Game Theory

Posted Mar 14 2010, 4:15 pm

Where do writers find ideas?

Some wait for inspiration to strike, praying for their muse. Others seem to find ideas around every corner, juggling multiple works in progress at once.  Consider TV series writers, who churn out script after script every week.  Where do they find their ideas? Law & Order writers rip their ideas out of the news. Lost writers…  not exactly sure where they find theirs but suspect mind-altering substances may be involved.

Ideas abound… I’ve found them in a snippet of an overheard conversation, in observing the man in the gas mask at the supermarket, and even at work (my day job is Technical Writer for a software company).  But ideas alone do not a story make.

Ideas are seeds that require care, feeding, tending before the story emerges. What about the man in the gas mask at the supermarket?  What if he were a precog who knew the supermarket would be ground zero for a biological agent? What if he were the agent sent to unleash the germ? Or, what if this man wore the mask not to protect himself, but to protect others from the terror that lives within him?  The roots of that tiny seed may sprout a paranormal, spy or suspense story, depending on the author’s whim.

Playing what-if games is my favorite part of writing.  In my last post on Outlining, I wrote that I outline because I like knowing where my story ends.  I resist the urge (and at times, it’s quite great) to begin drafting until I have the ending in mind.  But having the ending in mind does not mean it’s set in stone.   I am free to explore infinite alternatives but that presents a new problem: idea overload. Playing what if games with plot points generates so many ideas, I find myself almost crippled by the pile. Which ones do I explore further, which ones do I let die? Which can be salvaged for another project? Where do I stop?

When I can see the entire story at a high level, spread over my three-foot pad, stuck in a series of Post-its to a wall, or storyboarded in the latest software tool, I can pick a plot point at whim, change it, and then watch its Butterfly Effect on the rest of the story.  Midway through my current work in progress, a secret has to be revealed. That much is essential to move the story to my intended ending. But merely by changing who reveals this secret, I have uncovered a new plot thread that follows my themes, a way to weave that thread to another, and finally, a delicious exposition of the heroine’s motive that delivers a sucker punch straight to the hero’s gut.

With a previous project, what-if games helped me develop a single story into a four-book series. I’m working on book two.

The biggest hurdle is avoiding that temptation to start writing. Writing these scenes now, before the outline is done, makes it that much harder to kill the stuff that doesn’t work.  I’m enjoying the software tools I recently downloaded for “Send“.  They’re not great, but they’re good and it’s nice knowing I won’t lose a Post-it note.

How do you develop ideas into stories?

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