Lawrence Block once commented in one of his articles on writing, and I’m
paraphrasing here, that the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” is
misleading; it implies the writer is struck by an idea for a story, and from
there everything is golden.
He’s right–the process of writing is an endless generation of ideas, one
after the other. Character development, plotting, backstory–all of them are
nothing but the writer asking themselves questions and then dreaming up the
answers, one after another, until the story is finished.
So, here you are, and you want to write a story. But you’re sitting there
with a blank page and nothing particular coming to mind to put on it. Now
If you’re like most writers, you have a glimmer of an idea. Maybe not a
full-fledged story–not yet–but maybe a character, or a compelling conflict,
or a bit of engaging business you want to use, or just a general thought of
“I’d like to tell a story about this.”
First, we need to abandon the notion that the blank page–or empty Word
document–in front of us at this moment is our story. We’re going to do some
work on this idea first. This is the part of the writing process that to me
is most like magic–starting with nothing and stringing stuff out of your
head onto the page until you have a solid story.
Next, we need to abandon the notion that there are any ”wrong” or “bad”
answers. As you work up ideas, you’ll be making up answers to your own
questions. Some answers you’ll like better than others. Some answers will
make you want to keep looking for a different answer That
is fine. This is your story, the only one who decides what the right
answers are is you. The right answer is the one that leads to a story that
you want to tell.
Let’s say I have in mind a particular image. It’s not a whole story, but
it’s compelling and I would like to turn it into a story. I am imagining a
woman, standing in front of her dresser, pointing a revolver at her
reflection in the mirror.
This is my spark; the thing that’s making me want to write. Your spark
could be anything. The process is always the same. At the top of this
blank sheet of paper, I am going to write out my spark.
Spark: a woman, standing in front of her dresser, pointing a
revolver at her reflection in the mirror.
There are lots of questions I could ask here to start fleshing this idea
out. The old saws we learned in journalism class serve well: Who?
What? Where? When? How?
But the King of all questions is Why?
If you only get to ask one question, make it Why. Why? is
the question that will get you to the heart of things faster than any other.
I could ask Who and do a detailed character sketch of the woman with the
revolver. I could ask Where and go into great detail about the bedroom
she’s in, or What and discuss the revolver.
But the first question I’m going to ask is Why?
Question: why is she pointing a gun at her own reflection?
This is where I start just making things up. You’ve got to turn off your
internal critic, the one who’ll happily inform you that all of your ideas
stink. Frankly, you aren’t looking for your internal critic’s opinion here.
You are looking for your own. You are going to start making up answers,
throwing them out there. How will you know you have a good one? You’ll
feel it. You’ll get shivers, or goosebumps, or you’ll just stare at your
writing on the page and say “Wow.”
Answers: People usually point guns at things because they
are afraid of them. Or they want to eat them.
Is she afraid of her own reflection? Maybe. Maybe she is
insane, and we’re demonstrating it here, with a gun in the
dressing room mirror.
Or maybe her reflection really is dangerous.
That–that right there. That is when I felt like I was onto
something–something interesting, something scary–something I would want to
write. I’m on the right track there.
Given the same question, the answer that you react to may be different.
That’s fine–your story should be yours.
So I’ve got my first answer that I really like. All of that other stuff
above it is just harmless chatter. When I’m done here, I can copy out the
useful bits onto a clean sheet of paper so that all I have left is the good
What do I do now?
Of course! I ask:
Question: Why is her reflection dangerous?
And I start making up answers until one clicks with me. And then I look at
that answer, and see what questions it prompts. And at some point farther
on down the page, I’m going to feel like I have enough material to start
writing, so I will. When I reach a point in the narrative where I feel like
I need to know more to continue, I will come back to this paper and ask some
It’s perfectly possible to carry this idea out to something a story could be
written from. I may do that, if it would be helpful. But if you’re
struggling with ideas and are interested in the process, it would probably
be even more helpful to give it a go yourself.
I’d love to see what you come up with. I’m sure it will be awesome.
Looking for more? Here are a couple of resources--
||Looking for specific guidance on
plotting that will get your ideas from vague
sparks to a complete story road map?
This is it. I love all of Holly
Lisle's Clinic series. I own them all,
and I whole-heartedly recommend them to
anyone who is serious about writing things
other people will want to read.
But for even more...
This is "the one" from Holly Lisle--
that's going to get that vague story
idea out of your head and into finished
form better than anything else. She's
going to teach you more than just
writing this story though--she's going
to teach you systems to help you write,
anything, always, from now on.
This is Boot Camp For Writers.
How do I know? I've taken the course
:) And I thoroughly enjoyed it. Some
of the things you learn you will use
over and over again, some you will try
once and set aside. And you'll have a
whole toolbox full of things to use when
you need them.