Ideas are weird things.
First, there’s the question of where they come from. People ask artists all the time how they come up with the stuff they come up with, and by and large, the answer is just an eloquent version of “Darned if I know.” You can’t go to the idea store and pick something out. You just have to hope something comes to you and that you see it for what it is when it does.
Then there’s the question of what you do once you get an idea. It feels like you’re dealing with something so impossibly fragile. You have a fragment of a thing – a character, a setting, an opening line – and you’re worried that if you start to write it down, you’ll break it. You’re afraid you’ll find it was never that interesting to begin with, or that it makes no sense when you start to think about it. But eventually you start picking at the edges, maybe by asking yourself questions, or by jotting down things you’d like to try, or by talking it out with a trusted friend.
And, slowly, your fragment of an idea starts to grow. The dark corners get a little brighter.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King compares the process of coming up with a story to digging up a fossil. He’s not so much creating this thing as he’s discovering it. He’s chipping away at everything in his way until he can perfectly see this artifact and show it off to someone else. I’m not sure writing is quite that mystical. We physically type these things up, or we scratch them out by hand, or we dictate them, and that means we can do whatever the heck we want. JK Rowling could’ve had Harry Potter transform into a giant space eel and cast Voldemort into an alternate dimension where he’d be someone else’s problem. It’s her story, after all. Those are real words she could’ve typed and tried to get past her publisher.
And yet, the whole thing would’ve felt wrong.
To a smaller degree, I feel that in my own writing. Sometimes I want a character to say something or to make a decision, but I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s just text on a page (or pixels on a screen, in my case) but it feels wrong. The motivation is off, or the timing is rushed, or something just doesn’t fit right. Maybe that’s what Stephen King was getting after. The better your storytelling instincts get, the more you get a feel for what does and doesn’t work. You aren’t discovering a story that’s eternally existed in a weird collective consciousness. You’re discovering the story your instincts will allow you to tell.
I’m in the middle of developing an idea right now. As I get ready to put the finishing touches on the last book of The Marian Trilogy, I’m trying to get the plot laid out for my next project. It kind of feels like a game of Jenga. I’m swapping around characters and events, seeing what fits where, all the while hoping I haven’t distorted things so much it’s all going to fall apart once someone breathes on it.
But I guess that’s the fun of storytelling. You put all this work into fleshing out something that started so small (in this case, a two-word request from my wife), and then it grows until you’re staring at a book, or a short story, or a trilogy, or whatever…and then other people read it, and – hopefully – some of them like it.
Creatives – How do you develop your ideas once you’ve gotten them?