Thursday, February 9, 2012

When Ideas Make Love

Hi all! I'm finally back on my own blog, but today I'm welcoming Tara Maya to MFB. Tara is the author of the Unfinished song series, which is available at Amazon here, here and here.

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?


  1. Hi Tara! Nice to see you here.

    I really like this tip. It's something that's equally useful in creating relationships whether they're buddy stories or romances.

    When I create a relationship between two or more people, I always throw in the monkey wrench that keeps them at odds or that *should* deter them from being friends or lovers, but doesn't because their bond is stronger than their differences.

    It's the twist that makes it interesting and fresh.

  2. This advice is excellent! It shows there are endless possibilites to any story.

  3. I have hundreds of ideas spooking in my head, all demanding to be made into stories - but they never become stories. On their own, they just don't spark anything.

    However, when two ideas come together, there's an electric spark, and something flashes or burns. This leads to a story.

    So when looking for a new story to write, I consult my long list of ideas, pick one, and try matching it with each of the other ideas. Sometimes a the most unexpected combinations click, spark and flare into a big flame.

    Is this how it is for you, Tara?

  4. It's a force multiplier. If you take one of the top 6 cliches for one aspect of the story, and one of the top 7 cliches for another aspect, the story as a whole has now become 42 times more original!

    Or something like that...

  5. New follower here, Misha... wanted to say thanks for stopping by my blog and following! And great guest post, Tara! Too true... it's all about find a new, unique way to tell your story. Looks like a fab blog, I'll be excited to read more from here :D

  6. Great advice! I really need to try this one--I'm working on the plot of a novel and it's starting to stagnate.

  7. I think that's such important way to think about keeping your writing fresh. After all, there's nothing new under the sun, just fresh new ways to portray the old stuff!

    Great post!!

  8. Excellent advice! Its like cooking something up in the kitchen..Take a few fresh ideas out of the refrigerator, mix them together and you will have yourself a deliciously prepared omelet.

  9. Great post and I totally agree. It's import an to remember to challenge oneself and ones preconseptions. In my latest whip I made one half alien and the other half supernatural, but the alien can also mimic a supernatural type. So there are Mimicane vampires and normal vampires, etc. Although they share attributes, they are also inherently different. And fight for supremacy. I wanted to twist the norm a little. I'm sure someones already down it somewhere, but I haven't read it. There are plenty of other twists too.

  10. Great post!! Cliches can be made fresh, just takes a few twists here and there...

  11. Tara's had some problems with posting comments recently, so I'm posting for her. Still, every one of these replies is hers.

    Thanks Maria! Keeping lovers apart -- in a way that is not merely annoying -- is a critical part of a great romance.

    Alex, yup, merge two ideas... but especially two you wouldn't think necessarily go together.

    @ Susan. I notice you write both YA and adult contemporary. Do you find that the way you generate ideas for both genres is the same?

    @ Rayne. Yes, that's how it is for me too. I have notebooks of random ideas, for a character or a bit of setting or an interesting premise, but until I can string two or three of these together, I don't have a story. But I try to use this method to help me out even with a story that is already more full-bodied. If I am stumped trying to get characters through the "muddle in the middle", thinking about some other random thing, like drawing a tarot card, can help. I just watched a documentary (Prophets of Science Fiction, that showed Phillip Dick did the same thing while writing The Man in the High Castle. He chose his plot points by consulting the I Ching.

  12. Thanks, Tara. This was very helpful.


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