When I’m perusing Half Price Books and spot a book with an amazing cover and jacket text to match, I often find myself muttering the title phrase of this post – half out of rage, and half out of sheer awe. How did I not think of this? Oh, right, because I’m not as brilliant as the author who conceived of it, actually wrote it, and then got it published.
I say this despite having done this very thing. That’s because, it turns out, I approach every new idea with the same trepidation and terror I had with that first idea I successfully carried to completion. I’ve been writing for 25 years now, people, and I still get blocked in a major way.
And then there’s that feeling of despair that I experience when I’ve just read a marvelous book: How will I ever create something like this?!
If you, too, get this post-book angst, I’m writing this to intervene with your inner desperation. You can get an idea just like your new favorite one. It’s possible. I promise. It’s hard work, just like everything else in writing, but it’s very much a thing you can do.
Now that I’ve made that bold claim, I guess I’d better break down how I do it, huh? Disclaimer: This might not work for you, but the point of writing about writing is getting out something that works for me, just in case it could work for you too.
I start by picking a focus, because the glorious problem with ideas is that they proliferate like mice as soon as you get two in the same room. So instead of starting a giant list of all my favorite everythings, I pick a single one that I’d really like to emulate right now, given my mindset and capacity. Then I answer all subsequent questions with that one favorite in mind. Otherwise, I’d end up in the same bottomless ocean of potential concepts I usually do, unable to pick the one that’s clearly better than the rest.
So you’ve picked an idea you’d like to emulate. After that, it’s time to make lists. And freewrite. Lots of lists, and lots of freewriting. Fair warning: that’s basically what the rest of this post is, so feel free to skip around between lists and illustrative paragraphs to find what inspires you to write right now.
Find the essence
This exercise is very subjective, but very, very important. You had this feeling of wanting an idea “like that” for a reason; the point of this exercise is to get at that reason.
You can choose how you’d like to go about this process: by making a list, free-associating, word-bubbling, freewriting… Whatever helps you write down what it is you love about the idea.
There isn’t a magical, pre-determined list of things that make an idea awesome or captivating or haunting. For example, if you ask me what I loved so damn much as a kid about The Last Battle, I’d start with the line that Jewel the unicorn cries out to his companions as they joyfully wend their way through the afterlife: “Come further up, come further in!” It captures the soul of the story in six simple words.
On the other hand, ask me why I adore Watership Down and regularly re-read it to this day, and I’m immediately put in mind of a character moment: Hazel, weighing up the flaws of a possible ally and deciding that kindness is more useful than criticism, tells Bigwig, “Good. We shall be glad to have you.” It’s Hazel who makes his story what it is for me, and if I were trying to emulate Adams’ novel, I’d likely begin with “an endangered family of creatures” and “a tenacious, reluctant leader as the protagonist.”
To keep things focused, as I’ve advised, I suggest that you make a list of no fewer than three things and no more than ten things that make the story what it is to you. Then go back and circle the ones it wouldn’t be the same without. I’ll call this the Love List.
This is what you’re going to start with to make your own amazing idea.
Gather the elements
Every story has certain components or elements, whether they’re explicitly acknowledged or utilized or not. These lists of exercises can help you understand the mechanics of getting to an idea “like that” by breaking the idea down into parts you can understand and change.
Start by creating an Element List that covers each of the following elements for your favorite idea, preferably in no more than 10-12 words at the most:
- Point of view
This might feel like a book report, or just gushing to a friend about something you enjoy, but that’s exactly the point. Enjoy it! Then you can move on to fleshing out more details about your favorite idea.
You may find you draw from your Love List to populate the Element List. That’s a good sign.
Characters are the lifeblood of a story, without whom a plot is just a timeline. Chances are good that even if you weren’t too keen on a story’s main character, the supporting cast at least stood out to you. Here’s your chance to find out why.
Before you get started, though, which characters in your favorite work would you gladly (or at least curiously) read some fan-fiction about? Those are the ones you should focus on for the other exercises.
