Coming up with Story Ideas
One of the biggest challenges that wears me down as I have gotten more serious about writing is coming up with new, fresh ideas for stories on a continuous basis. Some will say that stories that have creatures like zombies in them, which have been used in a wide array of stories over the years, is probably not going to get you an award for creativity. It’s certainly true that I have read my fair share of rip-off zombie tales that follow the patented process made famous by Romero and others, with a group of people hiding out in a enclosed area desperately trying to figure out how they will survive because the undead are bashing at the doors, or gates, or whatever, and things are getting tense inside, and perhaps there are some other living humans outside that are also causing trouble, etc. But I have also read quite a few zombie stories that bring new ideas to the table by making the zombies intelligent, fast, demonic, alien, etc. I have also read the same type of stuff in other genres countless times with the rehash factor playing a major role. Heck, I have read an author who has regurgitated the same idea they had years before and just put some new decorative touches on it before selling it again.
What I have gathered from all of this is that even if you use a tried and true set of story guidelines and keep going back to the same well, it doesn’t mean you are creating something dull, drab, and uninspired. Similarly, if you throw some real curve balls with your ideas to make your story stand out as unique and different, you may still have the same stale and flabby plot if that is all you are relying on to make your tale something someone will want to read.
In other words, the setting is only one piece of the puzzle. I have read in excess of 300 different zombie books over the past few years, mixed in with a wide assortment of stories from other genres. And no, I am not just some incredibly obsessed fan boy who cannot stop pouring over the minutia of survival that apocalyptic and zombie stories usually give you. Sure, I’ve given my fair share of thought to what it would take to survive if things go terribly wrong in the world. I’ve written my posts on various message boards talking about that topic and others, both with the very serious folks out there that thing the world is going to end tomorrow and those who just love to kick around ideas and have some fun with it. BUT, and this is the big BUT, that does not mean I like reading the same old story with just minor changes just because they have zombies in them. Because what I really enjoy in good zombie story is a writer who can come up with new characters, new challenges, and essentially someone who will paint a fresh coat of paint over a basic story that has been around since Romero created Night of the Living Dead. In other words, if you are stuck in a farmhouse with a bunch of other people, I am not going to groan this setting has already been used, but I expect some new perspective , new and compelling characters, and something that will perhaps shed NEW light on the human condition. This is not to say that catapulting these characters into a new fresh environment with an entirely new breed of the undead might not be a bad idea, but what it boils down to for me, at least with what I would define as a ‘good zombie story’ is that you’ve made a serious effort at presenting the reader with characters that are multi-dimensional, intriguing, human, and perhaps allow us to love or hate them based on who they are and what they are willing to do. No, scratch that. That doesn’t just make for a good zombie story, it makes for a good story in general.
I use the zombie genre as an example because it is one that I have been immersed in for some time as I have written my book and the short stories that have followed up with more recently. My novel, in some ways, has a very traditional setting for a tale of the apocalypse. The undead nemesis is, for the most part, is very traditional. But I didn’t focus all my energy on the undead. Most of my effort went to developing characters that felt real and natural, doing what they can under terrible circumstances. Whether or not I succeeded in creating a compelling story with them is something each reader will have to decide for themselves, but finding a publisher willing to put out my book and having others who have read it indicating that it is a compelling has definitely given me the confidence to know that I can perhaps write something enjoyable and entertaining. But the first person I had to please was myself. Just like every other author I have know, I am by far my harshest critic. So with my novel, I didn’t slam my head against the desk desperately trying to write a story that didn’t have elements no one else has ever used before. Instead, I devoted myself to making my characters people that would keep someone glued to the page to see what happens next to them. Hopefully I pulled that off.
Short stories are something I am spending time with right now. The ideas for these are ones you can put together and develop without mapping out massive story arcs, which is a nice change of pace for me from writing the novel, although I will be getting back to writing my book within the next month or two. Writing short stories, after diving so deep into one story with a very specific characters, is a refreshing twist for me. It allows me to work with character that aren’t perhaps as complex, at least on the written page, but still definitely have intriguing stories to tell.
