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!

Ripped from the Headlines, or Gently Massaged from the Podcast by Ethan Chatagnier

Law and Order and its franchises have made a multi-decade run ripping stories from the headlines. It’s a good practice for a police-and-courtroom procedural–perhaps even a necessary practice for one lasting so long.

Writers are sometimes wary of that kind of headline ripping, and other times not interested. It doesn’t feel as creative. It doesn’t feel original. And newspaper headlines are not always the most intriguing or inspiring fare.

But newspapers are only one possible source of information, and many–magazines, documentaries, podcasts–have the express goal of finding and delivering the most interesting stories possible.

As for creativity and originality, there’s no requirement that a you write a story the same way you heard it, and that’s rarely the goal. Shift an idea. Transform it. Move it to a new state.

What you want is to strike sparks from your imagination, and to do that well, you need to strike your imagination against the world. 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!

Developing Ideas for Fiction by Ethan Chatagnier

I don’t get any special credit for recognizing that Jurassic Park is a great premise. Two hundred million copies sold. Box office records. Everyone knows it’s a great premise.

It’s one of those books/movies that’s so finely tuned it’s hard to imagine it any other way. Imagine it as the tale of a grad student cloning a pterodactyl in a lab–no theme park–and the majesty and drama disappears. That’s where Crichton began his first draft of this story in 1983. It would be 1990, and several completely drafts later, before the book was published.

The idea of cloning dinosaurs from DNA is a good idea on its own. But it needs more development before it can take flight. What would make it more compelling?

Here are some of the ways Crichton developed it into the Jurassic Park we know and love:

  1. It’s set in a theme park, a place of wonder and discovery, and with the pretense of control.

  2. It’s set during a “soft open,” limiting the cast of characters to a handful of experts we can care about, rather than a horde of dinosaur bait.

  3. The island setting and tropical storm cut off the characters from potential help.

  4. The corporate espionage of an important employee throws all the park’s control systems into chaos.

There’s more of course, Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern not the least of it, but with those four elements you have a seed idea transformed into a magic idea, one with thrills and drama built in.

The right development of an idea can make all the difference in the world, and that 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!

Ideas that Work: Resonant Ideas by Ethan Chatagnier

What if blindness was contagious? What if everyone rode unicycles instead of bicycles? What if snow glowed in the dark? What if humans became unable to conceive children?

Most great ideas start with a “what if?”--but not all what-ifs are equal. Two of the ideas above are resonant, evocative. Two are not. Unicycle-world is quirky. There’s some magic to a world where snow glows. But neither is likely to strum a sympathetic chord within us. Neither is it tied to larger concerns and themes.

That’s what resonance is: the prolonging of a sound, the stretching of it. The way one frequency is tied to another.

Contagious blindness, the premise behind Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s Blindness, is connected to disaster and illness, to the idea of contagion, and the various metaphorical meanings of blindness.

The end of human conception resonates as well. Connected ideas: survival, fragility, sterility. Bonding and lack of bonding. Hope, or the end of it. Life and self-preservation. (This idea formed the basis for the book The Children of Men and its film adaptation).

Resonant ideas are a writer’s lifeblood. Always be on the lookout for them.

Five years ago, I listened to an interview with a pianist about playing music designed to be nearly impossible to play. I immediately thought “What if someone wrote music designed to actually be impossible to play?” Impossibility. Challenge. Composing. Performing. The difficulties and impossibilities of living any life.

It would be three years before I found the right form for that story, but it was on my mind the whole time. The idea hummed against other ideas.

When an idea does that, it means there is a story to be written, and that 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!