To hear some people tell it, there’s a serious shortage of story ideas. Even back when I was still farting around, wanting to be a writer, but rarely putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I knew that the problem was mine, and mine alone. The world was full of ideas, but I didn’t know how or which ones to grab. Maybe most of us have to go through that period of cluelessness before something clicks and we settle down to our first serious efforts.
When I read requests for prompts, and complaints that there just aren’t any good ideas, I have to remind myself that I went through a long, long period of wanting to be, but not knowing how to be a writer. Granted, some of the complaints are from people who are more interested in being thought of as writers than in actually doing any writing. But they’re probably not the majority. Writing is hard work, and becoming a writer may be the hardest part.
I’m thinking off the top of my head here, but I think I’ve stumbled over part of the problem. It’s the belief that an idea is the whole ball of wax. I have no proof, but having read so many pleas for help, I suspect that for too many neophytes, the word “idea” means a plot, complete with characters. But an idea isn’t a plot; it’s just a seed that a plot can grow from. Or to put it another way, it’s a grain of sand that irritates the oyster into making a pearl.
You can work on that idea consciously, or let it work on you, unconsciously. In my Scrivener Stories project (“folder,” to you Windows users), I have a page of story seeds that are just phrases that sounded good enough to write down. Here are a few of them. Gesture of Submission, Salt in Every Wound, Excellence in Demonology, A Chain of Days. Don’t ask me what they mean or where they came from, because I don’t know. I look at them every now and then when I’m temporarily stuck and want to find something completely new. So far, no lightning bolt of inspiration has struck, but I’m reinforcing my memory of them, thus increasing the likelihood that someday, something in my reading will trigger one of them, and there will be the bare beginning of a plot. That’s what I mean by letting an idea work on you, unconsciously. I also have a lot of pages for ideas that are a little further along, with notes and even bits of text and dialogue.
That’s generally the way I work, because I’m lazy. And I know that there are enough ideas out there to keep me going for a lifetime, even if I wrote a minimum of 1,000 words a day, which I hardly ever do. But you can work at an idea. Ask it questions, shift its perspective, poke and prod it to see what it contains.
Most of my ideas for stories come from news articles, but the development of my characters benefits from reading fiction or discussions about fiction, and sometimes from articles about humanity’s weird kinks. Sites like Salon tend to concentrate on “click bait,” articles that whet the reader’s curiosity about individuals who’ve attracted the media for some reason. If I want some outrageous characteristics, that’s the kind of site that helps me fill in the blanks.
Two examples of unexpected inspiration.
Richard Herley’s The Earth Goddess triggered an idea I haven’t done much with yet: tracing a person’s life from his naive, innocent childhood and youth to a bitter, vengeful adulthood. A hint of that is in All the Broken Places, a story I’ve been working on for quite some time, but it doesn’t go so far. Senti is betrayed by his parents, and bound to indentured servitude for five years. From a boy who’d grown up knowing that he was a nobody, to his family and to the rest of the world, he becomes someone who learns to stand up for himself against abuse. He also finds a way to avenge himself on the brother whose crime caused his indenture, but in a way that is a form of deserved justice.
A few days ago, in a book review on Goodreads, I found this sentence: “…shell-shocked veteran Bennett Grey, a man whose war injuries have given him a particular sensitivity to deception.” That reminded me of my husband’s ability to hear dishonesty in a person’s voice. It seemed almost like a supernatural power to me, but it was actually the development of one of the senses that he depended on in his blindness. Immediately, I added that to the profile of Caruth, one of the protagonists in All the Broken Places. Caruth’s blindness is the major factor in how he relates to his own brother, and to Senti. Giving him the ability to judge people’s honesty enriches the story and may even change it in ways that I can’t anticipate yet.