In ancient Greece, genius was thought to exist outside of the body, in the form of a daemon or muse who supplied inspiration for whatever human happened to be attached to them. This was a lovely theory, because it made it easy for writers to answer the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”
But in modern times, with the advent of individualism and personal responsibility, the answer to this question is no longer so obvious. Writers the world over get plagued with this question, inevitably asked in every interview, and it’s nearly impossible to answer, though authors often try. The truth is, nobody really knows where they come from. Thin air, the multiverse, nowhere…all equally true and deeply unsatisfactory answers. Neil Gaiman wrote an entire blog post on this subject.
So, I have presumptuously taken it upon myself to propose a newer, better version of this question. One that can be answered satisfactorily, and might actually be helpful to aspiring writers wanting to emulate their heroes:
Once you have an idea, what do you do with it?
This may seem blatantly obvious: you write it down. Duh. But I don’t think it’s that simple, and I’m sure any halfway experienced writer would agree with me. The truth is, the way you handle an idea is far more important that the idea itself or where it comes from.
Of the thousands of ideas have crept through my mind in the course of my lifetime, I’ve only picked a few dozen to actually develop, and of those few dozen, almost none of them have come to full fruition. They all get stuck somewhere between my head and the paper, and no amount of pushing from me can get them out. Ultimately, frustration forces me to abandon them, still half-born and screaming, to the dark, dusty recesses of my hard drive.
But there’s a price to be paid for aborting these ideas. They haunt the furthest corners of my mind, like vengeful ex-boyfriends determined to ruin whatever relationship I’m currently cultivating. And so, I have dedicated a disproportionate amount of my creative energy toward figuring out how to avoid this problem.
When I first started writing, before I had even encountered the concept of “spelling,” I was convinced the most important thing was plot. If I knew what was going to happen in the story, I could write it all down no problem. I would write brief outlines of each story in advance, sometimes only in my head, as though I were about to write an essay. This method gave birth to a number of hideously shallow projects and flat characters that I cringe to think of now, but more importantly I found that this method was, ultimately, boring. Why bother writing it if I already knew exactly what was going to happen? Where was the fun in that?
And so, as I got older, I turned my attention to character. After all, wasn’t the protagonist the most important part of a story? This thinking was probably at least partially rooted in my affinity for playing imaginary games (a habit that started in first grade and only grew stronger until well into high school, and even a few years beyond that; I would highly recommend it to any child), where my best friend Emily and I would start new “games” with a random assortment of people and only the very vaguest of settings. The elaborate worlds that grew out of these games convinced me that character was the root of all story, and that was the basis I operated on for years.
Thus, whenever I got the itch to start a new project, I started with character design. I would make long, complicated charts documenting every detail of every character, right down to their zodiac sign. I would hunt the internet for pictures of models who looked like them. I would write their diaries. Anything to figure out who they really were.
But in the past few years, I’ve found that assumption to be the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. There is something that, to me, is far more important than plot or character or anything else, and that is theme.
I first realized my affinity for theme when trying to write my screenplay Prince Charming, which initially occurred to me in early high school when I still thought character was the most important thing. The story’s foundation lay in its two main characters, Leo and Jules, who simply popped into my head one day and demanded that I let them out. I knew they were a movie, and I had attempted to write their story once before, but without a fundamental understanding of screenwriting the whole thing fell on its face. But when I found myself in a class, with professional screenwriters, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the two princes. Surely, this time it would work.
But as the class progressed, and the teachers stressed again and again the importance of having a central question to organize your screenplay around (an “armature statement”, as they would say), I quickly realized that Prince Charming had no point. It only had Leo and Jules.
It took me the better part of a week to figure out what Prince Charming was really about, and the answer was disappointing: the importance of being true to yourself. A lovely sentiment, of course, but ultimately the least original idea of all time. Essentially, I was writing every Disney movie ever. I stuck with the story anyway, for its commercial value and because its simplicity helped clarify the teaching points in the class, but in the end it didn’t appeal to me any more. It wasn’t about something important to me.
And so, when I enrolled in English 485 and was presented with the challenge of writing a novel in its entirety, I started completely from scratch. No old ideas, re-vamped to fit a new situation. No dead characters or faded sets or even any of my tried-and-true authorial banter. No glimmer of those ex-ideas and their grudges against me. Just a blank slate, and a theme.
And, miraculously, the story was born, happy and healthy. The haze developed into setting, characters stretched their arms and yawned as they emerged from nothingness, and an entire plot wove its way among them as if it had always been there, and all with relatively little effort from me. Of course, the Bottom of the Garden isn’t in any way finished. Indeed, I only have two chapters so far, but the rest of the writing is coming along nicely and I think I may even beat my self-set deadline for finishing the prose. And it’s all because I started from a theme.
And when I look back at the works I’ve most enjoyed writing (Pravda, Zvezda, and most recently the opening pages of the Frankenstein Theory), they all had established themes from the get-go. And when I look at my favorite stories (Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Galapagos, Isaac Asimov’s the Last Question, even movies like American Beauty and Fight Club), they all have really strong themes. They know exactly what they’re about, and they’re not shy in announcing it.
As much as I hate to admit it, I’m a theme writer. So much for not being pretentious, hey?
And so, I pose the question to you: Once you have an idea, what do you do with it? Are you the kind of writer who works it into a plot? Are you someone who prefers to attach characters to it and see what comes out? Are you a theme snob, like me? Or do you have an entirely different approach?
Let me know. :)
“The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder.” -Neil Gaiman
P.S. If you have some time to kill and want to see an amazing lecture on the creative process, check out Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), “On Nurturing Creativity.” Then spend some time poking around the rest of the lectures on TED Talks, because they’re all fantastic.
Bottom of the Garden: 2 chapters, 8,025 words completed
Prince Charming: Nothing done. Don’t judge me. XD