So Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I’m about to do something very foolish. Before I tackle the question of where ideas come from, I’m going to provide a funny, insightful, seemingly-off-the-cuff video of the master Neil Gaiman saying that the question has no answer.

Then afterwards, I’m going to try to answer anyway. I’ll give you three ways to generate ideas, and one special tip.

Method 1: What If?

At 2:40, Gaiman describes the moment of inspiration as “it’s that moment where you’re sitting, thinking, what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?”

We can actually break down what he’s just said, along with the moment before it. He started with something that’s well established, and then took it in a new direction. “What if?” 

You can start from lore and clichés as knowledge, or something about our world. This question is most often used in science fiction, but it can work for any genre.

We’ve heard about fountains of immortality. What if there was one on your property, and a family came back to use it again? (Tuck Everlasting.) We know about faerie godmother gifts. What if a faerie godmother’s gift was obedience? (Ella Enchanted.) Siblings are often difficult. What if a boy’s parents adopted a chimp and tried to teach it sign language? (Half-Brother.) Cemeteries are cool and filled with ghosts. What if a boy was raised by those ghosts in the cemetery? (The Graveyard Book.)

It’s that wonderful moment of looking at something from a new angle. Then, to build a story, the obvious question: “What would happen next?”

Method 2: Images

Gaiman soon realizes his werewolf chair story has to be winter, so that you can see chair tracks in the snow. This leap is caused by visualization, an image.

In my post on simplexity, I gave another example of building stories from images: Aimee Bender’s short story “The Healer”. From the image of a girl with a hand made of fire, and another with a hand made of ice, the whole story springs. The leading question is not “What happens next?” but rather, “Who are these people? What do they care about? Why is this happening?”

After you’ve got those handled, you can get into “What happens next?” Chances are you’ll have to walk your way through all of these questions before you’re ready to start actually writing the story.

Many writers get these images in dreams, but there are many possibilities. It could be something that haunts you, or another case of “What if?” that leads to it. Or something you’ve seen in art that you would like to take in a different direction.

A few kids’ books that could have started from images: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Dicamillo, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd.

Method 3: Theme

The last way I’m going to talk about isn’t mentioned in the video, but it’s exemplified in Gaiman’s newest kids’ book: Fortunately, The Milk.

In Gaiman’s earlier book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, (Definitely a “What if?” book) he came to feel that he was teaching the world thatfathers were oblivious, newspaper-reading occasionally carrot-eating lumps of distraction.” Fortunately, The Milk is his way to make up for that, by giving us a novel that has a father on a wild adventure.

Which means, the idea for the book came from a theme he wanted to portray.

As kids’ writers, we’re often told not to do this. “Don’t build your book around a lesson,” they say, even though it worked out great for books like Animal Farm by George Orwell or The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.

When kids’ books are built around a strong theme well, they often wind up as classics: Feed by M. T. Anderson; The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, etc.

Apparently The Wizard of Oz is about using the gold standard vs. the silver.

Special Tip: Don’t Stop

This is the most important trick. It takes time to find an idea worth writing a whole novel about. There are writers who believe first thought equals best thought (ex. Stephen King) but not many. Most agree you’re likely to find your best ideas if you write a list of thirty things, then go back to find your favourite.

There’s a Vonnegut quote (I thought it was in A Man Without A Country, but I can’t find it tonight) where a friend tells him that he has an idea for a novel. Vonnegut responds that’s too bad, because his friend is funny. One idea is enough for a serious novel, but a funny novel takes hundreds of ideas.

I’m not sure if that comparison is accurate. What I do know is that every novel I’ve tried to write has taken hundreds of ideas. (Eep! Maybe that means I’m funny!)

That’s actually why I find answering the “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” question difficult. It’s not because I don’t know how to get ideas. It’s that the ideas in my novel aren’t just one idea. They are a bunch of different ideas that got jammed together and then had the sides filed off because they weren’t fitting together well.

If it ends up looking like one idea, then yay. I did my job.

The trickier part of this question is really about recognizing a good idea, and knowing how to turn a so-so idea into a good one. Sounds like an idea for next week!

Learning from Pixar: Simplexity

Simplexity: Something that when glanced appears simple, but when examined reveals great detail, richness, and flexibility.

I’m paraphrasing, but I think that’s a good definition. I’ll start with considering how this applies to characters, then continue into how it can influence plot/structure.

(Relevant part begins at 2:35.)

Pete Docter (the co-writer/director of Monsters Inc. and Up) talks about how the characters’ shapes are tied to their personalities. He doesn’t say which came first, but we can assume that the personalities came before the shapes. Every aspect of character design then supports character.

