Sunday, January 31, 2016

What If?

I’ve written about how I develop ideas into stories in some detail, but I want to give a more direct answer to the common question – where do you get your ideas?  The simple fact is, they’re everywhere around us, if you just know where to look.  Or rather how.

It begins with asking the right question.  Although usually associated with speculative fiction, it doesn’t matter what sort of story you’re talking about – they all start with a ‘What if?’

Wherever you look in your own life and the people around you, or the things you read about in the news, or even articles about history or science or somebody’s biography, you can ask that question about anything.  What if an accidental death was really a clever murder?  What if someone like him fell for someone like her?  What if there was a convoluted conspiracy behind that bizarre event halfway around the world?  What if scientists came up with a device that did this?  Or a pill that had that unforeseen side effect?

All you have to do is ask yourself hypothetical questions about anything and start imagining possible answers.  And when you get excited by what pops into your head, that’s a potential path to a story you might want to write.  That could be your story.

It doesn’t matter if it sounds vague (that will change) or unoriginal (that will too.)  Keep asking further questions to dig deeper and develop the idea to make it your own, and it will become more and more interesting to you.

What do I mean?  The idea for my Slowpocalypse series began with one question – what if the collapse of civilization came not in a single moment of obvious, overwhelming destruction but so slowly and subtly that most people didn’t even realize an apocalypse was taking place?  A death by a thousand cuts that didn’t appear fatal until it was too late to save society.  And for me, the obvious follow-up question was this – what about the few who knew there was no way to stop the bleeding, that our modern world was doomed?  What would they do?

That would depend on who those people were.  So I asked myself who they might be, how they could know, and what they might do.  Until I found my story in a small group of people who were working to prepare for the rebuilding which would come after the collapse.

Or take my Watchbearers books as an example.  The initial ‘idea’ was simply this – what if researchers from the future traveled back to our time to study us?  And what if they got stuck here?  Hardly original, not very specific, or much of an ‘idea’ at all.

But then I began asking myself more questions.  What kind of future would those time-travelers have come from?  Why would they choose ‘our time’ specifically to study?  Who would they be as individuals, and what would motivate them?  How would they travel back in time?  How would they prepare for all the things they’d have to deal with as ‘strangers’ in our time?  And the most important question of all – what could go wrong?

Each follow-up question arises naturally out of that first ‘what if?’ and all the potential answers are connected – they have to fit together in a way that will make sense.  Eventually everything forms a complicated matrix that’s the DNA for a story, containing all the necessary genetic information about the characters and their world and the possible storylines that might unfold.  When I have that, I’m ready to write.

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