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The Nature of Ideas

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Thu Jun 11, 2009 7:44 pm
Conrad Rice says...

Ideas are the heart and soul of writing. You can have a wonderful mastery of grammar and be a genius at creating characters and generating dialogue between them, but if all you go through are cliche plots and overused themes then it’s all for naught.

Sometimes, though, an idea for a story is an elusive thing. It can stay just out of reach for days, leaving you feeling very discouraged and downtrodden.

But fear not. Writer’s block is not a permanent thing, unless you’re Harper Lee. And if you’re having trouble finding ideas for your next tale, then I have a few suggestions you may find useful.

The ideas for a lot of stories can be boiled down to a single question. This question is always different, but it always begins with the same two words: what if. Don’t believe me? Here are some examples.

What if someone found a way to create life? -Frankenstein

What if an ordinary person found the key to destroying the world? -The Lord of the Rings

What if ten strangers were called to an island by a mysterious host? -And Then There Were None

So you see, it is quite possible for a story to be born from simply asking “what if.” So just sit down and look at the world around you. Next time you’re in line at the grocery store, look over at a man and a woman. Ask yourself, “What if they fall in love?” When you go to the library, look at the doors. Ask yourself, “What if someone barged in waving a screwdriver?” Go to the park and look at the pond. Ask yourself, “What if someone lived there?” Great stories can be made from these simple questions.

Another way you can get new ideas is to reinvent old stories, such as myths and fairy tales. Neil Gaiman is the master of this idea, but just because he’s good at it doesn’t mean you can’t attempt it as well. Any old stories, from Jack in the Beanstalk to the war between the Centaurs and the Lapiths, from Ragnarok to Mary Had a Little Lamb, all of these can be tweaked in very tiny ways, changing their natures and outcomes considerably, allowing you to make a new story. Just don’t get too recent. Reinvention of the public domain is good, plagiarism is bad.

Ideas can also be cultivated by a very simple exercise, the long walk. Many authors have used this to their advantage. Charles Dickens often walked the streets of London, oftentimes at the dead of night, simply to clear his mind and see the city in which he set many of his stories. Stephen King takes long walks to clear his mind of his stories for a little bit so that a new twist might fly in. Joyce Carol Oates often runs to achieve the same effect. Simply being alone with your thoughts on a long walk is often a great cure for even the toughest writer’s block. The trick is not to think about the story, but to think about other things. Eventually, an idea will trickle into your conscious mind through your subconscious.

In all of this, patience is the key. If you become too impatient, and you write something just because you must write something, you run the chance of burning yourself out. And don’t get worried if you get stuck on an idea once you get it. In time, it will pass on and a new one will come to you. Patience is a virtue, and that’s the truth.

So go on and get writing. Just think, what if you had been writing instead of reading this?
Garrus Vakarian is my homeboy.

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Fri Jun 12, 2009 12:19 am
Rosendorn says...

Another option (For those allergy-suffers among us) is a long bus ride. If you start watching the people come in-and-out, it's amazing what you can find. Or just sitting near any pair of doors inside a busy place is good when you're eyes water at the first sign of pollen.
A writer is a world trapped in a person— Victor Hugo

Ink is blood. Paper is bandages. The wounded press books to their heart to know they're not alone.

Every empire tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires.
— Edward Said