Thursday, July 07, 2005

Lunchtime Musings: Story Ideas

I've begun reading Ansen Dibell's "Elements of Fiction Writing" book on plot. Dibell is a science fiction writer, though I confess I haven't heard of her before now. Still, even though I'm not very far into her book, I've found it thought-provoking. In the book she gives a four-question litmus test for whether or not an idea would make a good story:

1. Is it your story to tell? (Is it something you really care about?)
2. Is it too personal for readers to become involved with? (The general public is unlikely to be interested in how you mow the lawn.)
3. Is it going somewhere? (Does the story idea naturally have an engine that drives the plot forward?)
4. What's at stake? (Is there something specific and vital at stake for the characters?)

I think this is an interesting exercise, and not one I had considered in any detail before. I read somewhere that "ideas are a dime a dozen," and for the most part, I agree with this sentiment. I've got dozens of story ideas in my little notebook, and that's just from the month or two that I've been carrying it around with me. On the other hand, this "dime a dozen" statement has always said to me that a good writer can turn any idea into a good story. There have been several stories that I I've written that, while the idea was good, the execution of them seemed flat. In reading Dibell's questions, I now realize that while some of those might could have been turned into good stories, they probably couldn't have been turned into good stories by me. I've realized that I just didn't care enough about the topic to really write well on it. It was a writing exercise and not a story I was burning to tell.

Which is not to say that I think these writing exercises are bad. I read in one of the Clarion blogs that a Clarion instructor challenged the students to come up with a story idea that incorporated three random, totally unrelated words. I used to do this kind of thing with art. I'd just draw random squiggles on the page (or have someone else do it for me), think about what the squiggles looked like, and then expand them into a full drawing.* I think this is the literary equivlent of that exercise. I know that it really helped build my creativity in art, so I can certainly see where this kind of thing would build your writing creativity as well. You don't have to like or publish the story that comes out of it (although you might, you never know), but building that habit of creativity will help when plotting stories that you do care about, so that's good enough for me. One of my favorite characters came out of one of those stories that just didn't seem to work by the end. The events of the story profoundly shaped her, and while the story itself isn't all that good, I think writing it helped develop a rich background for her that makes her stand out when she appears in other stories. Nothing wasted there!

*I used to play a similar game with a girl I dated for a long time. When we were in grad school together, she'd buy her lunch and sit down next to me. I'd then describe to her what her lunch looked like, usually in such a way to gross her out -- mostly because it really did look like I described it! To come up with something different every day took a surprising amount of creativity, though something tells me that spark of imagination wasn't overly appreciated by my girlfriend.... :)

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