Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Idea Kernels

Today we're talking about opening our minds to story ideas. I don't know how all writers get their ideas, but I usually get little kernels. It's only after I've asked questions about the kernel, examined it, and lit a fire underneath it that it explodes into a fantastic plot.

Let's take an example. You're reading the newspaper and come across an article about the budget shortfalls affecting area schools. Really exciting...yawn.

Then, a few days later you're in your car, listening to the radio when you hear a species of a turtle long thought extinct has been discovered in Arkansas. Again--a real nail-biter.

A few more days pass and you're watching the nightly news. A gas-station was robbed, an apartment building burned to the ground, and real estate is as cheap as it's been in thirty years. What's new?

When you keep your ears and eyes open, your brain will take all of these seemingly random news' items and will stir them together in a unique way. You'll be driving and thinking of all the poor teachers facing job eliminations. Then you'll start to wonder what those turtles look like. And who would even recognize an extinct turtle? Certainly not me! And where did those people whose apartment burnt down go that night?

Stirring, stirring...

(Warning: The following is quite possibly the worst fiction plot of the century! Read at your own risk!)

What if one of those teachers was a young, let's say 23 year old, and let's call her Ramona. So, Ramona loses her teaching job. She could barely afford rent before because her student loans are sky high and now she has no idea how she'll make ends meet.

The writer in you is asking: what else could be wrong with this poor girl's life?

Well, her last boyfriend worked at a zoo and cared more about his precious snakes than he ever did about her, and she'd thought he was the one. She can't move back home because her mom and dad travel the country in an RV. Her best friend, formerly her roommate, up and moved out three months before, leaving Ramona with the full rent. She'll have to take a minimum wage job just to make it through.

Okay, we have some conflict, but how can we really up the stakes for Ramona? The idea isn't all that compelling yet. Start stirring some more...

Her last option would be to move to Arkansas and stay with her brother, Bobby, until she finds a job, but there's no way she's going to do that! He's the biggest slob on earth and she's particular about cleanliness. Not to mention he's driven her crazy since she was five year's old. No. Arkansas won't do.

Until Ramona's apartment building burns down and she's forced to make the toughest decision of her life. Jobless, homeless, possession-less, she has to move in with Bobby. When she calls to ask him, he agrees she can stay with him on one condition: she has to help him with a project. How hard can that be? She moves down and finds out that the project is his buddy Rick!

Rick knows he saw a turtle beyond classification last month. He's got to find it. His one dream has been to discover a new breed of turtle, and that dream is about to come true. If only he could find the elusive beast...

Bobby is worried about Rick. They've been best friends for years and while Bobby understands Rick's dream of finding a new breed of turtle, he's concerned about Rick's obsessiveness of late. He's stopped shaving, showering, working, and going out since he glimpsed the turtle of his dreams. He will stop at nothing to find it. Bobby begs Ramona to knock some sense into Rick.

Rick flabbergasts Ramona, until he tells her about the turtle and convinces her to help him look for it. She knows it's crazy, but can't help wanting to help this devoted, if non-groomed, man realize his dreams. Besides, she doesn't have a job, so she has time on her hands, in between cleaning up Bobby's apartment, of course.

Okay, you get the point. No, it isn't a best-seller, but a good writer could manipulate the above plot into a bestseller. All it takes is a few questions and you're off and running. I've read some outlandish fiction in my day, and some of the plots that shouldn't have worked were my all time favorites. It's all in how the writer handles the material.

Think about the nitty-gritty of the news you latch on to each day. Imagine real people experiencing these things. Lottery winners, missing children reunited with parents, families of murder victims, people losing their home to foreclosure--really think about these scenarios. And be compassionate; ask yourself questions as if you know the people going through these changes.
Don't be afraid to link together ideas that don't seem to be related. Make them related! And always ask yourself how you can make it worse. Take our example above: Ramona losing her job was the idea kernel. When I added her money problems, another layer was applied. If I would have thought, oh she can go move with her parents and everything will be hunky-dorey, the story would have ended. So, I made her parents nomads and made her brother her last, desperate hope. What on earth would make her turn to her last hope? Losing everything!

Why did I want her to move to her brother's? Conflict. Tension. And, don't forget, Rick. Hey, I'm a romance writer. I can't help myself! But what externally will bring her and Rick together? He convinces her to help him hunt for his turtle. What, then, will keep them apart? Her experience with Mr. Snakey who loved snakes more than her. Rick will have to put her before his turtle mania in order for these two to have a chance.

I hope you'll take a few of your idea kernels and explode them into story ideas. We're going to be discussing ideas all next week, too. Join me on Friday, when we'll discuss other ways to nurture ideas and I'll be highlighting a fantastic book by debut author, Tracy Madison.


Write Already--It's Wednesday!

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