So far, we have talked about keeping our minds stimulated with input.
What we're really talking about today is how we can use writing itself to help stimulate the mental sediment that we collect all the time and make it combine and congeal into story ideas. The way I see it, this takes a couple different forms, which I'll call the Active and Passive modes of narrative generation.
For the Active mode, we have a couple different tools at our disposal.
Ray Bradbury writes in his essay "Run Fast, Stand Still, or, The Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds" that he went about writing lists of titles in order to generate story ideas. He explains that the words should come sort of freely as you think of them in a type of word association game:
"The lists ran something like this:
THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAP-DOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.
I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds" (Zen in the Art of Writing, p. 17, emphasis added).
See that last part? Bradbury was a big fan of the subconscious. He equated it with his Muse.
All the mental stimulation we've been talking about in the other two parts of this series has been for the purpose of filling up your brain--your subconscious--so that it percolates later into your Active-mode idea generation.
What do you do after you've made such a list?
Let's read on:
"If you are a writer, or would hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.
I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it.
Somewhere along about the middle of the page, or perhaps on the second page, the prose poem would turn into a story. Which is to say that a character suddenly appeared and said, 'That's me'; or, 'That's an idea I like!' And the character would then finish the tale for me" (ibid. p. 19, emphasis added).
I've you've never done this before, you absolutely must! It's quite fun once you get used to it, and can be a great mental exercise. Like list making, freewriting is about stream-of-consciousness, tugging and suggesting and seducing your subconscious out onto a page.
I like the following explanation of freewriting, which lays out the ground rules well:
"They are sometimes called 'automatic writing,' 'babbling,' or 'jabbering' exercises. The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don't stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can't think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write 'I can't think what to say, I can't think what to say' as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop" (David Elbow, "Freewriting").
Sound like "Run Fast, Stand Still"? That's because it does.
These are two facets of this Active mode of idea generation. But you shouldn't limit yourself to just these deliberate moments of brainstorming!
This other mode is what I do most of the time, and if you play your cards right, it can be just as effective as the Active methods, only this is for all the times when you're not writing.
Here's a selection of what's on my list right now:
- Venus, part of upper atmosphere is Earth-like...colonization?
- Robot who disposes of dead elderly people at nursing home
- Reality show following extraplanetary colonists
- Severe stutterer can't talk fluently to people, just to animals
- "Inured to the Charm of Boxes"?
- Post-apocalyptic radio INTERVIEW
- social-media-driven military (laughing at death, destruction)...juvenile military culture
- "An Unfortunate Place to Learn to Fly"?
I heard the one about Venus from a friend mentioning it offhand. Some, like the robot/nursing home thing and the severe stutterer character, came into my head as a mixture of something I was listening to on This American Life and, well, robots. Others are just titles, usually from some single phrase that comes up in conversation with someone ("inured to the charm of boxes" was something my wife said as she joked about her job; we're always saying "such-and-such would make a good short story title" when we talk).
The point of this series is to share the tools I use to help me generate story ideas. Keeping myself engaged with narrative on a frequent basis, feeding my mind with a steady stream of knowledge, and using writing itself as a tool to record and expand upon the little bits and pieces I get from the other steps, I usually don't find myself thinking "What could I possibly write about this time?"
All the stories have basically already been written.
By that, I mean don't sweat it! It's never about coming up with a story that no one else could have possibly done (and every time you think you're getting away with it, there's someone who thought the same thing and published it a year ago). Originality comes in different ways.
It has to do, finally, with empathy, which is where the learning comes in. How much do we really empathize with people on a personal level every day? Do we really think about the human beings behind the news stories and the history reels? "If we can do that," Kardos says, "then we might be able to remind ourselves--and others--what it feels like to be human" (p. 11).
That's what writing's all about, folks. We have the tools; let's go about it.
Jedd Cole is a professional writer and author of short speculative fiction. He resides in Ohio where he is completing a degree in Rhetoric & Professional Writing, crafting short stories in every time-nook he can find, all while frequenting the pages of imaginary worlds with his wonderful wife, Heather, and no pets. None.