Get Writing, Part 2: Developing Your Idea

In Part 1 we discussed where ideas come from. Now let’s talk about what to do with your ideas once you have them.

Ideas can come in a trickle or they can arrive in a flood, but it’s what you do with them once you have them that really matters. Once you have selected an idea to pursue, you then need to grow it into a workable piece. Here are a few techniques to do just that:

 

Sound boarding

Have you ever asked a friend for advice, had a conversation, and then went away knowing exactly what to do without your friend ever really contributing anything? That’s sound boarding. In effect the technique is a one way conversation that allows you to ask questions about your idea and then receive answers from your own mind. Ideally you can have another person there to parrot back what you or talking about, or even add their own ideas, however you can use this technique alone. Simply ask yourself questions about your idea and then answer them on the fly. Imagine this was a conversation between me and a wall:

What’s your story about?

“A baby is in charge for a day.”

Cool, in charge of what?” (Whenever you ask yourself a question, don’t think, simply say the first thing that comes to mind. If it isn’t right, you can change it, just don’t get stuck.)
“Um, he’s the president of the United States.”
What?
“Okay, no, he’s the president of a company.”
How did that happen?
“Okay, maybe he’s not the president of the company, but he somehow ended up in his father’s office and there’s something there that allows him to control how the company operates.”
“Oh, neat! Like an intercom? I think people would know it was a baby though.”

“You’re right, it’s a computer, and the baby- no, toddler- thinks it’s a video game.”

It’s a silly example, but do you see how simple questions about your idea cause you to explore and then defend what you’re saying? Most people stop at the initial idea and never fight with it and the fight is where the interesting stuff develops. If I were to pitch this new  idea it would be:

“A toddler, left in his father’s office, causes havoc as he plays with a control pad as if it was a toy.”

It’s a better idea, but we can use another technique to develop it further.

 

Brainstorming

While soundboarding is great for auditory learners, Brainstorming is more suited for visual or tactile learners. Take a sheet of paper and write down your idea in the center of it. Circle that idea so it’s a bubble and then draw lines off of the bubble with questions (details) about the idea.

Circle those ideas and then add more lines with more questions and answers connected to the previous questions and answers. You’ll end up with a map of ideas that are all connected to one another. For instance, one of the lines coming off of the idea could be “characters.” We only know one for sure: the toddler, that would be its own separate bubble, but the text implies at least two more: the father and an employee.

Each of the character bubbles have their own lines that come off concerning their names, occupations, personalities, and eventually their character arcs. Brainstorming works because it shows how everything is interconnected. Ideas lead to questions, questions lead to answers, which then lead to more questions. Brainstorming maps can expand almost infinitely, so sometimes we need a little help keeping track of it all. Coggle is a pretty sweet brainstorming webapp that works with most browsers while Freemind is a free program that you can use without an internet connection. Both should handle whatever you throw at them.

I’d guess most people have run across this technique at one time or another, however, I’d also guess that most people stop when they run out of questions to ask themselves. So let’s talk about that.

 

Pulling Thread

Everything is interconnected. Good ideas, like seeds, contain all of the genetic material that’s needed to expand into a fully formed tree/story. Pulling the information out of the idea is a lot like pulling string out of a sweater. You simply have to find that loose thread to pull from. It’s an exercise in logic and can be really fun when you get into it. So let’s go back to the idea and find a loose thread:

“A toddler, left in his father’s office, causes havoc as he plays with a control pad as if it was a toy.”

Right off the bat, I zero in on the father. We need an explanation as to why the toddler was left alone in the office in the first place. What is the family like? Is he a single father? Maybe he had the child for the day and was so stressed out over work that he just had to bring the baby in with him. Logically, if a father has his own office but can’t afford daycare he would be middle to upper management. Powerful enough to oversee workers, but low scale enough to still feel the pressure of his work. This would make him middle class, so any kind of big disturbance at work could mean disaster for his family’s finances. The baby wouldn’t know this of course, he/she just wants to play.

