Monday, March 31, 2014

Where to get your ideas, and what to do once you’ve gotten one

There’s a pivotal scene at the climax of the movie “Working Girl” where Melanie Griffith is trying to prove that Sigourney Weaver took credit for her proposal. When the big boss asks Sigourney where she got the idea, Sigourney’s character just shrugs and mumbles something about it being obvious. But Melanie Griffith’s character takes the boss step-by-step through her thinking process, and what’s obvious is the original idea was Melanie’s. Her character gets promoted while Sigourney’s is humiliated.

A dream scenario for screenwriters, who are constantly worried (and sometimes rightly so) about their ideas being stolen? Perhaps, but it’s also a reminder to writers in every medium to pay attention to the ongoing internal monologue in our heads. There’s gold in them there thoughts. It’s usually covered by a lot of sand, and you have to spend a good amount of time sifting it, but it’s there.

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a question that published writers are asked all the time, often by people who want to write and can’t seem to get started. Usually, though, the issue isn’t getting ideas. Wannabe writers often have one idea they’re dying to develop, or a sliver of one. They just don’t know how to open the door and grab the rest of it. Ironically, that’s not due to a dearth of ideas. It’s because there seem to be so many choices out there, how do you find the best one?

I believe there are three main ways ideas start to form: through character (protagonist), plot, or setting/subject matter. When I wrote KEEPING SCORE, the initial idea was setting/subject matter: I wanted to write about kids travel baseball. The novel I’m currently working on came to me as a character: a Democrat mom married to a Republican. And plots have arrived in my brain as well – the ghost who has to figure out what she needs to do to move on. (You could argue that’s a character, but I think the difference between character and plot is the latter comes with the challenge built in.)

Obviously, a story needs all three elements to work, but when the first one pops into your head, it’s a little easier to figure out the rest. My political couple needs to live in or near Washington, D.C. Their plot needs to be something to do with politics – maybe they end up working on competing campaigns? (That's not what I chose to do, but maybe I should have.)

With those three elements in place, the next major decision is genre (which is often impacted by the ending). My political couple could end up in a thriller – she discovers her candidate is involved with an enormous crime, for instance. (Again, not what I chose to do.) But I thought the dilemma of being married to someone whose politics were your polar opposite was funny, so I went with that.

If your characters are ordinary people, there are really only three choices of genre for you: straight drama, comedy, or mystery/thriller. (If your characters are young people, your writing will be considered YA or NA, but you still have those three choices.) If your characters or setting are magical, then you’ll be in the sci-fi/fantasy realm, which offers a plethora of subgenres.

If you’ve settled on an ending, your choice in genre should follow. Like we learned from Shakespeare, a comedy has a happy ending. A thriller climaxes with your protagonist’s life in jeopardy. And a drama has a “you win something, you lose something” conclusion. If my story were a drama, my protagonist might win the election but lose her husband. Or vice versa.

If you want to write but you don’t know your way in yet, following this steps should give you a few major points to work with. Next week, I’ll talk about the characters that every story needs, and why.

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