Forgive me, but this is going to be a very rushed entry today. I am currently back home in Shelby County, Kentucky tending to some personal matters. My fiancée is on her way home from Bosnia and that’s very exciting. I’ve been running all over the place on various errands for family members and, of course, there’s work and this horrible drought in our area. Everything is so scorched and bleak. You would think it would be exactly the motivation I need to finish my bleak dystopian novel, but it isn’t quite panning out that way. I’m more exhausted than anything.
So, I wanted to try to pick my spirits back up by leaving a few words on imagination and where I find my ideas.
Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up in Bagdad, Kentucky—a green slice of nowhere where barns are castles and trees are dragons and a decent-sized yard becomes a fantastical kingdom—but imagination was always important to me growing up. When you live on the outskirts of a town that most people in your own county couldn’t even place on a map, a shortage of playmates or diversions is something every kid must learn to cope with. So I learned to create at an early age. I created with my mind, using a tobacco stick for a sword (or light saber, once I discovered Star Wars). I created with a paintbrush and a fresh canvas, and honed my artistic abilities. And, of course, I created with a pencil and paper, and (somewhat later along the way) ten fingers and a keyboard.
I have tried to keep my imagination healthy. As most young people do, I think, I neglected it perhaps a bit in high school, but I never let it fall away completely. Books and movies were reminders to me of the way things used to be—the way things were meant to be. I would read the likes of Ursula K. Le Guinn and Robert Heinlein and imagine faraway worlds beyond the realm of known possibility. I would watch movies like The Dark Crystal and Willow and The Fifth Element and, of course, The Matrix, and even where the stories of those movies perhaps stumbled a bit, I would always see ideas and possibilities.
Along the way, I developed a few tricks of my own that I wanted to share. Ideas are crucial to writers. Without ideas, we have no words, or at least none worth writing down. My ideas, though maybe not particularly revolutionary, have served me well enough. Here are the strategies that have helped me pad my creative reservoir and ensure that I will have stories to tell well into my future:
The Mash-Up: One of my favorite ideas of late is to try to imagine how I would mash up two of my favorite genres. And I’m not just talking sci-fi vs. fantasy, although I don’t think nearly enough has been done to try to combine elements of the two. Get weird with it. Gothic Horror Spaghetti Western. Fantasy Murder Mystery. Zombie Romance. Let your imagination run wild. Even if you are unable to turn such an idea into a full-length manuscript, you may come up with a few smaller ideas that can be integrated into one later. As I’ve said often before, I keep a list of almost every good idea I have and I’m constantly looking for places to make them fit. Never be afraid to steal from yourself. No one has to know that you stole an idea from a project you may have abandoned.
The Trailer Guess: Another game I like to play is to watch a teaser trailer for an upcoming movie that I don’t know much about and try to guess what the story is behind it. If you find yourself in love with the story that you’ve imagined, write it down. Then, wait and see how close you were. If you’re like me, chances are you came up with something that was radically different from what the movie ended up actually being. I’ve even had a few moments where I felt that the idea I had developed was far better than the one that became a movie.
Well now you have this golden egg of an idea in your hands and it doesn’t match up with anything that has quite been done before. What should you do with it? That’s up to you. Try changing the characters, and I’m not just talking about names. Try making the protagonist more interesting or throw him out completely. Try to find an antagonist. Change the location around. You’re now well on your way to developing a completely new and separate work from the glimmer of inspiration you got from watching a 90 second preview in a movie theater.
The Sequel in Reverse: This idea is similar to the last one, but involves a little more tweaking on your part. If I see a movie that I really like, sometimes I will try to imagine what the sequel would look like. What’s the story? Which characters do I keep? What is the next logical conflict for the protagonist to endure? Then, I set about deconstructing that story backwards. I try to start with the ending and figure out how I got there. Do I throw out the main character and put a character of my own creation into the story? If I don’t find the world in which the original story took place to be of appeal, I throw it out and create a new world that is governed largely by the same rules as the first but more to my liking. You can even pepper in a bit of the mash-up approach here, too. Maybe you imagine the sequel in your head, but you try to combine it with a different genre that would staggeringly affect its outcome.
The last bit of imagination advice I’ll give you before I turn off and head to Louisville to see some old friends is the following list of questions. These questions always help get my mind going when I’m desperate for something original. I hope you’ll find them useful, as well.
1. What do I fear most?
2. What do I value?
3. How do my fears affect my values?
4. What would I do if I awoke one morning to find that one rule of nature had inexplicably changed?
5. How would _______ (alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, etc.) affect MY life?
6. What do I believe about human nature?
7. Who are the people who matter most to me?
8. What is the one thing I own with which I would never part?
9. What could a villain do to have the upper hand on me?
10. What is the best possible ending to a worst case scenario?