Tuesday, January 04, 2011

New Ideas for the New Year

Jeffrey A. Carver is the author of numerous science fiction novels and stories, including the Nebula-nominated Eternity's End, Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries novelization, and the hard-SF series The Chaos Chronicles. Jeff also teaches writing in settings ranging from MIT to conferences for young writers, and he's dropped in today to talk about one of the thorniest challenges faced by many aspiring writers.

New year! New ideas! Where do you get your ideas? That's the question most asked of every science fiction writer I know. It's a good question, I suppose, though the answer is simple: everywhere, everything I read, everyone I talk to, everything I see on the internet or watch on TV, everything that filters into my brain is a potential story idea. I'm up to my ears in ideas! The real question is, how do you turn an idea—which can be anything, even a simple concept or image—into a story, which is a sequence of events, one arising from another, in which believable characters grow and change?

Here’s a simple idea that is not a story: The king dies, and the queen dies.

Yes, things happen, but there's no motivation cause or reason, nothing to care about. Here's that same idea, turned into the nucleus of a possible story: The king dies of a mortal wound, and the queen dies of sorrow. How much character, how much cause and effect, is embedded in that one sentence?

For many aspiring writers, this is the critical problem: getting from that magical idea to an actual story. An exercise I often do with students is to tell them: Think of a power possessed by an individual. A magical power, a supernatural power, a scientific or political power: it doesn't matter. Then think of the greatest single benefit of that power, and the greatest single drawback. Write a scene that illustrates both. Surprisingly often, what the students come up with leads them directly into a chain of characters colliding with themselves or with each other, which then grows into a full-blown story. It's all about consequences, taking something you know (or decide) to be true, and thinking through the consequences.

Some of you reading this particular blog might not be science fiction readers. Maybe you think science fiction is all about spaceships and time travel and aliens—but not about people. Guess again. Would it surprise you if I—a hard science fiction writer—said that the most exotic planets and the coolest spaceships and the coolest aliens are a lifeless dud without real people to inhabit them, or fly them, or meet them, and provide them with purpose in a story? My characters are the most important part of any of my stories. (They might be human and they might be alien and they might be robots, but they're people.)

What's the connection between this and what I was saying about ideas? It's that the most crucial part of taking an idea and turning it into a story is the human element: Who wants what, and why, and what are they willing to sacrifice to get it? That's what it all comes down to in the end, and pushing yourself to think through those questions is how you get from idea to story.

Great to meet you all! And thanks, Terry!

You can also learn more about Jeffrey's work at his website, Science Fiction Worlds, or at his blog, Pushing a Snake Up a Hill. Aspiring young writers should check out his free online writing course at http://www.writesf.com.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great point. I've heard many people tell me that they "had an idea for me" to write about--but there wasn't enough there to actually make a story with. It takes some conflict and some characters that come to life. Nice post. :)

Kristi Helvig said...

I LOVE sci-fi and just finished writing my first sci-fi YA book. These are great points--my favorite compliments from my crit partners about my book are how much they love the characters. World-building is important, but you're right-- if the reader doesn't care about the characters, then the world won't matter. Thanks for a great guest post!

Jeffrey A. Carver said...

I think most writers have the experience of people saying to them, "I have a great idea. Can you write it for me?" The idea is the easy first step. The payoff is figuring out how to make a story of it.

Good luck, Kristi, with your new book!

Phoebe Conn said...

The silliest idea I've ever received from a fan was the fact her furnace came on while she was on vacation and the heat melted nearly everything in her house!
Wow, maybe I can work up a conflict with the furnace repair man!

Linda Wisdom said...

Great post, Jeffrey! And so true that it still takes real people to add to the sci fi experience.

So many ideas start out as a 'what if'. Some make it, others don't. The challenge is figuring out which ones will make it.

Doranna Durgin said...

See, there's a *reason* I just got the Chaos Chronicles omnibus.... ;>

Jeffrey A. Carver said...

The author thanks you, Doranna. :)

The Chaos books are an example of a simple idea blossoming into not just a story, but a six-volume story (or will be when it's finished). The simple idea was that small bodies like asteroids or comets are subject to chaotic gravitational influences from moving planets, and once in a while one gets flung right at us. I wanted to expand that core notion so that chaotic elements would be a part of the inner life of my protagonist. So I started by putting him in a confused state on the surface of Neptune's moon Triton, and then threw his life into chaos with an unusual sort of alien contact. The story grew organically from his character and his needs, as well as from outside influences.

Miriam MInger said...

One of my historical romances, Wild Angel, set in medieval Ireland, grew out of the Jimi Hendrix song Voodoo Chile, so you never know where inspiration might strike!