Lawrence Block once commented in one of his articles on writing–and I’m paraphrasing here–that the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” is misleading; it implies the writer is struck by an idea for a story, and from there everything is golden.
He’s right–the process of writing is an endless generation of ideas, one after the other. Character development, plotting, backstory–all of them are nothing but the writer asking themselves questions and then dreaming up the answers, one after another, until the story is finished.
So, here you are, and you want to write a story. But you’re sitting there with a blank page and nothing particular coming to mind to put on it. Now what?
If you’re like most writers, you have a glimmer of an idea. Maybe not a full-fledged story–not yet–but maybe a character, or a compelling conflict, or a bit of engaging business you want to use, or just a general thought of “I’d like to tell a story about this.”
First, we need to abandon the notion that the blank page–or empty Word document–in front of us at this moment is our story. We’re going to do some work on this idea first. This is the part of the writing process that to me is most like magic–starting with nothing and stringing stuff out of your head onto the page until you have a solid story.
Next, we need to abandon the notion that there are any “wrong” or “bad” answers. As you work up ideas, you’ll be making up answers to your own questions. Some answers you’ll like better than others. Some answers will make you want to keep looking for a different answer 🙂 That is fine. This is your story, the only one who decides what the right answers are is you. The right answer is the one that leads to a story that you want to tell.
Let’s say I have in mind a particular image. It’s not a whole story, but it’s compelling and I would like to turn it into a story. I am imagining a woman, standing in front of her dresser, pointing a revolver at her reflection in the mirror.
This is my spark; the thing that’s making me want to write. Your spark could be anything. The process is always the same. At the top of this blank sheet of paper, I am going to write out my spark.
Spark: a woman, standing in front of her dresser, pointing a revolver at her reflection in the mirror.
There are lots of questions I could ask here to start fleshing this idea out. The old saws we learned in journalism class serve well: Who? What? Where? When? How?
But the King of all questions is Why? If you only get to ask one question, make it Why. Why? is the question that will get you to the heart of things faster than any other. I could ask Who and do a detailed character sketch of the woman with the revolver. I could ask Where and go into great detail about the bedroom she’s in, or What and discuss the revolver.
But the first question I’m going to ask is Why?
Question: why is she pointing a gun at her own reflection?
This is where I start just making things up. You’ve got to turn off your internal critic, the one who’ll happily inform you that all of your ideas stink. Frankly, you aren’t looking for your internal critic’s opinion here.
You are looking for your own. You are going to start making up answers, throwing them out there. How will you know you have a good one? You’ll feel it. You’ll get shivers, or goosebumps, or you’ll just stare at your writing on the page and say “Wow.”
Answers: People usually point guns at things because they are afraid of them. Or they want to eat them.
Is she afraid of her own reflection? Maybe. Maybe she is insane, and we’re demonstrating it here, with a gun in the dressing room mirror.
Or maybe her reflection really is dangerous.
That–that right there. That is when I felt like I was onto something–something interesting, something scary–something I would want to write. I’m on the right track there.
Given the same question, the answer that you react to may be different. That’s fine–your story should be yours.
So I’ve got my first answer that I really like. All of that other stuff above it is just harmless chatter. When I’m done here, I can copy out the useful bits onto a clean sheet of paper so that all I have left is the good stuff.
What do I do now?
Of course! I ask:
Question: Why is her reflection dangerous?
And I start making up answers until one clicks with me. And then I look at that answer, and see what questions it prompts. And at some point farther on down the page, I’m going to feel like I have enough material to start writing, so I will. When I reach a point in the narrative where I feel like I need to know more to continue, I will come back to this paper and ask some more questions.
It’s perfectly possible to carry this idea out to something a story could be written from. I may do that, if it would be helpful. But if you’re struggling with ideas and are interested in the process, it would probably be even more helpful to give it a go yourself.
I’d love to see what you come up with. I’m sure it will be awesome.