Writing Excuses 10.2: I Have an Idea; What Do I Do Now?
Key Points: Taking an idea and expanding or developing it towards a story. Questions: What problems can that idea cause? Who will be hurt by it? What painful decisions does that idea create? How does it affect the extremes of society? What’s the black market? How can it be misused? Where is the conflict? How does it make people’s lives harder? How do people adapt to it? Next, which specific characters have a stake, and can do something about it? Who is at the crux of the problem, the center of the conflict? Consider what other ideas can be mixed or combined with this one. Do a brainstorming session, about what would happen if, what would happen next, how does that affect the person. For geewhiz devices, what would I do with this? And would I get caught? Wish fulfillment and the darker uses. Also, dig deeper. First ideas are often too obvious. Look for a problem you don’t know how to solve yet. Beware of overly complicated plans — Occam’s Razor applies to conflicts, too. Combine ideas, push for deeper, do your brainstorming! Idea development is a great place for brainstorming, write down every wacky thing you can think of. Extrapolate. Spend your energy on awesome ideas that you are excited about. Use what if, how, why, then start in the middle and work out, retrofitting and expanding to fill out the story. Use plot, setting, character to organize ideas and identify holes. Do thumbnail sketches of possible stories around an idea.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode Two.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, I have an idea. Now what?
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I did not screw up the intro.
[Brandon] Great. In case you missed our episode two weeks ago, we are in season 10 now. 10 seasons of this, and we decided that we would shake it up this year and start what we’re calling the Writing Excuses master class. For this entire year, we will have a topic for a given month and we will really try to drill down into that topic, with the goal of guiding you through writing a story this entire year.
[Howard] We cannot think of a better way to celebrate having done 10 years of this podcast. Since our first five seasons didn’t actually take five years, this is a little early.
[Brandon] So we’re going to… Last… Two weeks ago, we talked about generating ideas. Now we want to talk about taking one of those ideas and pushing it forward. Not actually writing it, it still is a preparation podcast, but how do you develop that idea, how do you expand it, how do you turn it into a story?
[Dan] We talked last week, or two weeks ago, a little bit about stories that suggest conflict. That is one of the places that I always start with this. Once I have an idea that I really love and I want to tell a story about it, what story do you tell? Well, what are the problems that that idea can cause? Who are the people that would be hurt by it? What are the painful decisions that that idea could create? Once you start drilling into those and figuring them out, then it presents all these wonderful conflicts.
[Mary] I start with a very similar set of questions, like… If I’m dealing with a geewhiz idea, whether it’s a piece of magic or a technology, I wonder, “How is that going to affect the poorest people in society? How is it going to affect the wealthiest? What’s the black market look like? How can it be misused?”
[Brandon] I would say that for me, this is a lot of what I do. Sometimes to new writers, it may not be obvious where the conflict is. You’ll see in my books that often I will have a setting idea, a world building idea. Oo, it would be cool if the world were covered in mist every night. I then go from that and say, “How does it make people’s lives harder? How have the people in the world had to adapt to this happening?” Very obvious in the world where I have a storm coming every couple of days that threatens to destroy society and everything has grown up around that idea. You can turn the simplest thing into conflict. It’s going to ruin somebody’s day, whatever you’re changing.
[Howard] The Flight Of the Runewright story that I did a couple of years ago for Space Eldritch. The genesis idea is what if bringing a book on an airplane actually would crash the airplane.
[Howard] What if the runes, what if when you close the book, the ink inside the book forms random symbols and that’s dangerous? From there, I ended up with a whole magic system and of course the conflict is well, we do have random runes on… We have a stowaway. We have instant conflict, and it did not go well for people.
[Brandon] So what’s the next step? What do you do when you’ve got this idea, you know there’s a conflict in it, where do you take it?
[Dan] I start looking at the characters. Not just what conflicts, but which specific characters would that hurt or help.
[Mary] For me, it’s the who would hurt or help, because what I’m looking for is someone who has a stake and who has agency.
[Brandon] Oh, good point. Yeah. Putting a character at the crux of the problem is usually the best way to begin. A lot of early writers, their stories I’ve read, they tend to put someone observing the conflict rather than someone at the very center of the conflict.
[Howard] I had…
[Dan] One of the great fantasy books that came out from Tor a couple years ago, I’m pretty sure it was called Spellwright, which was about a magic system based on reading, and the main character had dyslexia. He could not access the magic system fully because he could not read properly. Someone who has a stake in it, who wants to be able to do this, but there’s that core conflict. If your magic works this way, who’s that going to hurt? Someone who can’t read.
[Mary] He was literally misspelling.
[Mary] No no no, that’s…
[Dan] I know.
[Mary] I mean, it was a deliberate joke in the book, too. Blake Charlton. Good writer.