- List your favorite lines of dialog from these favorite characters. Try to limit yourself to the quotes that perfectly capture their personality and attitude.
- Write down the physical and personality details about your favorite characters that make your heart squeeze when you think about them — the reasons you love them so.
- What makes your favorite characters unique? Is it the contrast of their occupation (a thief) with their personality (a heart of gold)? Is it the way they don’t fit with their setting (a pot-healer in a synthetic future)? Capture these oddities.
- What are your favorite characters’ secrets and inner wounds? List as many as you can remember.
What struggle does the protagonist face in the story you’re choosing as your inspiration? That’s the “problem” — also known as the conflict, or the central challenge. It lies at the heart of the story, and the protagonist’s (nearly) every move should be an attempt to solve this problem.
This problem is likely something simple and human at its core: love, family, home, safety, survival… Nearly all of us face these problems in our own lives, to some degree. It’s the specific mix of character, context, and setting that make the problem come to life.
- What are the obstacles that stand between the protagonist and solving the problem in the story you’re using for inspiration? List them out one by one.
- What one word or phrase (no more than five words) can you use to describe the problem (see the above list for inspiration)?
- Go through the jacket text for the story you chose, and highlight the specific vocabulary words and phrases that refer to the protagonist’s core problem.
The where and the when of a story can inject personality in a way that nothing else can, not even perfect characters. Choosing a time and place that provides ample vocabulary and circumstance to flavor a story is a masterful art many skillful authors practice. Perhaps it’s the setting of your favorite story that makes it sing…
- Describe the when and where of your favorite story in the simplest terms possible: “19th century England,” “a far-off planet in 2000 years,” “10 years ago in a city like mine.”
- What are some of the unique features of the world that set your favorite work apart, even from other works in a similar setting? Jot these down.
- How does the setting of your favorite story manifest in the narration? Come up with 4-5 examples.
A plot is a formula: character + problem + setting + time = plot. It’s what happens to who, because of where and when it’s set. Not all stories about naïve protagonists, set in space an ambiguously “long time ago,” will be Star Wars, in large part because of who those protagonists are and what happens to them. Think of the plot as the window through which you will see the characters: how long the audience is with them, and for what key events in their lives.
- What plot twists do you find particularly satisfying in your favorite story? Spoilers are welcome for this exercise.
- Which parts of the plot of your favorite story feel inevitable, but not cliche? Describe them in 3-5 words.
- What is the cheesiest moment of the plot of your favorite work? How about the most dramatic? Where do these fall in the timeline of the story?
Devices are storytelling vehicles. They run in all shapes and sizes, from “one-syllable words only” to “Hans Christian Anderson-style fairy tale” to “the narrator watches the events unfold from a security room, so sometimes the story occurs concurrently.”
A good writer uses the device to squeeze the most emotional tribute out of their audience as possible. A fairy tale, for example, might set up the expectation of some sort of “happily ever after,” and if you choose this device, you can throw more and more seemingly impossible obstacles in the way and readers will still buy that things turn out alright.
- What scenes or plot points does the device enable in your favorite story? (In other words, which would not be possible if the story had been told in another manner?)
- Can you think of stories that are similar to the one you’ve chosen, but that use different devices? You may have to think hard on this one – a good device can disguise many elements.
- Make a list of 10 or more devices you enjoy (from different stories). When you’re done with the list, go back through and circle any recurring themes.
OK, here’s a little secret: titles don’t really matter. Whoops! That’s going to get quoted out of context. Look, it’s not that titles don’t matter. It’s that you, the author, the person who’s closest to this work and its most fiercest defender, are probably not the right person to come up with a title that will matter. And when I say “matter,” I mean in selling your idea, in convincing a potential buyer to shell out some hard-earned money for it. Leave that to the marketers and publishers in your life; they’ll help you cross that bridge when you come to it.
But the right title sticks with you, and so if you’re inspired by the title of your favorite work – if you feel it’s so integral to that work’s meaning, it wouldn’t be the same without it – here are a few questions to ask yourself.
