Thursday, May 10, 2012

Anatomy of a Story Idea

First, before I go into the guts of this blog post, I wanted to let you know there's a new sample of my writing out in the Interverse. It's an entry for a contest on Gennifer Albin's blog. For those interested in the contest, post a caption of 150 words or less based on the image she has up on her site (one image and one entry per day during this week) and receive a chance to win a query critique with Mollie Glick of Foundry Literary. Plus, you can find out about Gennifer and her new book, Crewel. I'm probably not doing her enough justice, so check out the contest and her good news on her blog:

My entry is in the comments section for the first day's blog entry:

Go check out the picture and my piece I wrote on it, then come right back. I'll wait.

Finished? Good. Now, on to the subject of where story ideas come from.

As I banged out my entry to the above contest, I was suddenly awed by the whole process of it. Where DID this thing I created come from? Personally, I feel certain elements come from… somewhere else.  Without getting too philosophical. However, in the midst of those little nuggets that don't seem to have a source are some that do have a certain logic to them and follow one from another.

To illustrate what I mean, let me bring you through the process I went through to create the piece for the contest mentioned above.

1)      Stared at the picture for what seemed like a LONG time. When a writer is struggling to find words, a few seconds can seem like a long time.

2)      First, I decided the two characters in the picture needed names. I don't know why, but Nadia popped into my head immediately for the girl's name (again, here is one of those little nuggets that seem to come from outside my brain). I next had to decide what the creature was with Nadia. A wolf immediately sprang to mind, but not just any wolf. This was Nadia's friend, and thus needed a name. Bane popped into my head first, but I rejected it as too obvious, so I played around with it a bit until I came up with the name Bens.

3)      Next, I wanted to figure out what the rest of the scene represented and make use of every visual element. I decided that all structures in the image were buildings. The ones with crosses on them were churches. That just left three other structures: the one with the spires, the one with the crescent moon on its top, and the one whose balcony you can see on the left hand side. Nothing immediately sprang to mind, so I left those alone for a bit.

4)      The idea popped into my head that Bens was once human but was now a wolf through some kind of powerful magic. Nadia had to try to change him back, but how? She was taking him somewhere. Where? To the House of the Crescent Moon. Why? Someone there would help him.

5)      I had to raise the stakes for her. How? She had to sneak him there, at night, so she wouldn't get caught. By whom?

6)      I suddenly had a glimpse of the world Nadia lived in. Men and women worshipped differently. Women went to the churches run by the High Priestesses. Men worshipped at the House of the Crescent Moon, led by Master Henrique.  Both houses believed in magic and a Governor who ruled over all. The High Priestesses believed in a more natural, passive magic, a magic more in harmony with the earth. The Master practiced a more active form of magic and used the Governor's power to force change in the world.

7)      I raised the stakes more for Nadia. She wasn't allowed to set foot in the House of the Crescent Moon. Why? She would be outcast from the houses of worship run by the High Priestesses. They would prevent her from even entering the House of the Crescent Moon, to protect her. I need to raise the stakes even more. If she were to set foot in the House of the Crescent Moon, she would be destroyed. How? Why? Don't really know, but just this fact seemed to fit the small piece I was writing, and details weren't necessary.

8)      Finally, Nadia made a decision to lay down her own life to restore her friend to his former self.

9)      Once I was done with this chain of thoughts, the ideas simply needed to be written down in a nice, narrative format. How I chose the voice, language, etc. for this piece, I'm not entirely sure. It just came out that way, more or less, even before editing.

So there you have it. I don't know if this necessarily answers the question "Where do story ideas come from?", but maybe the process I went through above will shed some light on the subject. There seems to be some combination of "moments of awe", where ideas just beam in from somewhere else, and those ideas that come from asking the questions "Who?" "What?" "When?" "Where?" "Why?" "How?"

So where do YOUR ideas come from? What process do YOU go through to bring them to light? Please feel free to share in the comments section.


  1. Well George,

    I guess my approach to writing would best be described as an massive rush of intense scribbling. At least when it comes to picture prompts. After staring at the picture for those seconds that feel like forever, all of a sudden I'll get an idea of the action I want to take place and it all comes out in a flood. Then I go back into the story after I get it all out on screen and add descriptive details, craft complete sentences, and look for unresolved issues.

    1. Thanks to both of you for sharing your process. I find it helpful to see how organized brains work.

    2. I don't know if I'd call it ORGANIZED, but that's how it works anyway, lol. I learn to just go with it.