Friday, September 9, 2016

2 Techniques for Coming Up With Premises

Good Morning!

So about a week ago, I had a friend ask me how I come up with story ideas. This is a friend I talk to often and so she knows I always have way more stories in my head than I actually get around to writing. So her question was really more about how I can come up with so many things that can potentially turn into books. We also briefly discussed how to fill out a plot.

For me, it's not very different from coming up with full premises. I have ideas for certain things--often they're situations without full stories attached, or lines of dialogue I think are awesome and want to incorporate. There are hundreds of these little nuggets floating around in my head or in various untidy notebooks that litter my work space. So when I need to round out a plot or character, I often draw on these little idea. Generally I have to find some way to mold them to the story I'm already telling, which can change them a lot from what I had in mind at their inception. But I'll tell you, lovely readers, this is often where the magic happens. 

So how to come up with these premises or little idea nuggets? In my mind, there are two major ways to do it. Either on purpose (sort of forcing it, if you will) or just paying attention to the things that you find interesting. Let me explain.

1. On Purpose - I talked about this a lot in THIS POST and it's a technique I learned from the wonderful Clint Johnson. I know from my description above about forcing it, many people will balk. But I don't mean "forcing it" in the sense you're probably thinking. This is really just about being creative on purpose.

My prowling wolf painting.
Basically, you grab a pen and paper (I find it's much more effective for this exercise than typing on a computer) and you relax your mind. Start with something simple. Mundane, even. The rug on the floor. Maybe that rug has a pattern. What about it? Maybe hidden in the pattern is a prophecy. Maybe the prophecy foretells the end of the world. See what I mean? Just let your mind go. Make associations, do NOT make judgments. Write everything down and just go. If you get stuck, look at something else around you. I'm looking at a painting of wolves on the prowl. Maybe the wolves hold the key to the prophecy. Maybe the wolves are the caretakers of the secret... 

You'll find once you get started that you can go until your hand cramps (or your kids jump on you, your alarm goes off, whatever yanks you unceremoniously out of the Zone). It's such a great exercise for getting the creative juices flowing. Even if what you come up with in any given session doesn't turn into a best-selling novel, you can still come up with nuggets to sprinkle into your writing. Fill in gaps. And occasionally round out stories that win Pulitzer Prizes. (Disclaimer: Have I ever used this technique to win a Pulizter?...No. Other awards yes, but the Pulitzer no. ;D)

(Blurred some plot
stuff out. ;D)
2. Then there is simply paying attention to what interests you. This may seem like an obvious thing to say, but you'd be amazed how few people actually tap this source for story ideas. (The serious writers that do are the ones who carry little notebooks with them everywhere they go.) Of course, it's totally possible these days to do it on your phone as well. I've definitely used that technique before. (The pic at right is notes for Dragon Magic that are on the "notebook" app of my iphone.)

So my friend asked me to give her an example of something I thought was interesting that might turn into a story. Well, I think most of my books have at least something that would qualify, but the example I gave her has to do with a book I'm currently reading and a story I'm not actually writing at present.

As most of you who follow me know, I'm just a little bit fascinated by serial killers.

Just a little bit. ;D

Some time ago--I'm not even sure when or where I first heard it--I learned a little something about the Butcher of Kingsbury Run. He was a prolific serial killer in Cleveland, Ohio in the '30s. The book I'm reading is a non-fiction about the case (In the Wake of the Butcher by James Jessen Badal). But I'm honestly not interested in the Butcher solely bc he was a serial killer (I've read about tons of those) or even because he was never caught (though that does up the interest factor a bit). What REALLY made me interested in the case was finding out that Eliot Ness--yes THE Eliot Ness who brought down Capone and founded the Untouchables--presided over the case. And this was years after his success with the Chicago mob.

Ness was known for being traditional to a fault, extremely moral, and unrelenting in both his strictness and effectiveness at rooting out police corruption. So what would a man like that do with a case that involved an elusive serial killer? How would he handle body parts bobbing in the river every few months, and not being able to stop it. A case like this isn't something you can control or predict. I think it would be an interesting character sketch to explore how a man like Ness (ladybug to Capone's aphid) would react to a situation like that. And then there's the fact that it was never solved. Unlike in Chicago, Ness never got his man.

THAT'S the kind of stuff that fascinates me. THAT's the kind of stuff I want to learn and write about.

Now, chances are EVENTUALLY some piece of writing will come from my research on this, but I have a lot more to do, especially on Ness himself. (The book I'm reading is really more about the facts of the case.) But the point is, I just read a single line about how Eliot Ness eventually presided over the Butcher case and went, "Huh. That's kind of interesting." Boom. A story is born. Don't underestimate the power of tiny tidbits that catch your attention for a few seconds. Write them down, or you'll never know the potential they could have had.

So, what techniques do YOU use to come up with story premises or fill out already-existing plots?


  1. I watch movies and listen to music.
    I need to try your On Purpose trick. My current outline needs some help.
    I'm also not above taking anyone's unused ideas.

    1. Nice! :D I definitely get story ideas while watching movies and reading other fiction! ;D Good luck on your current outline!