Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More Like a Brain Hurricane

Every story has to start somewhere. Maybe you've had the idea for your story all your life. Maybe you've lived long enough to see your idea thought up by someone else and put into a Hollywood motion picture.

But lets say you're sitting at the computer (or writing desk, if you're old fashioned) staring at a blank screen (or paper). You've got nothing in your head that can make a good story (or in my case, a good blog) and you're frustrated.

Fortunately for me, I like to plan ahead. Whenever I have an idea that I think might be worth writing about, I find the nearest scrap of paper and scrawl it down. I also have a more permanent method of idea storage in a word document on my computer. The ideas can be as vague as a phrase like, “you are truly a painter with words,” or something
as intricate as a two-page breakdown detailing the seven different ways the world might end, and why, and how this would change things. If you don't have a magical word document of ideas for yourself, I suggest you start one immediately. If you don't have a computer, I recommend getting one of those cheap black and white notebooks from the dollar store and keeping it somewhere secret; somewhere safe.

Coming up with story ideas is always fun, even if all you have to work with is something basic like a phrase. For this next example, I want you read each phrase and briefly imagine a few vague story ideas relating them. Don't read them all at once or your imagination won't be able to keep up. Pay attention to the capitalization: Does it make it a proper name? A title? A business? A location?

One-Way Mirror
The man who cheated at everything
Miss Pelt
The Carnival Canal
Lucky starts

If your imagination is functioning with any kind of efficiency, hopefully it was able to picture a few things that you weren't thinking about before reading this blog.
Don't feel discouraged if you can't come up with any interesting-sounding words or phrases on your own. In fact, it means you'll have to use a different means of coming up with stories: What If.
Yes, I'm taking this idea from Steven King, but it's a pretty good method.

"You stole my method? That'll be $5,000, please."

Essentially, any basic idea for a story can be broken down to a What If question.

What if your Dad was with the bad guys?
What if you could climb into your own dreams?
What if reality was just part of a computer construct?

If you were paying attention, you'll notice that I just gave the basic ideas for Star Wars, Inception and the Matrix. Of course, there's more to those movies than those basic ideas, but you can understand (perhaps) where the ideas began.

Interestingly, you can do the same backward trace with crappy movies to see how uncreative the people behind it were.

What if two stoner guys can't find their car? (Dude Where's My Car)
What if some teenagers have a bunch of sex? (A whole bunch of movies, but I'm thinking American Pie)

And boy, people can usually tell if the movie is gonna be garbage (see above) or something good. Even movies like SAW (which I haven't seen, but I kinda feel like I have), are at least a little more original than their slashy-violent counterparts.
What if a crazy murderer kills a bunch of people? (Friday the 13th, Nightmare of Elm Street, Scream)
What if a murderer traps people in situations where they either have to maim themselves, maim/kill someone else, or die? (SAWs I, II, III, IV and V.)

Now that you understand how you can trace a big, finished idea back to its root, you should also be able to see how you can begin an idea with the same kind of seed.

Ideas can come from anywhere. For instance, to enable cheats in Grand Theft Auto 4, you have to dial specific phone numbers on your cell phone. After you do, cars, motorcycles, boats, or helicopters literally appear in front of you, even if the appearance is detrimental to the traffic you're standing in. I thought, "What if someone really could dial a special phone number and get anything he wants?"

Essentially he's cheating on his own life. When you cheat in the game (depending on the cheat,) it will limit your ability to earn certain achievements, and it lists you as a “cheater” in the menus. Mild drawbacks to be sure, but they're enough to make sure you never save your game after cheating. Since there are drawbacks to cheating, there would have to be some kind of penalty in the story, too. At this point, I break down further question-options and list any similarities to something that already exists in pop culture, or further details that interest me.

What if he goes blind after 100 “cheats?” It means he'd be very sparing with his cheats, if he used them at all. (Or he'd just stop on cheat #99.)
What if someone dies whenever he cheats? (Seems kinda like the movie The Box)
What if the things he gets from cheating just vanish after a certain amount of time like Leprechaun gold? Imagine having your helicopter vanish into thin air while you're a mile in the air!

I had another What If idea after watching huge amounts of Star Trek; I've always thought that the transporters in the show seemed problematic. Sure, in the future anything's possible, but I'm not certain that they're safe.

What if whenever someone used the transporter, they died? Their atoms reconstruct on the other side, but the person as we knew them is dead. The person on the other side is such an exact clone that they don't even realize they died, at least not until they try to go through again. There would be no way to test this kind of thing. Everyone enlisted in Starfleet could have been killed long ago, replaced by unwitting clones of themselves, sans souls.

"This planet is so nice, I could have died and gone to heaven!"

Now, I'm not too anxious to write any kind of Star Trek fan fiction, but I thought the idea was interesting, and now I can't stop thinking about it whenever I watch someone get beamed up.

Now that you'd gotten to spend a few minutes with me during my creative process, hopefully you'll be more creative.

(Please don't sue me, Mr. King!)


  1. Excellent William, I really love this blog. I think this one is the best so far. You have so much here I am going to go back and reread it slower to take in as much as I can.
    I am glad you got over your writers block. I think it is worth it to read today's, you just needed a break.

  2. Wow, this was a really great post. Alas, too well do I know the itch of a really good "What If?"

    The thing about the transporter isn't just limited to Star Trek. Lots of science fiction stuff has them. (Go reread that bit in Timeline on how the time travel device worked, for instance.) And in Alpha Centauri, that Civ 2 In Space game, the religious faction throws a fit about the teleporter gate tech, because "what happens to the immortal soul when the body is dematerialized?"

    I mean heck, what if a teleporter gone wrong was responsible for the creation of zombies?