- What are some other possible titles that your favorite work may have been given? Brainstorm 8-10 options based on pithy quotes, character names or roles, dramatic events, cultural references, or whatever else was memorable material. How would these alternate titles change your perception of the story?
- What is the cadence of the title? One syllable, or eight? Is it simple or full of complex meaning (or both)? Come up with some titles that “feel” similar, but are meant for entirely different works.
Point of view
A story’s point of view indicates both the perspective used (first-, second-, or third-person), as well as which character(s) the audience is privy to. Third-person limited point of view, for example, means that a character is not narrating the story themselves, but the audience will witness only that one character’s thoughts.
Genre and content can dictate point of view, but you should feel free to experiment on this element.
- How does the point of view chosen for your favorite work help the storytelling? Does it keep the audience in suspense like the character, or does it give the audience a breath-stealing view into what will happen before the character is ever aware?
- As a reader, you’re led along by the chosen perspective of a work. How does that of your favorite story help you better understand – or intentionally misunderstand – the protagonist?
Ahh, the buzzword of my industry. I purposefully chose to use “voice” here because it’s ambiguous. It means the writer’s own tone and word choice – and, by proxy, that of the protagonist – but it also means the characters’ dialog, the way they speak and what the writer allows them to say.
- Go back through your favorite work and jot down 8-10 favorite lines. If these are dialog, even better.
- Describe the style of your favorite work’s author in a few paragraphs. Pretend you’re writing a book report focused solely on the stylistic choices they made.
Put your spin on it
Ahh, 50 Shades of Grey. What a crazy thing! Someone took an extremely popular idea they loved that happened to inspire them, broke it down into its elements, changed just enough of those elements, and spawned another hit franchise in doing so.
Guess what? There’s an actual legal definition of “just enough.” It’s 20%. Twenty percent of your work has to be materially different from the original, and then it’s legally not the same idea. It’s derivative, sure, and maybe not every writer would be proud of themselves for walking as close to that 20% line as E.L. James did. But then again, she’s making bank, and I think artists should be proud of themselves for making something that people like enough to pay money for it. (I digress. That’s a topic for another time.)
So here are some ways you can put your own spin on your favorite idea. The thing is, even if you “only” change 20% of the elements you’ve been listing in the above exercises, your work will still be something unique born of your own voice, experience, and sense of wonder. Don’t worry too much about how far you’ve pushed the envelope. That can come at the revision stage, when an editor or sharp alpha reader can help you bolster the things that are unique about your work and downplay the things that aren’t.
Three degrees of separation
This is a pretty straightforward exercise. Take the Element List you created for your favorite idea, choose three of the elements, and change them. (Or use some of the material you generated in the more specific exercises.)
Now start exploring how these new elements affect the others. How would the characters act differently in another time period? What plot points would become irrelevant if the setting changed? How does the narrative change if you remove the device altogether?
Use this list for inspiration:
- Make the story about a different character.
- Give the protagonist a different problem.
- Give the same problem to a different protagonist.
- Put the same story in a different setting.
- Put a different story in the same setting.
- Tell the same story from the point of view of a different character.
- Using the same point of view, tell the story of a different character.
- Tell a different story about the same character.
- Use the same device on a different story.
- Frame the same story with a different device.
- Throw in an unexpected twist to the plot.
- Take the plot and set it in another time.
- Give the story a different title.
- Come up with another story that could share the same title.
- Change the voice to tell the same story.
- Try to emulate the same voice, but for a different story.
The final touches
By this point, you probably have something that you’re pretty excited about starting in on. Hold up, one last thing! Just to bring this whooole exercise full-circle, make a Love List for your new idea.
Of course, you don’t know yet what your future story won’t be the same without, or what your audience will savor forever about your story. But hopefully your writerly heart is beating a little faster and your word-ful blood is pumping a little harder, and you already kind of know what it is that makes you want to do all of the hard work of dragging an idea out of your imagination and into the world.
Whenever you falter, whenever you start to question why you bother, pull out the Love List for your idea – and remember why you once told yourself, “I want an idea like that!”