February 2, 2018

Don’t Talk to Me About Ideas

by Ryan

Where do you get your ideas for stories? Do they come in the mail along with other assorted junk destined for landfills? Or maybe the muse's breath tickles the fine hairs on your neck with whispered inspiration? I've heard that some ideas are inhaled on the misty vapors of a hot shower. A man I knew in New York swore that he got his best ideas while eating big, crisp, dill pickles as long as his hand.

Don't Go Hunting for Ideas—Target Characters Instead

Ideas don't matter. An idea isn't a story. Here's an idea:

An asteroid hits the Earth.

It's happened before and it will happen again. Arthur C. Clarke used it in the opening of his classic book Rendezvous With Rama. Other writers have created numerous other tales about impact events in books and movies. It's an old, well-used idea. Does that mean you can't use it? Of course not!

Just decide who you want to write about because it's their story that matters.

Compare Seeking a Friend for the End of the World with Armageddon. Very different takes on the idea because the characters are different! The story emerges from the character.

Pick on Your Characters—It's Your Job

Characters exist somewhere, in a place. And they exist in some sort of situation. They have a life that exists before the first page of your story. That situation or problem may not (probably isn't) the main problem of the story. It could be related. Unfortunately for your character, things are about to get much worse. Almost as if there is someone deliberately making things hard for them. Oh, wait, there is! We don't read stories about characters where everything goes terrifically well all the time for the character. Things get worse for the character. They try to solve one problem and fail. That ‘try-fail' cycle repeats. Each time they do their best but things keep getting worse until they either succeed or fail for the last time.

Damon Knight describes the Quadrangle: Character, Setting, Situation, and Emotion in his book Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction.

Story Quadrangle described by Damon Knight

I like this visualization of the concept. It neatly captures the character, situation, setting and adds an important factor—emotion into the mix. He explores each of these factors (and much more) in his book. It's well worth reading!

Where do you get your ideas?

What do you turn to for ideas? Do you agree that ideas don't matter? Let me know in the comments!

Help Ryan write full time by supporting him on Patreon!


Ryan M. Williams lives a double life as a full-time career librarian and a multi-genre writer with over twenty books. He writes across a range of genres including science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, mystery, horror, and romance. He earned a Master of Arts degree in writing popular fiction from Seton Hill University and a Master of Library and Information Science from San Jose University. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from Pocket Books, WMG Publishing, and in On Spec Magazine.

Ryan M. Williams

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