Mar. 22nd, 2012

tayastorm: (caffeine)
For starters, I think this question is one of the most frequently misunderstood. People seem to ask that meaning "where did this plot and this setting and these characters come from, and how did they all end up this way in this story?" Or if they understand the process, they mean "how did you put the ideas together?"

Let me next say that I'm coming up with this on the fly so there may be loose ends, but also that the point of advice is not to give the answers but to promote thinking, so the loose ends serve a purpose.

So what is an idea? It's a sort of mental shorthand for the world around us and all the things in it. The idea of sunlight produces things like a bright day as well as a cloudy day, solar energy and solar eclipses, a light source emanating from a massive ball of fire ridiculously far away but not nearly as far as other things. But it also holds its contrasts, the things it isn't that help define it. Artificial lighting has a similar purpose, but it's not the same. Night is largely obvious by the absence of sunlight (except where it's reflected by the moon).

Not everyone's ideas are the same, because not everyone uses the same shorthand, or has the same experiences, or has the same physical perceptions. For example, someone living in a place that was always overcast would have a different idea of sunlight than someone in the tropics, and different again to someone born without sight. We presumably all share the same sun though, and therefore the sunlight should be basically the same thing.

Which takes us back to the building blocks of it all, the stuff that we make the shorthand /about/. The fact that the building blocks are constant is essentially what allows us to have language. We can use trial and error to make sure what we're trying to communicate is what the other person is understanding.

The deliberately obtuse answer then is that we get our ideas by having the capacity to have mental shorthand. Obviously that's not very helpful in regards to the possible meanings of the question that I initially suggested. Not everyone with ideas turns them into stories, or writes those stories, or anything else.

Some people though have an inclination to take the ideas that they have, and breed them. Sunlight + magic = a magic system based on the light spectrum. Myths + new understandings of the natural world = worlds in which the myths were real all along. All those quiet people could get reused as a character, or inverted to create something completely different.

After that (not always literally afterwards in the thought process, of course) the new ideas start going together. The quiet guy becomes part of a small town that could be mistaken for a contemporary Earth town except for the unicorns, while the hot-headed and -hearted girl leaves the city and its bureaucratic sentient computers and discovers places that don't even have electricity.

This is all without even glancing at things like how and why, and the emotions and reactions of the characters. But hopefully you get the idea.

All of this leads me to ask myself why a relatively simple question got a small essay for a response. Let me take a small tangent.

When looking for writing advice, one of the things you're going to come across is that nothing is truly original. We've got stories about romances between conflicting groups, wars between peoples who aren't all that different, murders and mysteries and myths a-plenty.

So why do we still write stories? It's all been done right?

A friend the other day came across a website that was about various writing advice and why it was all bollocks. He mentioned it to me pretty much as "See? This guy knows that writing advice is useless." To which I responded at possibly more length than he expected why that wasn't necessarily true.

We say no story is truly original to try to counter the myth that a writer needs to find that perfectly unique idea. Of course if you take it at face value it's not true. Every character is - or certainly should be - a unique person, with their own past, future, appearance, abilities and behaviours, and the more unique characters you have together the less likely it is you'll find other books with a similar group of characters. Then throw in the settings of the story, and add little quirks based on your local area that only the locals would know about or things you've only dreamed about, use a political system that never got off the ground, and see if you can find another story like it. Don't forget to look at the character arcs and the writing style and the emotions and tones and everything else that makes a story.

Some people seem to think that writers pick story ideas full grown out of the air, or that only writers could put the parts of the idea together into a story. Except some people put the ideas together to create new products or design new buildings, and some writers put the ideas together in their head right up until the moment they're ready to put the story on the page. Sometimes the writer feels like the stories are coming from somewhere else because they aren't aware of it happening.

In the end it all comes down to the building blocks.

Where do I personally get my ideas from? Every single moment of a life that is totally unique to me. How (and why) do I put them together into potential stories? Curiousity mostly, and the need to escape, to make sense of things, and even to attempt to communicate my ideas to other people.

Now that I think about it, that probably would have been answer enough to the question. But you know what? If I had to have all that floating around in my head, you guys can share the suffering. Maybe you'll find some good advice or some food for thought in all that.

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Mar. 22nd, 2012 12:00 pm
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