[Brandon] First thing that I will do when I got one of these ideas is I actually open up my notebook full of all the little ideas I’ve had. Most of these are good. But as we spoke about two weeks ago, some of them just don’t suggest a story themselves. So I write them down as something that was like half a seed, a beginning of a seed. I take this idea that I’m really excited about and I say, “Which of these ideas, when mixed with this one, brings me something new and something interesting?” I actually go line by line at each of these things, looking for anything cool enough to combine together.
[Mary] I do something very similar to that, which also involves opening a notebook or a computer screen and doing the combination, but I also do a brainstorming on paper so that I don’t lose track of the ideas and the sparks. I do that with a series of questions. So, the ones we’ve talked about already, but what would happen if… A lot of it for me is what would happen if, and how would that, what would happen next, how would that affect the person? So if I’ve got the two ideas, it’s like… Well, going back to my assassin and the orange again, which I promise not to use all year…
[Howard] Because that would be low hanging fruit.
[Mary] I should go… No, pineapple.
[Howard] As was that.
[Mary] Pineapple is actually a low hanging fruit, or low standing fruit, [garbled]
[Brandon] Yeah, it is.
[Mary] Okay. But. So how would… What if you did have someone who is trying to kill people within assass… With oranges? What if the orange season was not good? What if there was crop failure?
[Mary] What if…
[I love this class]
[Howard] One of the questions that I will ask myself, and it usually centers around when I’ve dreamt up some new geewhiz device is what would I do with this? And then, would I get caught?
[Howard] I mean, but this is… Honestly, if you look at comic books, I swear most golden age, Silver age comic books grew out of this idea of “Wow, if I had this superpower, what would I do?” We have decades of stories growing out of what might be wish fulfillment, what might be maybe something a little darker, a little deeper than that. But for me, that’s a great jumping off place.
[Dan] Well, once you do that, it’s also very helpful to look at the opposite. We had this come up in a writing class that I taught today. This guy had come up with this really fascinating kind of technology that allowed you to ride somebody else’s life and kind of see through their eyes. It became a reality show almost. That is an abs… That’s a use of that technology that would absolutely crop up. But look at the other end. Look at all of the porn films or snuff films that would arise, at the very, very dark end of that exact same technology. You start to get a sense of how round and how horrible this world could be.
[Brandon] I want to also mention something that Mary mentioned two weeks ago, which is the idea of dig deeper. Your first idea for a conflict around this story… If it’s the first idea you have, it may be the low hanging fruit. You might have this problem. It’s kind of a conflict for yourself, in that you want to design your story in such a way that your main character is put through trouble, put into problems, you want things to go wrong. But if the things that go wrong are too obvious, then your story might lack depth. It might lack impact because the expected thing happens immediately. In some ways, we call this… The foreshadowing is too obvious, it’s low hanging…
[Howard] [garbled — elementary? Telegraphing?]
[Dan] It’s too on the nose.
[Brandon] Too on the nose. You could run into that a lot.
[Dan] A good way to solve that problem is you come up with a problem that you can’t figure out how to solve yet. Because the first one you come up with, you might have a solution. Then, well, okay, let’s dig deeper. Oh, I know how to solve that one. When you come up with something you don’t know how to solve, then you know there’s a lot of meat there to play with.
[Mary] I should say that the more complicated the idea is, actually the less plausible it is. Like if you have a super villain who has a ridiculously complicated plan, that is less plausible than a simple idea. So the simple idea that you cannot solve is actually a bigger conflict than the… Like we had one in one of my classes. She needed to become an assassin in order to survive. I’m like, “Why didn’t she just get a job as a milliner?” Oh.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Howard] Okay. So we’re talking about ideas and ideas for stories. Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven. It’s the second book in the… It follows Bowl of Heaven. What I loved about this book, besides the fact that it was just awesome fun, is that at the end of the book, there were essays by Greg Benford and Larry Niven talking about their exploration of the idea of this giant solar-system-sized spaceship and what it would be like if instead of doing, like Niven did with Ringworld and having a fallen civilization, you have a civilization that has been thriving for millions of years. What would that look like? That was what they set out to explore. You can get this on Audible. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse will let you get it by starting a free membership and supporting the podcast. It’ll be narrated by Zach Villa. So, Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven.
[Brandon] Okay. So. What do we do? Let’s say our listeners, our students are sitting here saying, “Okay, that’s great. That’s what you guys do. I need a launching off point. Where do I go?” What advice do you have?
[Mary] Well, I’ll tell you that this is an exercise that I do, and I actually started doing it while Howard was giving the…
[Brandon] Oo. Is it for your ninja… Your orange ninja?
[Mary] So I was like, “Here are two ideas. Why doesn’t this person who’s trying to become an assassin just become a milliner?” Then, I’m like, “Oh, a milliner assassin!” So the first thing I did was, I just combined two ideas. Then I was like, “She kills with hat pins.” Then I went deeper. “Or artificial fruit. Oh, bana… Oranges. Or poisoned hats. How would she get a poisoned hat into someone and how would that avoid being traced?” So basically, what you’re seeing there is I’m sitting there going, “Oh, but this would be cooler. How much deeper can I go?”
