Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Getting ideas

One of the most common questions writers get is "Where do you get your ideas?"  Their most common answer is "I don't know."  Writers have ideas.  They don't really know where they come from.  But as any writer can tell you, ideas are a dime a dozen.  They're plentiful and manifold, and not really worth anything.  The real work of writing is always the execution, turning the idea into a story.

That said, it's not, contrary to what some writers say, impossible to teach how to come up with ideas.  Writers don't know where ideas come from because they don't really think about it.  But there is a process.  Or more accurate, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of processes for coming up with ideas.  One of the most common is to take two ideas which are out there and combine them.  But where do those ideas come from?  Newspaper articles, technical papers, real-life experience, movies, other stories, etc.  They're all around you.  Any real story is going to intertwine dozens of ideas.  Just about every story is about how someone reacts to something.  Psychology meets technology, sociology, or even just some more psychology.

But what I want to talk about is something a bit different.  Rather than talk about how you combine ideas, I want to talk about how you develop one.  What do I mean by that?  Well, to start, you need a concept.
  1. Concept. The concept is not the idea.   Rather, it is the basis for the idea.  If you're writing a science fiction story, it may be a technology--nanotechnology, or genetic engineering.  If you're writing a fantasy, it could be a magic system.  If you're writing something more down to earth, it could also be a social structure, an organization, or even a relationship.
  2. Research and Development.  This is where you figure out how your concept works.  This may involve real world research in the technology, or similar societies.  It will also involve some thought into how things work, and figuring out the details.  Some of this will be made up.  Even if you're working with a real society or technology, you're probably going to need it to behave differently than it does today.
  3. Destruction.  Now that you've developed your society or technology or magic system, it's time to break it.  Figure out what can go wrong.  Then ask yourself, "Is this too obvious?  Is it too easy?"  If it is, then maybe you need to fix it.  Things which are too easy to break are fragile, and anyone with half a brain wouldn't put their trust in that technology.  Readers won't be able to suspend their disbelief.  But some things aren't obvious, or just are very hard to break, even though these can have catastrophic effects.  Should you fix these too?  Of course not! 
  4. The idea.  By now, you have your idea.  Have fun with it! ... "What idea?" you ask.  The one you just came up with.  You figured out how to break your system.  You found the interesting part to write about for your technology or society: when things go wrong.  There's a great story there--go ahead and write it.

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