Turning Real Life into Unreal Ideas by Ethan Chatagnier

Finding your material in the real world doesn’t mean finding only realist ideas. Science-fiction prophets, fantasy wizards, and genre-bending literary writers can benefit just as much from real-world inputs as slice-of-life literary realists. Perhaps even more.

One of my favorite examples of this is Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 film District 9. It’s a movie with aliens, futuristic weapons, a mech suit, and a mysterious gene-editing fluid. What makes the idea unique is its approach to the aliens: they aren’t visitors, they’re refugees, and the government sets them up in camps and treats them like refugees. So the usual sci-fi question “aliens come to Earth: will they kill us?” is reversed: “aliens come to Earth: will we kill them?”

Blomkamp’s idea didn’t come from space. It came from the news—specifically, from interviews with South Africans about an influx of refugees from Zimbabwe. That link to a real world idea didn’t clip District 9’s wings. Instead, it gave the movie an intense dramatic resonance. Some clips from those interviews even made it into the movie.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is arguably the most imaginative novel series of our time. He details his inspiration and writing process here but here’s the short version: part of the idea came from a strange dream he had; part came from his reaction to the BP Gulf Oil Spill; the other part, the all important setting, came from walks he took through the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, and the abandoned lighthouse there.

There’s no greater argument for looking to the real world for inspiration. It doesn’t limit you to realist stories. It can spark your wildest imaginings, while at the same time anchoring them to the themes that speak to us. This is what we will be looking at in my ONLINE Workshop: Finding Your Material in the Real World. You can learn more about this 5-week class, in which we will generate ideas for stories, by clicking on the button below. I hope you’ll join us!