[Brandon] This actually is the point in the process where brainstorming is generally the most useful. Brainstorming is not always that useful for idea generation. It can be. Idea development is where you want to sit down and just throw down every wacky thing you can think of. Force yourself to extrapolate and have a big document where you type every random idea that occurs to you that changing this one thing or having this one character or having this world would do.
[Dan] I wanted to point out… Talking about the difference between an assassin and a milliner. Go ahead and start with your most awesome idea. If you’re really excited about an assassin, don’t just drop it because it’s implausible. Brainstorm all the ways in which she could be forced into a life as an assassin. Spend your energy on that and work towards that awesome idea that has you excited.
[Mary] Yes. Absolutely.
[Brandon] One of the reasons that I wrote The Way of Kings is, there are lots of ideas that came together, but one was this idea of you look at fantasy art, people are often using exaggeratedly large weapons and armor that doesn’t make sense for what they’re fighting. I said I want to design a world where that weaponry makes sense. Where they had to have that technology to resist whatever they were fighting against. I retrofitted a conflict based on the fact that I wanted people to be swinging around seven foot swords.
[Dan] Outsize weapons and ridiculous armor.
[Mary] That’s something that I do a lot. When I talk about what if and how and why, that you start from the middle and you work out. I’ll do that retrofitting too. Where I figure out who my character… What my character’s backstory is based on who I need them to be in order to fill out the story. Which we’ll talk more about characters later, but this also works with the whole idea generation thing as you’re starting to flesh the idea out. This is the story you want to tell, what are the conditions that will deliver that story?
[Howard] One of the most valuable resources for me is my writing group. Now, this is a group of people that I trust. I can sit down with them and I can tell them, “Okay. This is my cool gem of an idea.” Maybe that gem is a reveal, maybe that gem is a cool technology. I’ll tell them, “Look, I’ve got the beginning of a story wrapped around it. But I’m just not sure what to do.” The group will start throwing ideas around. As we do that… Two heads are better than one. Some amazing things come out of that group. Then I go and write something completely different.
[Brandon] One of the first things that I do is, I sit down and I open up a new document. I write plot, setting, character. Which are the three things that I build a story out of. Then I write down all the ideas that I’ve had for various… Sometimes it will be empty in one of those realms. But fine, this is the preparation stage. This helps me identify where my holes are. Like, if I go to character, I know I’m going to want several characters. That’s the type of story I write. I want them to have a variety of life experiences. So if I thought of two characters who are very similar, stage in life, same gender, or same ethnicity, then I’m like, I may have a problem here in that there’s a hole. There’s something more I need to be doing here. This story’s going to be boring because the two characters are the same. Or it’ll help me to identify okay, I’ve got great character conflicts, I don’t have a setting yet. Where are my holes? Where am I going to have to brainstorm and where do I need to extrapolate?
[Dan] I find a similar thing when you’re looking at what kind of an idea you have. That can also suggest, at least for me, what kind of story it wants to be. If I am really excited about a character, if that’s what the idea is, then I think that could be a series. I could tell so many stories about this person because he or she is so interesting. Whereas if it’s a specific conflict or an event or a scene that gets me excited, then that might be a much shorter thing.
[Mary] Sometimes I’ll also do something that I call a thumbnail sketch, which is where… It’s similar to the idea, the exercise that we had them do in the first episode of the season. Where I write 150 word sketches of the possible stories around this idea. So it’ll be… They’re very rough. Like “Milliner-assassin is faced with trying to take down the king with a poisoned crown. Conflict and then she succeeds.” Then I’ll do another one. “Milliner-assassin is trying to feed her aged grandmother, but accidentally gives her the wrong hat.”
[Mary] “Chaos ensues. Happy ending.” I’m not… I know… I really do chaos ensues, happy ending. The happy ending is to tell me I want this story to build towards a happy ending. I don’t know what that end is yet.
[Brandon] This really helps you identify the promises you need to be making early in your book, based on the tone that you want to have… Your book to have. If I know I’m writing an adventure story, that will help me develop characters that will fit that, and a tone that will help that, as opposed to if I’m doing a quiet, introspective piece.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go to our writing exercise. Now, two weeks ago, we gave you an assignment that helped you generate five ideas. You may use those. We hope that you have been doing this and you follow along. If you haven’t, you’ll just need to find five ideas on your own, generated through the favorite way that you like to generate ideas. Go to your book of ideas. We want you to take them and do this to them. Take two of the ideas and combine them into one story. Take another one of the ideas and change the genre. A genre swap is a great way to help yourself really kickstart a story, where you take something you were planning to be science fiction and try to tell the same story in a fantasy story. Or take something that was supposed to be a contemporary novel about dating and then make it a Western. Take another of your ideas, and we want you to take the ages and genders of the characters that you had sketched out and swap them around. Change the ages and genders of everybody in the story and see what it does to your story. With the last one, we want you to pick an idea where a choice was made and have a character make the opposite choice in this story and see where it would send you. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.