Look at the websites of five to ten authors, and you’ll find most include in their FAQ the question “where do you get your ideas?”
Sadly, for both fans and aspiring writers alike, more often than not the answer is a rather unsatisfying generalization about getting ideas from anywhere or a vague “they just come to me.”
I don’t believe that writers intend to answer this question with a platitude but rather that a lot of writers are self-conscious about explaining where their ideas come from, or perhaps not always aware of what triggers their mind to start worrying at a potential plotline. Based on personal experience trying to explain myself to skeptical friends/family members, I would suggest that intentional coyness appears when a writer finds the conception of a story to be a rather unglamorous process. For me it’s sort of haphazard, and it’s not always easy to discern where the moment of “what if” curiosity becomes the moment of “that’s it” inspiration. Worse, if you know you’re explaining this ephemeral process to someone who’s never done it, then you think it’s going to sound really flighty and underwhelming and not at all like you know what the hell you’re doing.
At least, that’s the feeling I get when I try to explain it to someone who’s not also a writer.
I’m convinced the reason writers all like to talk about writing so much is because we’re trying to reassure ourselves that we’re doing it “right,” or at least not terribly wrong, and finding even one other person whose approach is the same validates that. Therefore, I decided to take the opportunity to bare it all and explain where my ideas come from.
In a word: they come from my curiosity.
I will find myself reading or listening a song, and there will be some scenario presented that makes me curious. A side character or a lyric or a piece of dialogue, or, let’s be honest, sometimes even the main plotline, that makes me want to know more. I’ll wonder how such circumstances came about, or what could bring someone to such a state, or what could happen instead if I hate the way the author played his or her plot cards. I start to offer myself hypothetical answers. Sometimes those answers lead to more questions along that particular hypothetical storyline, which lead to more answers. After a few rounds, I realize there’s the rough outline of a story there…hypothetically.
That’s when the real work begins—fleshing out the characters, poking at the events to make sure they’re neither illogical nor inconceivable, and deciding whether this story and these characters are, in fact, engaging enough to bother writing down.
As an example, I was listening to a very abbreviated summary of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and it made me ponder how a mistaken identity storyline could work, where the chain is also a giant love…rhombus. I didn’t want to just riff Shakespeare’s plot (though goodness knows the Bard would applaud the gesture), so I had to think through to a story from the basic idea of “mistaken identity shows a pair of lovers their true loves.” It went something like this:
Who could be mistaken for each other? Twins!
Why would they be mistaken for each other? If one pretends to be the other!
Why would she do that? Because she’s in love with one of her sister’s suitors and wants to get his attention! (Well, I am a romance writer.)
Wouldn’t the sister care? Not if she’s in love with someone else….
Okay, but who? Anyone! Who cares!
BORING! Okay, then, the guy HER sister is supposed to marry!
Ooh, parallelism AND drama! Exactly.
I’m going to curtail the discussion here because this was the point where I realized that yes, this was a story I wanted to write.
In the background to each of the questions I answered was a quick (or not-so-quick) run-through of the options.
Who really does look like each other? An easy answer: siblings and doppelgangers. Which is more realistic to have appearing in the same place at the same time? Siblings. Even more realistic to be mistaken for one another than basic siblings? Identical twins.
Why would someone mistake one twin for the other? Another fairly easy answer. If someone calls out, “Oh, hello, Fred” when it’s George, most of the time George is going to correct it, “I’m George.” Problem solved. Thus you must have a situation in which one twin pretends to be the other, either by design or by failing to correct the mistake when it happens.
Having established a pair of twins, one of whom willfully impersonates the other, the next question to answer is why one impersonates the other. Add in the fact that I write romances, and the obvious answer is love (or at least infatuation)—perhaps a secret love for someone who likes the twin or for someone who dislikes one twin but not the other.
And so on.
This is how I form my stories, this highly conscious process of deconstruction and exploration. I will encounter a scenario that makes me want to know the story that led up to that point, or where the story could go from there, and I start asking questions until I have unraveled the mystery.
Until each question along the line is answered, all the possible answers are options; the story is still nebulous, malleable. Sometimes I’ll answer a question one way, get a little bit down that hypothetical road, and realize it’s not working. Then I go back to an earlier question and answer a different way, and follow that new line of possibility. If you keep making choices and paring away other possibilities, eventually you are left with one story that seems so perfectly itself you can’t imagine any other story being told in its place.
But there was a time when all the story was were the words “What if” whispering through my mind.
Oh, yes, there was a time….