All of the above were assumptions on my part and a few small decisions along the way. There are of course a multitude of other ways to explain the situation and that’s where the personal experiences of the writer comes in. There are no right or wrong answers, only lapses in logic, and you will only lose your audience if they don’t understand why things are happening (or don’t agree with why things are happening.)

Already we’re starting to see the story develop. However, there’s still a long way to go. We need to figure out what type of factory would be computer controlled and in doing so, figure out the kind of havoc that the baby actually produces. Again, using logic and personal choices, we can discover just what that is. Assembly lines have these types of controls and any little kink, a stop in one part of production, a change in output speed, can dramatically throw things off. So we now know that the toddler was taken to a factory, but what type of factory? What do they produce?

Now we have a question of Genre. Why? Because the type of factory he wrecks can have different levels of danger and outcomes. Wrecking a Q-tip factory will probably cause less death and mayhem then a car plant. So what type of story are we telling? I’m thinking comedy. So I’m reminded of some classic comedy…

 

Archetypes and Similar Stories

Everything has been done before. New writers and armchair authors often site this cynically. While it’s true that there are essentially eight stories that we keep telling over and over again, within their framework is room for endless variations and improvisation. It’s not what you tell that’s important, it’s how you tell it.

There is nothing wrong with looking at what has been done, and done successfully, and taking instruction and inspiration from them. Just be sure and add your own creativity to the mix. You are, after all, creating a new work of art.

Two famous pieces come to mind when I think of a factory and havoc. I Love Lucy’s famous conveyor belt scene and “Tummy Trouble” the short that preceded “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and setup the rest of the movie. The Lucy skit can provide us with an example of how to make the mayhem in the factory funny (things pile up until the workers are forced to do insane things to compensate) while the short from Roger Rabbit actually gives a glimpse of a working structure for our piece.

This is incredibly valuable. Again, we’re not ripping anything off. We’re simply seeing what has worked before, stripping away the flesh, and using the structural framework to develop our own story.

Right off the bat we have a setup: Roger is left with the baby. As soon as the mother leaves we have a problem: the baby swallows his pacifier and roger rushes off to the hospital to help. From there the problems mount as the mistakes of the baby are transferred to Roger. The baby pursues its own desires (getting a bottle) and causes more trouble that Roger then has to suffer for. We don’t get a resolution until Roger and the baby are in the same place and safe.

The two are in conflict, even though they don’t hate each other. That’s the structure of the cartoon and that’s what we can use for our own story. Our toddler will cause havoc and the father will suffer for it until the time that the two are together and at rest again. Our story will not take place in a hospital, and I doubt if we will torture the father as much as Roger got tortured, but the archetype, the idea of a frantic father and an innocent babe, will remain intact between the two pieces.

Rejecting Ideas

Not all ideas are good. That’s a given. That being said, it’s strange how defensive writers can get over their ideas. If you find that you have to explain your idea after you’ve pitched it, you need to do more development of the idea to make it clearer. If you find yourself actually defending it, fighting with people over your idea, you may want to consider discarding it entirely.

Ideas need to be clear, concise, and expandable. This isn’t just so the query letter to the literary agent sparkles and grabs, it’s because good stories come out of good ideas. One, two, five years, maybe even a decade of your life can be spent realizing a work, so make sure that your idea is worth the amount of time it will take to bring it to life.

Everyone has ideas. Few people have finished books.

Don’t be afraid to discard what isn’t working and start over from scratch. This is the stage you want to do that. Blank pages are pennies. New Word documents are two clicks away.

Make sure you love what you’re going to create.

Unexpected Developments

I didn’t start writing this blog post with the intention of ending it with a story about a toddler in a factory. I simply knew that something would come out of me when I asked. That something isn’t always good, logical, or original, but it was there. When you start pulling thread and asking questions of yourself don’t go in with any expectations. Embrace unexpected developments. The best material comes from places you never even knew existed.

So now we have a semi-developed idea. Not perfect, but much further along than what we started with. What’s the next step? What single factor contributes the most to the development of stories?

Find out in Part 3

 

 

1 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on books. Regards

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