The Care and Feeding of Novel Ideas
Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music!
ASK THE AUTHOR: From James Earls via aarongansky.com: How do you keep from duplicating things you read-putting stuff into your own work? In other words, how do I keep it original or as much as possible?
AARON: This is a fascinating question, and one we haven’t really explored. Maybe we could do a whole cast on this in the future. I think there’s a variety of answers, and I’m sure Pops will have some other ideas, but my first response is to say that, as writers, it’s our duty to change things up. It’s okay to be inspired by what you’ve read, but you don’t want to write a simple analog of another novel. Think “It’s Romeo and Juliet but…” and then have a definite difference that will change the entire novel so it seems fresh. “It’s Wagon Train, but in space! It’s Star Wars, but with dragons! It’s Hamlet, but with lions!” Or you can change the ending, or base your protagonist on a character you love, but put him or her in a new situation. How would Monk handle a murder in the sewer? How would Luke Skywalker behave if he were exploring a sunken ship? How would Jack Sparrow behave if he were trapped under thirty feet of ice in Antarctica? I think there’s a lot of power in the combination of ideas and the twisting of ideas. The goal is not to write characters who are note-for-note like the ones you love, but those who are just different enough to make them unique.
POPS: There are very few truly unique plots, but there are endless variations. The key for me has been not to read in the same genre I’m writing in. By that I mean, if I writing a supernatural suspense novel, I don’t read supernatural suspense…while I’m writing. I read it otherwise. It is not uncommon for people to come up with similar a premise for a story. I was to start a novel once, went to the movies the day before, and saw a trail for a nearly identical plot. It’s your characters and approach that makes the difference–especially your characters and your locale.
Molly: If when you’re proofing your own work, you’re thinking of someone else’s, you need to change it. It can be as simple as Aaron mentioned- a twist of ideas. One of the best ways to change things can be to put in the opposite of what it reminds you of. If your character/setting is The Old Man and the Sea, see how it works if you write the man on a horse in a desert. If your setting has to be the sea, does it have to be an old man? Lastly, if you’re concerned your work borders on unoriginal content at best and near plagiarism at worst, have a trusted family member or friend read it and offer suggestions for resolution.
Firsts in Fiction
THE CARE AND FEEDING OF YOUR IDEA
Ideas can come from a variety of places, and as writers, we’re very good at asking the “what if” question. But we’re not always great at the “what next?” question. Often, we’ve got the seed of an idea, but we don’t know where to take it from there. How do we plant it, water it, and watch it blossom into something beautiful? Here are some ideas.
- Start with a compelling “What if?” question.
- The “what if” should be reducible to two or three lines.
- Should have a “high concept”: A very short description that says it all. Examples:
- Star-crossed lovers find each other–on the Titanic.
- Bambi meets Godzilla–Bambi wins.
- A child falls down a rabbit hole and discovers a strange new and dangerous world.
- Someone learns how to clone dinosaurs.
- Should have “high stakes.” What happens if the protagonist fails? Who gets hurt? Who dies? How does the world change?”
- Ask yourself, “What next?”
- Okay, so there’s a giant Death Star that’s ready to blow up planets. What next?
- Okay, so there’s this super powerful supernatural force that can be used as a weapon. What next?
- This simple question can be used to flesh out your ideas. Take Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. Okay, so the kid sees dead people. What next? Oh yes, he can predict terrorist events.
- Escalate tension over the span of the story. Squeeze the protag more and more.
- Ask yourself, “Who’s involved?”
- If you’re beginning with a plot, it’s important to know who your major players are. You’ll need a protagonist and sometimes an antagonist. You’ll need a supporting staff.
- Think in terms of archetypes to begin with, if you’re stuck, but don’t stop there. Make them unique. Change up their history.
- Here’s a list from Jill Williamson http://jillwilliamson.com/teenage-authors/jills-list-of-character-archetypes/
- Some characters will be necessary. On a naval ship, you’ll need naval personnel. In a military thriller, you’ll need soldiers. In a tech thriller, you’ll need a tech guy. But it doesn’t mean that your protagonist must be involved in that way. Think of the teacher on the space shuttle, or the CIA analyst on board a submarine. Think of the character who’s in over their head. This can really ratchet up the tension.
- Characters should be capable, but not perfect. Ask yourself, how are they flawed? Where are they strong?
- Need a clear protagonist even if you have an ensemble cast. The protagonist is the key to success and survival. Your protagonist is crucial to the reader’s enjoyment of the story.
- Let your protagonist grow.
- I prefer to learn about my protags as I write.
- Need an antagonist.
- Bigger and badder and often more capable than the protagonist. Money. Skill. Followers. An ability to somehow dictate trouble.
- Need support characters.
- Need facilitating characters.
- Ask yourself, “What do they want?”
- Character motivation is key. You can always go with the simple motivations (the space-ship captain trying to save her crew, the tech guy trying to protect America’s digital infrastructure, the jilted bride trying to cope with loss, insecurity, and doubt). But there must be a compelling reason for the protag to enter the fray.
- Sometimes character motivations are more complex (manipulating those he loves for his own gain–trying to con a target out of their money–trying to con their target out of love, etc.)
- Make your characters want something that is in direct conflict of other characters.
- Ask yourself, “How do they win?”
- It’s important to know the endgame. You don’t have to know before you start writing, but the sooner you know, the easier the book is to write.
- You may not know the details of their success, only that he/she/they will somehow survive and win. [I (Al) often have no idea how my characters will achieve their goal when I first start a book. ZERO-G’s initial problem was a mystery to me; OUT OF TIME was filled with problems for me. HARBINGERS often left me with a sore brain.]
- Perhaps the answer is “they don’t.” In that case, you’re probably writing a tragedy, which are often not super popular.
- Ask yourself, “Why now? Why here?”
- The time and place your story takes place should be important. Avoid choosing a setting randomly. Think of influences like culture, politics, economy, technology, etc.
- What world would best serve your story? Something strange and alien? Something familiar and cozy? A real town? An imaginary town?
- How would the events of your story differ if they took place elsewhere? Or during another era?
- Ask yourself, “How do I introduce the problem early?”
- First chapter
- Does not start off fully defined. Part of the joy of reading is learning what’s going on.
- In some cases, the characters have to be defined/introduced first (Nero Wolfe, ex.)
- Ask yourself, “What when?”
- Story has structure. It’s not amorphous.
- Ask yourself, “What then?”
- If you know the opening, ask yourself what the next natural step is. Maybe there are several options. Explore them all (maybe on paper) to see where they lead. Different choices lead to different consequences.
- Make your characters choose. It helps define who they are. And let the natural consequences come. The consequences often determine the next steps of your plot.
- Ask yourself, “So what?”
- Why does all this matter? What’s at stake? A marriage? A relationship? A family? An economy? The lives of millions of people? The world? Someone’s independence or freedom?
- If it matters to your character, it will matter to the reader.
- Ask yourself, “Which Point of View (POV) is best for this novel/story?”
- First person
- Second person
- Third person
- Ask yourself, “How can I resolve the story?”