It’s interesting to me how I come up with—or fail to come up with—ideas for new stories. I’ve been focused on the writing of the story, and have not trained myself well in the genesis of stories. When it comes time for me to sit down and write, a lot of times I get frustrated: I have so many ideas, but none of them come into focus for me when I need them to. I keep thinking of Rushdie’s idea of the “Sea of Stories,” and I imagine being a fisherman on this big lake full of stories swimming beneath, all swirling colors and varying sizes and shapes. All I need to do is cast well, to the right depth, with the right lure, and BLAMMO!—a story should bite. Set the hook, reel her in. Right?
Except, I’ve been so focused on the telling of the story—on the proper gutting, cleaning and filleting of story, of its ideal cooking temps and perfect sauces—that I’ve been ignoring the kind of bait I’m using. Turns out, I’ve been using the only kind of bait I’ve ever known, and not out of stubbornness or nostalgia, but simply because I never paid attention to that part of it. The bait I’ve been using is ideas.
By ideas I mean concepts, or conceits, or “What-ifs”. What if you had a character that is the embodiment of Tacoma? What if an uneducated kid finds a previously unknown manuscript by Mark Twain? How about a story about a man in a glowing suit?
It’s not that I don’t have some understanding of people and human nature, or that I am uninterested in character; I just haven’t had much experience using human nature as a starting point for building stories.
I just was thumbing through a writing book this morning, Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D., who dissects all the known formulas and dramatic structures. Dramatic Situation #1 of the 55 codified situations—to which all literature purportedly applies—is supplication (#2 is benefaction). The kernel here is a shared human experience: having to ask for something. It’s still a situation, but I can build a character around that experience, rather than trying to break my back imagining a story premise out of whole cloth.
I sat down this morning with just “supplication” in mind, and out sprang the beginning of a new story, about a upright fellow who plans to ask his boss for a raise, to secretly support a gambling habit.
See? So much easier to strike a match than to sit around rubbing two sticks together.