Both of those books are at my local library.

    I now have them on reserve.