Interrogating an Idea into a Story

Sure, writers’ block is real. It just isn’t an excuse for not writing.

Here’s the thing. I’m busy. I have a day job. I have a social life. I have a lot of things calling for my attention at any given time, so I have to schedule time to write. When writing time comes, I need to be productive (with or without inspiration). So, when my brain decides to have an “I’m done thinking today” tantrum like a toddler having a meltdown in a Wal-Mart toy isle, I have to get tough. James Bond villain with a slow-moving laser nearing your crotch tough.

“Do you expect me to talk, Goldfinger?”

“No, Mr. Brain… I expect you to die. Wait… no… talk. Talking is good. How do you feel about gnomes?”

There are plenty of aspects of the writing process that can leave you feeling stumped, but let’s look at the classic. Sitting and staring at the blank page trying to think of something to write. This one is particularly common for us short story writer types.

What I’d like to suggest is that all you really need is the smallest kernel of an idea, just a slim little toehold in the story. Gnomes run ATMs. Your lucky coffee mug actively works behind your back to make you lucky. Ants achieve interstellar travel tech before humans. Whatever. Just the seed of an idea. If those sorts of broad plot ideas aren’t coming, you could also start with a first sentence or an odd scenario.

I never have a shortage of those sort of half-baked idea starts, but if you have trouble coming up with them, remind yourself that they aren’t the important part. They aren’t the story. They aren’t what will make people connect with your fiction. That stuff comes later. So, if you need help, I can think of at least two great books of speculative fiction prompts to help you (shameless plug):100 Prompts

Inklings: 300 Starts, Plots, and Challenges to Inspire Your Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Stories

100 Prompts for Science Fiction Writers

Okay, so you have your kernel of an idea. Now what? Sometimes, the kernel is enough to set you on your way. Maybe a first scene pops into your head and from there a rough outline of the entire narrative starts to take shape. Of course other times you write that kernel of an idea at the top of your page and stare at it until you realize that you’re drooling on your keyboard and your dog is staring at you with concern and pity in his big brown eyes.

This is when the interrogation takes place and you can build your interrogation around a couple central questions: Who cares? So what?

Generally speaking, fiction resonates with us when we care about the character(s) involved. The idea of a race of gnomes who specialize in running ATMs might be fun, but “fun” doesn’t make a great story. So, gnomes run ATMs. So what? Who cares? Who does this affect? How does it affect them? What is going right (or wrong) in this person’s life that is derailed or corrected by the fact that gnomes run the ATM at her local bank?

So, let’s take a step back from the gnome idea kernel. We need a character and this isn’t the time to be nitpicky on names. Write a name down. Sarah.

Character and conflict are the most essential elements of great fiction. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing horror, science fiction, magical realism, or a choose-your-own-adventure book about a unicorn homicide detective. The gnomes running the ATM is the fantastical hook of our story, but people will only care about it and remember it if we get the essential magic of character and conflict right. So, we need people to care about Sarah and her problems.

What can be wrong in Sarah’s life that would make her interact with the ATM in a meaningful way? Let’s make her central conflict something very mundane and relatable. A story with gnomes running an ATM already has plenty of weirdness and whimsy, so we need to ground the story in our reality in order to give the bizarre parts of the story their punch.

So, Sarah needs money. Why does Sarah need money? To pay rent. So what? What’s different or interesting about needing to pay rent? Who cares? She needs to pay rent and she’s struggling because her fiancé just moved out and he usually pays half of the bills. So, she is in the middle of a financial crisis. So what? Why does that matter? It matters because she doesn’t actually have enough money in the bank. So what? How will the fact that gnomes run the ATM change anything? Well, gnomes aren’t machines. They can be reasoned with. They might be moved by a sob story. They might take an interest in Sarah and her problems. So what? So, maybe when gnomes take an interest in your problems and/or help you, there’s a catch. So what? What’s the catch? Etc. Etc. Etc.

See what I mean? You get your kernel of an idea and from there you create a kernel of a character and a kernel of a conflict. After that, put on your interrogator hat. Think of yourself as a grumpy, critical sort of person who is pretty determined not to give a damn about your story. While you are thinking of yourself as that person, start asking the questions. So what? Who cares? Why does that matter?

Maybe every question you ask and answer won’t belong in your story once you put on your editor hat, but if you follow this pattern enough that blank page will become less and less daunting. So, stop reasoning with the gnomes inside your laptop and start writing. Idea kernels are plentiful. Grab one and start bullying it into being compelling fiction.







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