I do struggle more with coming up with creative stuff for short stories than I did with my book. I think of these smaller stories like guerrilla warfare. You sneak in, do the job, and get out before anyone realizes what you’ve done. Writing a novel is like going to war. You are the general and you are looking at thousands of different troop movements and trying to figure out what the enemy will do before they do it so you can adjust your techniques to outwit them. It is waged over months and years and generally speaking can be quite costly for all involved. A war takes lots of planning before you ever attack, and there are lots and lots of battles, and the map you are working with changes daily, because things change as you move forward-you discover you don’t like the direction a particular plot point is taking, some wonderful idea has filtered through that will require you to revamp over 100 pages of your tale, etc. The whole objective of guerrilla warfare is to get in and get out before the enemy can point its artillery at you and smash you flat. So it requires you to be light on your feet and come up with a story idea that can be effectively relayed in just a few thousand words, rather than 80,000.
I am not sure how good I am at writing short stories just yet. I have four accepted currently, and three more I have to wait until the editor gets past their designated deadline to even look at, but none of that means that I know for sure that I have what it takes to come up with something new and different every few days or weeks, which is what writing short stories is all about. Because you see, unlike with a novel, I think there is more onus on the short story writer to have something unique and different each time they set pen to paper. In 5,000 words or so, you need to set the stage, build the drama, let the story unfold, and bring it to a conclusion. Trust me, that is not such an easy task.
So far, I have been able to come up with something different with the short stories I have written. There are a few others I haven’t tried to get published because they really haven’t fit in the anthologies I have been working with, but if an idea strikes, the first thing I do is write it down and then stow it away. If it really is something I am obsessed with and have fully shaped inside my brain, I will start writing it right away. But usually the ideas I have are half formed and need time to gestate.
An example would be a story idea I came up with about a sixteen year old girl who has been bouncing around the foster care system her entire life. She is a chronic troublemaker and no one can handle her for long. Along come a very stern, very religious couple, who agree to take her and intend on scaring her straight. The main character takes that as a challenge and tries to torment these people, but they are un-tormentable, or so it seems. They lock her in her bedroom at night and she hears them down in the basement, praying. She wants to mess with them and wants to also find out more about their very secretive beliefs, so she breaks out of her room one night and suddenly, she discovers… Well, that was as far as I got. The idea was fairly basic, and would need a lot of molding and shaping, with some major embellishments. But what did I do with this idea? I later found a anthology that was looking for stories on phobias. These would be horror stories about the innocuous fears we have. So I started morphing my idea and wrote a story where there is a little girl who has a phobia of God and religion and she gets taken in by a very religious but very kind couple. I submitted the story and am waiting until the deadline passes in another month or so to see if its been accepted.
Sometimes you just never know where a story will lead you.
Other story ideas pop into my head fully formed. Writing the outline is simple and easy to do. A story I hope to start writing today is one like that. Another anthology is looking for stories of doom. In other words, major catastrophic events that wipe out whole civilizations. That was their only guidelines, but the idea that popped into my head was fully conceived and very specific. I wrote the full outline for it in around ten minutes and thus far, I love the idea as it is. That’s not to say it won’t change as I start writing, but for now, its a go and I just have to make sure I stick to the story guidelines about length and content before I turn it in.
I know of plenty of authors who out there who are superbly more talented than me who can see some submission guidelines for a short story or even a novella and their brain immediately starts creating something that works perfectly for what the editor is looking for. I envy those folks, but that is not me. I have to be hit by inspiration or I just don’t have the enthusiasm to carry a story through. The eureka moment is a big deal to me, and while sometimes it comes when I concentrate, most of the time it comes when I am not even thinking about writing, stories, or anything creative. Its not always a lightning bolt and thunder clap, sometimes its just a light drizzle that slowly saturates me and allows me to slowly poke and prod the idea until it fully develops into something tangible and hopefully, publishable.
I am afraid that one day, I will be sitting down, having just finished a story, and my brain will go blank, with nothing left inside as far as creativity is concerned. So far, it hasn’t happened, but the fact remains that I can’t always come up with something new that fits with something someone actually wants. An example is a new anthology looking for submissions that are supposed to be humorous science fiction tales. I would love to be a part of that and create something that is a riot, but unfortunately I haven’t come up with a single good idea as of yet. The good news is there is no deadline for this story just yet, so I have time, but I am still wracking my brain trying to come up with something for it. In the meantime, I have other ideas that just pop in my head that will make interesting stories, but none that are remotely close to something sci-fi-ish and humorous. But such is life.
I wish I had written this topic with some sort of advice in mind for someone reading this, but I really don’t have anything for you. Sorry if that seems selfish, but the muse visits different people in different ways. It seems that everyone has a different way of coming up with story ideas. Different inspirations, different personalities, different ways of thinking. I guess the best thing is to keep an open mind and listen to the world around you. Because you never know when or where inspiration will hit.