On Inspiration

Hopefully I’ll be able to steer away from preachy on this one, but I don’t really get uppity enough about it for this to be a rantypants one.
A-rambling we go, then.

I’ve been having a few conversations recently with people about story ideas. I’ve got a whole bunch of friends doing NaNoWriMo this year (myself included – stay tuned for insane burblings of a sleep-deprived maniac, if the horror stories are to be believed).  And because I’m probably a little too enthusiastic about my friends’ writing plans, many brainstorming sessions have been had.  So, naturally, developing “story idea” or “plot bunny” into full-fledged plot has been on my mind a bit.

This is a pretty big topic, so I’m probably not going to cover all of it in one blog post. Instead, I’m just going to be talking about inspiration – getting from “I want to write a story” to “this is the story I want to write”.  This is going to be me working through the process a bit myself.  I let ideas stew long enough that they attach to other ideas and form full stories on their own, so my process is a bit of a mystery to me, too.

But in the interests of science, here we go.

I’ve noticed that one of the most common ways for a story to come to someone (I get a whole heap of these, personally) is to get a few different story elements – perhaps “I want it to be a science fiction novel, and I want there to be FTL travel throughout the galaxy, but not outside it, and I want there to be genetically modified humans.”  Sometimes, it comes in the form of a character: “I want to write about a woman who has been cast out of her home country and has renamed herself in order to reinvent herself.”  Or “I want to write about a society that lives underground because of a cataclysm”.

This sort of thing is a lot more difficult to build from than “I want to write a story about a young man who wants to learn to build and fly a plane”.  From there, you can add obstacles, infer the personality of the young man, you know it’s a setting where planes exist.  Although it’s no more detailed than any of the other ideas mentioned, it has one advantage: The central conflict is basically there already – you have character motivation, and from motivation comes conflict.  With the others, though?  The story about the young woman gives a couple of pointers, but not nearly so solid a direction.  And the setting prompts?  Yeah, they’re going to be the hardest.

The same thing applies to “theme” prompts.  “I want to write a book about the responsibilities of government”.  Or even more vague: “I’d like to write a book about how different people deal with conflict”.  I mean … where do you go from there?

(I expect some people do indeed go from that, and if you are one of those folk, please comment!  I’d love to hear about other people’s processes)

So, for me, the most important thing is to have at least some indication of where the conflict is coming from, whether that’s something as significant as “he wants to build and fly a plane, but the only group in this particular society who builds and flies planes is the military, and he’s a pacifist”, or something as simple as “The woman was kicked out of her society and renamed herself, but she left a husband and children behind”.

So, for themes and setting, I’d almost go as far as to say find a conflict that interests you, and then attach the theme and setting to the conflict, rather than trying to build conflict around a vague, one-sentence description.

The other thing that has happened occasionally for me and more often for some of my friends (for the setting question at least) is that taking the setting and worldbuilding it, until you find a spot where conflict could occur, then put people in the conflict hole.

I’ve not yet worked out how to go from theme to conflict, though.  Any comments on that appreciated.

And that’s how I generally go from inspiration to story premise.  Input in the comments greatly welcomed and appreciated!  Give me and the other comments-dwelling folk some more tools for our writing toolkits.

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