Isaac Asimov once wrote that “where do you get your ideas?” is the question fans asked him most often. He found the question frustrating. Ideas for stories are all around you, he said; just reach out and grab one. That indirectly expressed the facility he had for seeing the vast number of phenomena that a curious mind can mine for attractive ideas.
Let’s go to the bedrock and work our way up from there: What constitutes an idea that would be grist for a fiction writer’s mill? Categorically, mind you; not specifically. Because “idea” is a label for a very general class of things. We want a definition for a more specific category: “an idea for a story.” Let’s see: what characteristics must attach to “an idea for a story?”
- It must pose a problem for people to confront;
- The problem must be non-trivial.
The first of those requirements flows from John Brunner’s Laws of Fiction:
- The raw material of fiction is people.
- The essence of story is change.
So your idea must involve people – the characters your story will depict – facing a problem and straining to cope with it.
The second requirement is tougher. There are a lot of trivial problems to be solved, and each of us solves a multitude of them every day. As a mathematician might say, they’re problems with known solutions – in the usual case, many known solutions. We pick one, apply it, and continue on to whatever comes next. It’s a familiar process; we call it “life.”
But no one wants to read a story about the trouble you had choosing a pair of socks, or washing the coffee residue out of your favorite mug. Trivial problems are...well, trivial. They involve no ingenuity, no hard thought or effort, and change nothing of significance about you or the world around you. A reader wants to see your protagonist “work for it.” His problem should put him through a wringer, whether he solves it or not: something that would change him or others in a definite way. The alien monster must not take one look at the hero, scream, and commit suicide. Neither should the girl swoon and throw herself into his arms without some effort on his part.
One of my favorite stories, which appears in this collection, arose from an utterly ordinary phenomenon: abandoned babies found on the church steps. That’s been a common way for a mother who can’t (or won’t) care for a baby to divest herself of the problem ever since women first had unwanted babies (and churches first had steps). The Church has a policy of always taking in such infants and doing the best it can for them, whether that means turning them over to an order of nuns to be raised, finding willing adopters, or whatever. But caring for some infants brings more trouble than others. After all, wasn’t that true of yours?
I was reading about a case of that very sort when the idea struck me: What if the abandoned infant were a vampire? What would the Church do then? Imagining the terrible contradiction that would confront the priest who finds such a baby, and imagining the differences of opinion that could arise among his brothers in the cloth, gave rise to my story “Foundling.”
“Foundling” is a very emotional and deeply religious story: the former entirely because of the latter. It would have been a lot harder to write for someone who has no faith. But there’s no guarantee that a particular idea will suit the orientation and skills of the writer who comes up with it. That’s just the way the dice fall, sometimes.
Yesterday’s story made use of a problem I’d been suffering from for a while: the scourge of post-nasal drip. No, it doesn’t kill you; it just makes you wish it would. And millions upon millions of tormented souls are suffering from it as you read this. But what if you were to find an effective remedy? And what if that remedy had a side effect that’s too terrible – or too funny – to be borne? Such that unless your protagonist does something clever, he won’t be able to reap the vast fortune his remedy would otherwise provide him?
Now there’s a fine story idea! It’s a problem a pharmacologist must face and solve, and a serious one at that: Either successfully suppress the side effect, or no vast fortune!
And with that, I was off to the keyboard. But where did the idea come from? Why, from my very own post-nasal drip...and from my realization that whoever could beat this terror from the depths of Hell would be able to open his own mint.
I didn’t have to look too far away for that one, did I?
“The more you look, the more you see,” wrote Robert M. Pirsig in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Truer words were never spoken, written, or encoded in Braille. Just looking at people, noting their trials and travails and what they must often do to surmount them, will provide a writer with more story ideas than he could use up in one lifetime. That’s the biggest reason a writer must have a life away from the keyboard; he who isolates himself will run dry of ideas faster than you can chug a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. Inversely, he who immerses himself in the life of Man will have the inverse problem: time and energy enough to use all the fascinating possibilities that occur to him as he strolls along, watching others live their lives.
And speaking of Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters, infinite improbability drives, tea properly made, and the like, where do you suppose the late, hilariously funny Douglas Adams got the idea for the opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, hm? Might it have been from a condemnation order against his home, or perhaps a neighbor’s, to make way for a new road? Pretty commonplace stuff...but the idea behind it was priceless, as is Adams’s first and best novel.
There’s more to say about ideas, of course: plot ideas versus character ideas, picking the best setting in which to stage a story around a particular idea, what sort of protagonist would suit your new idea, what length the story should be, and so forth. But let’s leave that for another day. I have a lot to do today, and I’d like to get in some fiction writing time before I turn to the more mundane chores. You see, I was just thinking about the icky mess that collects at the bottom of the cats’ litter boxes, and it gave me this idea...
Later, Gentle Reader.