Writing Excuses: Generating Story Ideas

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the first part of WritingExcuses podcast Season 1, episode 2. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section). There are so many comments to make on this episode that I decided to split it into two blog posts.

Writing Excuses suggest:

  • When coming up with a story blend an ordinary idea (that people can relate to) with an extraordinary idea (something new). Screenwriter Terry Rozier calls this a “strange attractor“.
  • Be aware that the “trendy” ideas that are originally extraordinary become ordinary or cliché when over used. e.g. vampires. It was extraordinary in “Buffy” but now has been so overdone that someone really does need to stake the idea entirely.
    • You can however take an overused idea, and spin it differently by turning the idea completely on its head.
  • How much “ordinary” and “extraordinary” readers want depends on the genre and the modern-trend of the genre.
  • Ask yourself the hard question (and consider it deeply): Is this new or has it been done before?
  • Genius isn’t often about coming up with something new, but combining two existing things together in a way that no one has done before.

I don’t think you have to have the blend of ordinary and extraordinary. If you can, that will make a good book, but you can have a good book by re-telling essentially the same story. Dirk Pitt anyone? In the defence of the Writing Excuses crew they gave a nod to this with the idea of reader expectations. e.g. romances are all the same, just with different character names.

Fiona McIntosh says about generating story ideas:

There’s always a trigger. We may have read an article or seen a documentary. Something has caught out attention on the internet, or someone has told us an anecdote or recounted a particular experience. Sometimes the spark comes from our own lives but more often than not the seed of a story is given to us by an outside source. We water it and nourish it and look after it and that seed grows and flourishes into a full-blown tale because we’ve added our imagination and our life experiences to it. It may even be a series of ideas blending and working together. Essentially stories for novels are drawn from everyday life.

That’s not helping you, is it? Much too vague, right? Sigh. I know. I warned you, we don’t really know.

Update: In fairness to Fiona McIntosh I later read further and she goes on and describes how she came up with ideas for her books, in much the same way as I did below.

For what it is worth, I get my inspiration from many different places. It can be something I have been thinking about, something I witnessed or simply a story based on a desire to experiment with the writing craft.

  • I first began my novel Vengeance Will Come when I was about sixteen and under the influence of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and the Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins. Honestly it’s evolved favourably since then because it was pretty terrible at its birth. The story theme is as old as the first hell-fire sermon: a great apocalypse is coming. Being the first in the series it is an origin story for some of the characters and plots. There is nothing particularly new in it’s themes: brooding war, political wrangling and personal struggles are all well worn themes even when set on the broad canvas of the universe. It’s a fairly standard sci-fi fantasy mix.

If you haven’t read my novelette Escape from Hell or my short stories then I suggest you do, or stop reading now.  There is about to be spoilers.

  • My novelette Escape from Hell came from dreams and thoughts of what heaven and hell could be like. It was also partly inspired by the Bible, Heaven is For Real and Saved by the Light (which I didn’t finish).
  • The short story The Captive was born because I wanted to practice the writing technique of a “reveal”. To do this, I needed a surprise, and in the same week I began thinking about what it must be like to live with dementia or another medical issue which distorts reality.
  • The short story Alone was a follow up story (from The Captive) was written as a challenge to myself to write a parallel story that was limited and yet still emotive.

I have a dozen ideas of varying themes and genres that I am looking forward to writing, once I get Vengeance Will Come finished.

If you’re so inclined, tell me how you come up with your story ideas…

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