Monday, March 29, 2010

The art of making connections

The question 'where do you get your ideas?' is often asked of writers and so today I thought I'd discuss the process I use to dream up stories. I'm not saying it's a good story writing method, nor that it'll work for anyone else, merely that this is the way I work. I won't be discussing the nitty-gritty of putting words on paper, defining character, plotting and a thousand other things writers do. I'm purely looking at ideas and how they become stories. And the word that most often comes to mind in trying to describe this process is 'connections' to the extent I believe that the art of fiction is the art of making connections.

It works like this. Let's say I have an idea for a romantic story (and these ideas really are the first things that are coming to mind so be prepared for this not to work!) featuring chalk and cheese characters who hate each other but learn to see each other's qualities. I don’t have a romantic bone in my body so that idea is likely to get forgotten about quickly, but let's say I decide it might be interesting to explore if it's true that opposites attract. That idea is a valid premise for a story, but it'll need more detail before it becomes a piece of fiction. Now let's say that later I move on from having romantic thoughts and I have a second idea to write a shipwreck story. People are marooned on a desert island and after much adventure, seafood barbecues and making a raft out of coconuts they live to sue the cruise company. Again it's a valid idea for a story, but again it's not much of a start. Then later I wonder about writing a Pink Panther type story (as in the original film premise) in which a charismatic jewel thief steals a fabulous diamond that's tucked away in a mansion that is accessible only by using wires and knowing where the burglar alarm's off button is. And then on another thoughtful day I think to myself that it'd be fun to write a 'Take me to your leader' alien invasion sci-fi yarn.

I've spread myself across the genres there with romance, adventure, crime and sci-fi, and in reality these four story ideas will be amongst many that come and go, but let's say that these four stick in the mind and refuse to go away. So which of these ideas should I turn into a piece of fiction? I could pick the one I like the best and try to develop it more, but curiously I often find that the best option is to write them all, together, in one story. This is because my ideas become fiction when I start making connections by linking, either deliberately or accidentally, various disparate concepts and themes.

Take the first two ideas of chalk and cheese romance and shipwreck adventure. There's an obvious connection here because one way to put two different people into a situation where their opposing views will clash in an interesting way is to isolate them somewhere where their survival is threatened. So instead of having two stories, one a romantic tale of true love and the other an adventure shipwreck tale, I could link them into one story of a romantic shipwreck tale. Instantly a story suggests itself: a man and a woman who are different in many ways and who initially hate each other are marooned together on a desert island and through adversity they learn to appreciate each other. Two minor ideas have now come together and the end product is something that is starting to feel intriguing. Already I'm envisaging the scrapes these two people might get into, the bickering over whether to eat bugs, the scene where one person says don't go into the sea and the other does anyway and then gets bitten on the toe by a crab. I'm also envisaging who these people might be: Cary Grant and Doris Day perhaps.

Anyhow, let's now make a connection to the third story idea of the clever jewel thief. Obviously a jewel heist doesn’t fit into a story set on a desert island so the idea could provide the opening scene that explains why one of the characters is on the boat that sinks in the first place. The first thought that comes to mind is to go against stereotype and make Doris the jewel thief. Perhaps Doris steals a diamond from a gangster. To escape his wrath she stows away on a boat that gets shipwrecked leaving her on an island with Cary...

In an instant I can envisage a big chunk of this story. It starts with a tense opening chapter where Doris breaks into an exotic island hideaway owned by Mr Big. She gets away with a jewel, but she's seen and chased all over the island by various gun-toting bad guys. With the gangsters closing in she stows away on Cary's boat that he's about to pilot to the mainland. There's a storm. The boat sinks and they're shipwrecked. Doris may be resourceful but she's used to mixing in high society and not roughing it on the beach, whereas Cary is rough around the edges but has survival skills. They argue, but she needs his practical instincts to survive and he needs her ability to think problems through. They get closer, but when their fire attracts the attention of a passing ship, it's not help coming, it's the gangsters...

This is now starting to sound like fiction. Sadly the fourth idea for a story was a sci-fi one about an alien invasion which doesn’t obviously fit in. Mmmm, well I'll stick with the challenge I set myself and see if there's a connection to be made. Let's say Cary is a Seventh Day Venusian, a bizarre sect who believe creatures from Venus will return to earth on a given day and turn us all green. He's calculated they'll land on a remote island. So I'll get rid of the storm and replace it with him deliberately ship-wrecking himself on the island to meet the Venusians not knowing Doris is on board. Now they both have a motive for being on the island and it's sure to cause trouble. Just as they're learning to appreciate each other, Cary will find out that Doris is a criminal, which is sure to make him think twice about having romantic feelings for her. And in return she'll discover that he believes in little green men, which is sure to have her diving into shark-infested waters to get away. But in the end the story will show that the path of true love never runs smooth when he's fluent in Klingon and she likes dangling upside down collecting jewels...

All right the last element might take some more thought to make it work, but from four simple story ideas I now have the complete outline to a valid piece of fiction purely by finding connections. And of course if it's an outline that sounds interesting enough to write, the moment I start writing it could well take a different direction as I start making new connections. But that is how stories come to me. I have simple ideas and I connect them to make something that's more complex and which feels interesting enough for me to write.

To finish I'll mention how this approach has worked in reality. I often find that to start writing I need to connect three ideas, one of which usually turns out to be a plot idea, one of which is character based, and one that is factual. My last Avalon Western The Treasure of Saint Woody started with three ideas. One idea came from watching an episode of King of the Hill in which Hank Hill opined that: we take pigs seriously around these parts. That made me think that westerns have plenty of cattle rustling while perhaps not dealing as much as they could do with pig rustling. On another day I was thinking about western dime novels and how it was interesting that fictional tales of Wild West action were being written at the same time as the real Wild West action was taking place. And then later I mused about the cavalry and how the traditional depiction of tough military-minded soldiers was perhaps at odds with the fact that most of the cavalry were ordinary men wanting a job. I had a vision of real fort life being closer to Bilko than John Ford. So those were my three ideas of: pig rustling, western dime novels and Bilko. Then in an idle moment I realized how I could connect them. And that gave me a story... But you'll have to read the book to find out how I connected them!

I J Parnham


Sandy Cody said...

Great post, Ian. It captures perfectly how bits and pieces of imagination morph into a story.

Carol Hutchens said...

What a great teaser, Ian!
Really enjoyed reading about your writing process. My way seems boring compaired to reading about your Doris and Cary example.
Thanks for sharing.

Elisabeth Rose said...

Pig rustling! What a brilliant image. LOL

I really like the 3 ideas connection. Very interesting post.

Jane Myers Perrine said...

Very interesting! I love to know how other writers' minds work.