The early designs for Sulley (from Monsters Inc) included tentacles, but they worried that audiences would lose focus on his facial expressions.

Clicking the Sulleys will take you to a video chat on the making of Monsters Inc.

The final image of Sulley is simpler. Sulley is a warm and loveable monster–he should have purple spots and a wide grin. It is more iconic, an easier model to slip into the story with. Which is part of the heart simplexity: multiple things are happening at once, but you don’t notice because they fit together so well. Everything is logically tied together, so that you can’t tell where it started.

Another example: 

EVE is sleek, elegant, and futuristic while WALL-E is boxy, awkward, and rustic. Don’t just notice the shapes, also notice the contrast. Whether conscious or only visceral, the difference between these characters has an effect on us. It identifies each character more cleanly by showing us an opposite. It also creates opportunities for dynamic interactions.

Simplexity doesn’t just work in animation. Short stories, novels, and picture books can also be tight, layered, and highly-visual, springing from a single concept. My guess is that it goes in a different direction though. When this goes well, it’s impossible to guess the origin, but here’s my gut…

Animators at Pixar start with an idea for a story, determine what their main characters’ personalities should be like, then create models, then create interactions.

Other writers might find inspiration in an image (often from dreams), and then ask themselves questions about “who these people are” and “what they want”. By doing this they develop a rounded character, and then discover events in the character’s life.

I’ve heard more than a few gardener/discovery writers who write fantastical stories describe their process in that way. When I write short stories for adults, I do something similar.

Aimee Bender‘s short story “The Healer” starts like this: “There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire and the other had a hand made of ice. Everyone else’s hands were normal.” Everything in that story flows logically, according to what a girl with a fire hand and a girl with an ice hand might be like. It’s achingly brilliant.

What would a child be like if he grew up in a graveyard? From this concept springs Bod and The Graveyard Book.

Okay. So that’s a bit on character. How might we simplexify plot?

(Minor spoilers for The Paperbag Princess and Howl’s Moving Castle ahead.)

Last year, the twenty-two “story basics” from Emma Coats (a former storyboard artist at Pixar) was reblogged a million times. For good reason. I could write a blog about almost every tip, but today I’ll focus on #4.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This list comes from Brian Macdonald’s Invisible Ink, which opens with a third-page blurb from Andrew Stanton (cowriter/director Finding Nemo and WALL-E). Macdonald admits he didn’t create the steps himself; he learned them from an improv troupe. He’s not sure where they actually originated, but he’s responsible for most of their popularity.

To see a workshop of the Invisible Ink steps in action, led by a Pixar storyboard artist, watch the video below.

I’ve read a lot of books on story structure. Almost all provide their own list of steps. (Which will be worth another post to compare.) The steps in Invisible Ink are the simplest I’ve come across.

There are two things worth noticing.

First, the middle steps (Act 2?) are not “and then”; they are “because of that”. In 6 Days to Air, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone discuss a similar trick for compressing stories. They change ands in their story progression into buts and therefores.

Example Therefore: Often we want a character to go somewhere, and the reason is that the next important thing in the plot happens at Location X. It isn’t really enough that a character has a burning desire to go to Location X. Something should have happened during Plot Event D that sends the character to Location X.  Ji-min gave her sister the last bowl of cereal; therefore, she goes to the store.

Example But: Similarly, a story might have an event that happens at the midpoint. Could be a math test. And the math test totally shakes up the plot. This is easier to accept than a sudden Christmas gift. If an event has to come into the story sidewise, then it should be an obstacle to the characters’ goals. Hamid needs to play in the big football game, but he can’t because he failed a calculus test.

Building stories around consequences makes plots fluid. It can be very difficult to find the right connections. When the rationale is found though, it makes every part of your story necessary and intertwined.

Simpler, but richer.

The second thing about Rule #4 that’s worth mentioning is that Coats omitted the final step: “And ever since then, ___”. In the Hero’s Journey, this is the equivalent of “Return With the Elixir”.

The idea is that it’s not enough for the hero to get what they want or to save themselves. Wisdom and happiness have to be shared to have value. (Although The Paperbag Princess would disagree.)

The audience at least have to see that something has changed, so that we know there was a purpose for the story. This could be as simple as a moon becoming full…

Where the Wild Things Are

or a character’s hair staying grey…

Howl’s Moving Castle

These are simple changes that carry meaning. Symbols of the journey. Using symbols is another great way to simplexify plot, but that will be examined next week.

After Disney bought Pixar in 2006, John Lasseter became the chief creative officer of both. His influence is evident in Disney’s computer animated films since then: Bolt, Tangled, and Wreck-It Ralph. Next Friday, we’ll take a closer look at one of them in my first detailed breakdown.