I used to have troubles coming up with writing ideas. Nothing I did felt interesting, or if I managed to come up with something it would fail in practice – the ogre in the musketeer uniform would be just that, a dressed up ogre, and nothing more.
A dressed up ogre is boring. Just mashing together two concepts isn’t enough. You need something more.
That’s where the double whammy of “if … then” and “why” works wonders.
Generating Ideas with “Why”
This is a Japanese technique, or so I’ve heard: you start with something, anything, an image, a character, a piece of plot, and then you ask why.
[bctt tweet=”Idea generation: start with something, anything, and then you ask why, five times.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]
Let’s start with “a bird on a branch”. Now we ask “why is it on that branch?” Because it’s escaping the cat. Boring! But wait, we’re not done yet. In order to work, we have to ask why after why after why. At least five times, and the more the better. So let’s do it.
- There’s a bird on a branch. Why?
- Because it’s escaping from the cat. Why?
- Because the cat is trying to eat it. Why?
- Because Jimmy let the cage door open. Why?
- Because he’s angry at his little sister. Why?
- Because she’s getting a toy train that he’s been wanting all his life. Why?
- Because their parents love her more. Why?
- Because she’s the illegitimate daughter of the man the mother really loved.
So now we’ve got conflict, a love triangle, a lonesome boy who might or might not be mean, a sister that’s caught in the middle and may or may not be using her status against her older brother. We started with a bird in a tree and with seven questions (this entire exercise took me all of four minutes – no it wasn’t prepared in advance[note]WYSIWYG live, baby![/note]) we got a character, a problem, and a setting.
Let’s try this again, but starting with a set piece rather than a situation: a waterfall made of molten metal.
- There is a waterfall of molten metal, glowing white hot. Why?
- Because metal is spewing forth from the ground. It’s a geyser of white hot droplets. Why?
- Because there’s a fusion reaction going on in the planet. Why?
- Because there’s a bomb in the planet. Why?
- Because it’s a mining operation using nukes. Why?
- Because it’s cheaper to transform a planet into a molten ball than to use miners. Why?
- Because the people doing the mining don’t care about what they do to the planets. Why?
- Because they’re a rogue fleet exploiting whatever chances they get in order to survive.
[bctt tweet=”There is a waterfall of molten metal, glowing white hot. Why?” username=”FilipWiltgren”]
So, now we’ve got a setting (nukes being used to mine), a problem (there’s a rogue fleet) and, depending on who we want as a protagonist me might have the story of the settler fighting the big bad miners, the brave freedom fighter trying to guide his fleet to escape the evil empire, or the captain trying to hunt down a superior force that’s deserted.
Either way, it’s something to start with. But it’s not quite enough to solve the ogre musketeer problem: how does all of this make sense?
Use If … Then Creates Plots that Make Sense
Let’s say we’ve got the nuclear mine[note]Ha, I made a pun![/note]. What would that type of technology mean to the society in our world? That’s where the If … Then sequence comes into play:
- If it is possible to mine quickly and effectively using planet-destroying nukes Then it would be pointless to mine using other methods.
- If everybody mines using planet-destroying nukes Then planets would either have to be in plentiful enough supply that nobody cares about destroying them, or planets would be growing scarce (here we need to make a decision, let’s say planets are growing scarce).
- If planets are growing scarce Then we either need to be running out of living space OR we’re running out of mining space (possibly both, but they’ve got different implications, let’s say we’re running out of mining space).
- If a lot of planets have been mined dry Then there must be a mass of raw materials used somewhere or we need to start with a small enough world, like our solar system, that would make every planet mined a disaster; but that would be problematic. Let’s say there’s a mass of raw materials used up somewhere.
- If there’s a lot of raw materials used up somewhere Then we need to either build huge structures or transform that material into something else. So we end up with either Dyson Spheres or metals used up in propulsion.
[bctt tweet=”What would plot point X do to your world? That’s where asking If … Then works wonders.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]
The propulsion angle would work for a rogue fleet. We’ve got a fleet that destroys a planet looking for stuff to throw behind itself as well as creating more ships. Oh, let’s say that it’s a society that lives off metals, a society of all robots. So the rogue fleet is a robotic fleet going through planets in order to survive, or create more fleets. And they don’t recognize biological life as sentient, only silicon/metal based life forms. So now we can even have them appear in the solar system. They’ve just turned Mars into a glowing ball and are busy sucking the metals out of it. Will Earth be their next target?
Yeah, it’s a trite premise, “big, bad monsters from outer space”. But there’s a logic to their actions. Perhaps we can use the logic to create some sort of plot that won’t feel contrived. Perhaps humans can’t stop the fleet, but instead manage to hook onto it somehow, living as parasites on planet-destroying ships.
It may not be the greatest plot in the world, but it is the start of a plot. It’s something that you can work with. And it took all of 20 minutes to generate those ideas. If you need truly original plots and ideas, just continue the chain of thought. Keep going until you’re happy, then erase all the parts that don’t fit.
If nothing else you will give your idea muscles some practice.