Growing up, one of my favorite heroes was MacGyver. Revisiting that show now is an exercise in 80s nostalgia, but there was something he taught me about creativity.
You have to embrace your limitations and work with what you have.
Coming to novel writing from a film background, I was used to having to tell stories only with the assets I could easily access. I only had so many actors I could work with, and they could only pull off certain roles convincingly. I had to tell stories that fit the locations I could beg, borrow, or steal. I didn’t mind, because with some perseverance, I got to tell stories while others bemoaned that they couldn’t get their projects off the ground because they didn’t have the resources to pull off the big expensive movie they wanted to produce.
Now, my first novel was a bit rebellious to the MacGyver mindset since I no longer needed to cast anyone, worry about directing actors, or wonder how much it would cost to create a realistic looking floating city with visual effects… but, I had learned my lesson.
In film, if you have a big bag of money dropped on your lap (which really only happens if you play the lottery, which I don’t recommend), you can make anything you want… but it’s easy to have choice paralysis. The first exciting idea that jumps to mind is a relief from this paralysis, and it’s tempting to latch on.
But there is an issue with first draft ideas. If it comes easily to you, it’ll come easily to the audience, and the story has probably already been told before because you’re just subconsciously stealing from stories or events that have impacted you in your past.
To generate ideas for stories, I whittle everything down to the one scene that’s at the heart of the story. It’s generally the scene that is the most honest representation of what I’m wrestling with personally, and honestly, it’s therapy for me to work through it.
Oddly enough, I know I’ve found something special when I can picture it in my mind and my scalp tingles. I’d like to think it’s as cool as Peter Parker’s ability, but it’s little more than autonomous sensory meridian response (I still think it’s cool). It usually hits me when I’m listening to appropriate music.
From that non-contextual scene, I start building characters and the world from there. Usually these scenes are lodged somewhere in Act 3, which allows me to build up nicely for the payoff I’m hoping for. Otherwise, this amazing moment won’t have earned its place in the hearts of the audience if they’re still trying to get their bearing on the story. It’s fine to have a great opening hook strike at first, but I have to have an equal to or better moment later, or else the work lacks escalation.
I start asking questions like, ‘How did the characters arrive to this point?’, ‘What sort of interactions can they have that will make this scene interesting for me?’, and finally, ‘Okay, can I now throw away the first few ideas until I’ve surprised even myself so the audience won’t be expecting this?’
By starting small and looking at the few elements available to me in that one scene, I can brainstorm many, many ideas and really dig into realms that will set apart my story from all of the influencers bouncing around in my brain. Otherwise you’re likely to get a clone of my favorite stories all mashed up together in a mostly recognizable mess.
I look at creativity as the combining of elements in new ways. If you’re forced to work with certain elements, then you have to spend time developing relationships between those things in ways people might not expect, and while the audience looks for the familiar, they don’t want to see the same exact thing again in their entertainment.
In short, if I’m stuck, I simplify. My ideas are generally manifestations of things I fear or struggle with, because then I’m more likely to reach others if I’m being honest with myself. Beyond that, the story unfolds after I’ve found my cornerstone, and then the roller coaster ride takes off.
Besides, if it’s not fun for me to write, then I can’t expect my readers to enjoy the ride either.
So go forth, combine things that excite you, and spend the time in the trenches until you’ve dug deep enough that you can’t help but smile over the epiphanies you’ll soon let unfold to your readers.
About the Author
Ryan Dunlap is a storyteller accustomed to weaving tales with twenty-four images per second, and wrote/directed the feature film Greyscale. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is told he should have been born a century ago. He is the author of the steampunk novel “The Wind Merchant” which you can buy on Amazon! You can also follow him on twitter, watch his short films on Vimeo, “like” him on Facebook, or just visit his website.
Nicely done Ryan
You win on so many levels, Ryan.