“Ideas are easy. It’s what to do with them that stops me cold.”
This comment by a writing student got me to thinking about the link between ideas and writing—between coming up with the seed of a story and actually getting that story on the page. It’s true that there’s a gap between the two. Having a great idea doesn’t mean you’re going to write a great story (or poem or essay). In fact, a great idea might not lead to a story at all. Because there is a step you have to take—a step that’s difficult to describe but very real—between coming up with an idea and manifesting that idea on the page.
You see a child playing with a twig as if it’s the most fascinating toy in the world, and you think I’d like to write about that. You remember an elder’s story about looking for pennies under the sofa cushions during the depression, hoping against hope that she’d find enough for a movie, and you imagine yourself writing a story about it. You see an item on the news about a body found floating in a lake, and the bare outline of a mystery novel similarly floats in you head.
But what then? How do you take that conception and turn it into a birth?
There are no easy answers to the question of how to move from an idea to a piece of writing. But there are some concrete things you can do that help make that leap. One way is to ask yourself questions about the situation, image, or issue that has come to you—and then answering those questions. Often, it is the answer that turns the idea into a piece of writing.
Here are some examples of questions you can ask yourself to help move an idea into writing:
1. Why is this happening? Why is the child playing with a twig. Is she simply imaginative and can easily think of the twig as a horse or sword or witch’s broom? Or is the child angry and envisioning the twig as an avenging weapon? Is the child lacking for playmates? Or is he enjoying the solitude of playing and imagining on his own?
2. What does this remind me of? Does the Depression-era girl searching for pennies remind you of a difficult time in your own life—or perhaps of a time of privilege, when you may not have appreciated all you had? Does it remind you of other images of want or desire?
3. Is there tension or conflict in this situation? If not, can you introduce some? One of the problems I see often from my beginning students is that they want to write about something they experienced, but in which there was no tension. Stories and essays need conflict: Something needs to be stuck, hindered, veering off course, or going awry. Years ago, I had one class in which fully half the female students wrote their first personal essays about their wedding days. They all, apparently, had lovely, perfect weddings and all reported to be still blissfully married. They also all wrote very boring essays. It took a lot of convincing for me to get them to see that a wedding that goes wrong is WAY more interesting than one that goes right.
Every idea needs conflict, and if a scene or image doesn’t have one, it’s your responsibility to add it. By itself, the image of a child playing with a twig is just an image of a child playing with a twig. But add a man watching from a distance. Now you’ve got something.
4. What does this person want? Does the poor girl want to go to the movie because she’s bored? Because all her friends are going and she feels left out? Because she is planning to meet a boy there, against her parents’ wishes? Because she wants to escape a violent household? What the character wants make all the difference.
5. Why does this intrigue me? One of the most powerful—but not necessarily one of the easiest—questions to ask yourself is why the scene or image appeals to you to begin with. What does it connect with in your psyche? What emotions does it bring up? What physical sensations do you feel when you think of it? Ideas don't come to you for no reason. Understanding what draws you to an idea can help you figure out what to do with it.
6. What if . . .? You can put almost anything after the “if” in this sentence, and what you put there will set you off in one direction or another. A girl is searching under the sofa cushion for pennies so she can go to a movie. What if
- She finds a picture of her mother with her arm around a strange man?
- She finds a gun?
- She finally collects enough money, but her elder brother comes in and steals it from her to go buy cigarettes?
- She comes up empty handed and tries to sneak into the theater?
For every idea you think of, you can list dozens of conclusions to the phrase, “What if . . .” The next time you get a story idea, try ending the sentence as many ways as you can—then pick the one that makes your heart race or your blood run cold, and you’re on your way.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...