The Power of Ideas
I’m trying something right now which may or may not be of use to anyone trying to put a story together.
Basically and briefly, I’m keeping a kind of ‘Idea Log’. I have opened a document and enter into it any sort of realisations or concepts or bits of connected thinking that pop up in my mind over the course of an ordinary day. I don’t place myself under any compulsion to do this, there is no pressure involved in it - but if something occurs to me after thinking about something, or a sudden idea pops into my head, into the log it goes.
By ‘idea’ I don’t mean a story idea. I don’t mean a notion I might have about how the next scene might work, or a piece of dialogue I want to insert, or a feeling about the way the story is going to go - they can all go into a separate log, if needed, or just straight into the story itself. No, I mean an idea in the sense of something philosophical: a realisation about Life, or relationships, or writing, or something big. I jot these into the log before I forget that I even had them. Occasionally, an idea materialises that isn’t altogether easy to put into words, so writing it into the log helps me to capture it.
Ideas of this kind - to do with Life, how it is lived, how things fit together, what it all ‘means’ - used to come to me rarely, and when they did, it was a Big Deal. Occasionally in my youth, being struck my one of these things (and they do sometimes seem to ‘strike’ you, almost physically) I would grab pen and paper and start to write and write about them, having a dialogue with myself, exploring and elaborating, delving and extending, until I had pages and pages of words. In the writing of such a thing, the initial idea often went in unexpected directions, and so the resulting document was a living exploration of something, developing and changing organically as it went along.
As I grew older, there were periods where such concepts would not occur to me at all. But eventually, there came a point when they were, thankfully, quite commonplace - I mean, the frequency of their occurrence became commonplace, while the ideas, by their nature, were always worthy of noting down and not ‘commonplace’ at all. Smartphones became useful for this, as obviously ideas didn’t always come upon me when I was sitting comfortably waiting for them. It was easy to jot something down on a phone while on a train or bus or even walking along.
How they apply to writing - or at least, to my writing - is that they help me develop the bedrock upon which a convincing work of fiction can be built.
Of course, a story needs its own foundations: a writer needs to have convincing characters, a good setting, a powerful plot and all the rest of it. But the real basics lie outside the story.
If you imagine, as covered in earlier blog articles, that a writer is trying to communicate a viewpoint about the world, there's nothing to stop him or her simply jotting that viewpoint on a piece of paper and handing it to a reader. The reader, if really interested, can read it - if not interested, they can discard it. How a writer can more or less guarantee that the reader will pay attention is by using the many mechanisms of fiction, as outlined in my book How Stories Really Work and elsewhere. But the key to the whole thing is what would have been written on that hypothetical piece of paper, before fiction’s tools are brought into play: the writer’s ideas, the writer’s message.
In keeping a log of my own ideas, as they occur to me, I find that my own philosophy of Life, my own understanding of the way it works, is growing every day. Things which I hadn’t expected to connect are connecting; things which I never knew would make sense in relation to each other are more often making sense. It’s a kind of ongoing personal ‘enlightenment’ and I don’t suppose there is really going to be an end to it. But even a half-formed enlightenment is extremely powerful when it comes to constructing a story-world. Characters, settings, plots, even elements of writing style, become much more starkly substantial and interconnected when they are underpinned by strong ideas.
Many great authors held to established philosophies outside their writing lives: almost any author you can think of in the last five hundred years probably had a fairly consistent world-view worked out, whether it was religious or atheistic, optimistic or bleak. From those core views, they drew potent ideas and images for their fiction. That’s largely why they are remembered as ‘great authors’.
I’m finding that, when writing fiction, things frequently feel ‘wobbly’ in my case. My stories from time to time seem insubstantial as I know, as their writer, that they truly are. They are, after all, sets of mechanisms designed to communicate something to readers. When I draw upon the things written into my Ideas Log, however, it is as though I have plugged into an electrical socket: the stories take on new depth, new meaning, new energy. That’s because their prime purposes have been revitalised, I think.
Some stories have little of importance to say: they are illusions for the sake of illusions, tricks of the light designed purely to provoke a passing reaction in their audiences. That’s fine. But a story that wants to pass the test of time and to be returned to again and again had better have something important and meaningful to say.
What my own stories say, stripped of their devices, is what is in my Ideas Log.
That may or may not work for you as it is doing for me. But it’s another approach that may prove helpful.