I Have an Idea

[March 2006] What does it really mean when someone asks a writer where he or she gets his or her ideas?

In answering that query, I think one has to define what an idea is, what a story is, and in doing so, expose the fundamental flaw in the question.

For an idea does not a story make.

Ideas are everywhere. They are as omnipresent as the air we breathe. Every time we overhear a conversation, read the newspaper, look out the window, watch television, surf the internet, talk with our friends, we’re bombarded with ideas for stories. They come to us in our dreams. They permeate our pores.

As writers, we tend to look at everything as potential fodder for stories, in the same way an architectural engineer might catch a glimpse of a pile of children’s blocks and conceptualize a new building motif, or a florist might see a rabble of butterflies (yes, I looked up the applicable collective noun) and be inspired to create a new floral arrangement. We see story ideas where other people see only images or hear only words, because that’s what we’re looking for. All the time, consciously and subconsciously. Our brains become hardwired to perk up every time something intriguing or inspiring comes within range of our senses.

Often, I’ll write ideas down for future reference. 90% of the time nothing happens. I have so-called story ideas dating back nearly a quarter of a century that have the same burgeoning potential now that they had then, and yet they are at present nothing more than ungerminated seeds.

As I proclaimed earlier, an idea does not a story make. Ideas are the nail upon which we hang the coat of our story. It may be what comes first, but it’s not by itself a story, and may never lead to one. Sometimes, the idea is merely a McGuffin, the word Alfred Hitchcock coined to describe the part of the story that drives the plot. It’s what everyone is interested in, what the bad guys want to steal or what the good guys want to get back. Diamonds or intelligence, which could very easily be platinum or an ancient manuscript. When the story’s done, you could go back and replace that element with something else without substantially altering the tale.

Here’s an idea for you: A guy devotes his life to developing a formula for invisibility for the sole purpose of standing between two parallel mirrors to see infinity. Pretty cool, eh? I thought so in 1983, when I first jotted it in the back of a journal. And yet, that’s all I have. I don’t know who the guy is, what inspired him to attempt this feat, nor what happens when he finally succeeds. That sentence, the one immediately preceding this one, is the story. Go back and read it again. It’s characterization, motivation, plot and resolution. Without all of these, you’ve got squat. An amateur might try to go just with plot, but would end up with a skeleton of a tale. Instead of hanging a coat on the idea hook, he hangs a scarf. It might help keep you warm, but is nowhere near as satisfying as the coat would have been.

So, let’s revise the original question: How do writers turn ideas into stories? That’s where the magic enters the equation. I have no trepidation about giving away a “great” story idea by incorporating it in this essay. If someone reading this is inspired and wants to run with it—help yourself. I might still tackle it myself some day, but my story won’t look anything like yours.

Hellnotes runs a bimonthly contest wherein Mike Arnzen supplies three story prompts. Contestants pick one and turn it into a 500-1000 word story. Though we only get to read the winner, I’ll bet it’s interesting to see how different writers turn the same “prompt” (i.e. idea) into a story.

There’s a reason why ideas are not protected by copyright, as I expect the plaintiffs currently suing Dan Brown will learn. It is the expression of the idea that is protected by copyright. My character who invents invisibility will not be the same person as yours. The way he goes about it will be different. The reasons he’s doing it will be different, as will what he sees when he finally succeeds. My coat will have buttons, yours a zipper. Mine will have a detachable lining, yours will be fleece-lined. They’ll both hang from the same hook, and both will keep you warm in the winter, but they will be distinct entities, and there’s room in the closet for both.

A writer may remember the moment he was struck by a particular story idea. “I was walking down the street when I [saw, heard, smelled] [fill in the blank], and that got me to thinking . . . ”

It’s the “got me to thinking” part that leads to the story. What stands between my lengthy catalog of ideas and a stack of stories is thought, the water that helps germinate the seed and the sunlight that causes it to grow.

And yet, by “thought,” I don’t mean the same process involved in trying to figure out a logic problem or work your way out of a sticky situation. Conscious, deliberate thought is the ruin of any story I’ve ever worked on. It’s a different kind of thought, more akin to simmering food on the back burner. I have no doubt that my mind is working on ideas all the time, and yet I’m not sitting around ruminating on them. If Rodin sculpted me thinking, it would look more like I’m sleeping or showering or going about the other mundane activities of daily life.

Some of these ideas germinate, sprout, and grow into full-fledged stories. Some germinate, sprout, wither and die. And others lie dormant until the right time comes along. It might take a few months—or it might take decades.

And some will be become archaeological3 discoveries for future generations: petrified ideas frozen in time that never became anything, though perhaps in the hands of someone else . . . who knows?


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