Directing the Imagination
We all use our imagination – every time we think about what will happen if we do this or don’t do that, make one decision or another, trying to predict the consequences. To get an idea for a story, it’s only necessary to point the imagination in a specific direction. And that direction is determined by personal preference and what kind of story you want to tell.
Start with a source, from the nightly news to a scholarly article to anything else. It can be what you normally read (or watch or listen to) or something you specifically choose as inspiration. For example, I like Science Daily, which has interesting articles about fascinating new discoveries – material useful to inspire ideas for speculative fiction.
There was one article about certain parasites that get into the brain and actually control behavior. One of which gets inside ant brains and makes them march up blades of grass and cling to the top and just wait for some sheep to come by and eat them along with the grass. Because where that parasite really wants to be is inside a sheep’s intestines.
Think about the possibilities inherent just in that one article – what might be different? If not an ant’s, what other brains might a parasite target – pigeons, domestic pets, or people? Each answer leads to new questions. How would the parasite get into its host? The potential answers vary depending on what that host might be.
More importantly, what kind of change in behavior might that parasite produce? Something that would be weird, scary, hilarious, or all of the above? And the big question wanting an answer – to what purpose? What does the parasite need to achieve? And does the change of behavior it engenders lead directly to that goal, or is it an incidental by-product?
Each potential answer is part of an idea, and when you string together a number of those in a way that makes sense and sounds interesting, you have the seed of a story. (And the various combinations of possible speculations from that one article alone are probably in the millions.)
You can even select among different possibilities based on the kind of story you want to tell. If you’re writing horror, you could choose to have a parasite turn loving pets into vicious killers. If you desire comedy, the parasite might make people blurt out embarrassing truths. And those are just a couple of examples.
Extrapolate from everything you read or hear or see, directing your speculation according to what you want to write. All you need to do is keep thinking things through. Then try and describe the premise for a story in a single sentence.
Using the previous examples, a story could be about a parasite in pet food that makes dogs attack their owners, because that parasite thrives on human blood. Or a parasite in bottled water that makes people blurt out embarrassing truths because it excretes a chemical that lowers speech inhibitions to increase the stress-related hormones it feeds on.
Anything can be a starting point for such speculation – crime reports, political news, or what happened at your sister’s wedding. Set aside the reality and start imagining what might’ve been different. Let your mind follow a trail of ‘what if’s until you find something that appeals to your imagination.
Now you have the beginning of an idea for a story, but some of the basic building blocks needed for a narrative are still lacking. But the premise is a seed, and when you start examining its DNA, you’ll find the other elements you require.
This is the first step of my SPEC method for developing story ideas. Next week: C is for Character.