When Ideas Make Love
Recently I heard of the notion that progress is made when ideas make love.
This is true of ideas in writing as well.
One of the dangers in writing—any kind of writing, but, I fear, especially genre writing—is that you will settle for a cliché instead of a fresh idea. Orson Scott Card once warned that when you brainstorm for a new idea, the first couple that pop into your head are going to be clichés. Cliches are the low-hanging fruit of the archetypal world. In his example, he would ask a class of science fiction writers to design a race of aliens. Inevitably, in class after class, the first few “aliens” suggested would be reptilian or dog-based or cat-based…each class churned up the same tired ideas unless challenged to step past that first easy, over-obvious thought. Lazy thinking leads to stale writing.
One trick to overcome this is to mate two unrelated images. Let us say you have a story about three soldiers trying to make their way home after a war. You might allude to an archetypal antecedent such as the Odyssey, which is also about a warrior trying to make his way home after a war. Adhere to this too closely, and you’d just have a retelling of the Odyssey—which is fine if that’s what you want, but let’s assume you don’t want it that close. So maybe you also throw in an homage to the Zodiac. Your hero’s journey takes a year and in each month he encounters a monster or obstacle related to the astrological sign of that month. This is pretty absurd, but that’s what makes it work—especially if your story has nothing to do with the Zodiac. It’s not something you need, or want, to make obvious. You don’t have the hero say, “It’s time to meet the Embodiment of Pisces.” What I’m talking about is not the overt mythology or world-building in your story, but just the opposite. I’m talking about taking a wild card and throwing it in the mix.
What does this do? It forces your creative mind to get off the easy road of cliché and go to work. “Hm,” you think, “In Yawning Moon month, they should meet a element related to a fish. But they are traveling through a desert. How are they going to meet a fish? Hey, what if they come to a temple built from the fossils an ancient marine sea monster….” Until that moment, you might not have realized that there was a temple built from fossils in the desert!
You can use this technique for deepening characters too. It can help to have secret totems for your characters. These are metaphors that you don’t share directly with your readers, only indirectly. For instance, if you character is a were-elephant, that’s not a secret totem. You share that with the readers openly. But you might have a character who is not a were-elephant or directly related to elephants in any way, who is nonetheless elephant-like in mannerisms or body-build, etc. I’m not even sure what the distinctive mannerisms of an elephant are, but again, the point is that this absurd metaphor forces you to think about your character in an unexpected way, and you discover things about him that you didn’t know.
Some people will say, “Don’t use dragons,” “Don’t use vampires” or “Don’t use elves” because these are over done. I don’t agree. I think that such archetypes can still offer fresh and wonderful stories, if you shake off clichés and continually surprise readers. When you use this technique, you surprise yourself with what you come up with. If you, the author, are surprised by the twists in the story, chances are the readers will be too—surprised and delighted.
Thanks so much for the great guest post, Tara. So all, do you mix seemingly unrelated ideas to freshen up your writing?