If inspiration came to us when we needed it, the writing life would’ve been a lot easier. Unfortunately, Muse is a cruel mistress. But what if you could skip that whole writer’s block and waiting for inspiration nonsense? You’d never again find yourself lacking for ideas.
This post is a follow up to a previous one about fishing for better ideas by simply catching many regular ones, then simply picking the best of the lot.
Working against the clock
Last time, I tried to show you how coming up with many ideas in a short span of time can be within everyone’s reach. Today I’ll demonstrate this exercise in practice. We’ll strain our creative muscles together and work against the clock to see how many ideas for a setting or a story can we really generate during just one hour.
I feel like doing a science-fiction story, so I’ll stick with space-themed ideas. I’ll aid myself with Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
And the last thing before we begin: I’m going to write down some really shitty ideas along the way. That’s part of the fun. We want to get them out of our system to make way for the really good ideas.
As always, feel free to use anything you like in your writing.
I’ll start from this random seed phrase:
- Okay… rocks in space. Asteroids. But a story set in the Asteroid Belt isn’t really original today, so we’ll need something fresher.
- The rings around Saturn are practically floating dust and debris. Not sure how much use they are for mining, but the vicinity of Saturn would do for some truly spectacular imagery. Hmm? What could we use this for?
- Oooh! What if people raced between these rocks? I can already see space jockeys in their battered fighters (decommissioned after some earlier conflict) taking part in break-neck races, where any mistake results in instant death. I love this idea, and the imagery, but I’m afraid that this might be too similar to Star Wars Episode I pod racing to serve as a backbone of a story. I want more originality.
- I can’t explain why, but racing in space gives me this sense of wonder. Imagine the gigantic looming disc of Saturn above your rattling hull. Your ship and everything around painted in sharp contrasts by direct sunlight. It gives me the chills. How do we make it original though? What if the participants are gangs? Well, that’s deathrace. But two further ideas occur to me. The ships are either:
- Combat ships. This means some system-wide conflict occurred in the past. For there to be decommissioned combat ships, the conflict had to last longer than a decade and be so widespread to produce many different types of these ships. Combat ships are tough and obviously made for hostile conditions, which makes them perfect for our ring-racing. (I’m still unsure about the practicality of such one-man vessels in a war that stretched through the long distances of the Solar System, but maybe the war was an Earth-centric affair. Moon is full of valuable Helium-3. It wouldn’t be the first war for resources in our history.)
- If not combat ships, then at the opposite end of the design spectrum we have slick, custom-built racers. Blindingly fast and deadly. A split-second of lost focus by the pilot could cost the investors hundreds of millions, and the pilot– his life. This is important. The presence of shiny Tesla Model Space racers straight from the factory implies the presence of wealth in the system. This takes us straight to two different versions of our system in the year 2200.
- One is America after the Vietnam war. Full of booming culture, but built on the moral ruins of unnecessary conflict. Future PTSD-suffering war veterans participate in deadly races because that’s the last thing they’re good for in society. And also, the races allow them to once again grab the familiar yokel of a combat fighter and feel themselves again. Even if for a moment.
- The second is a prosperous Solar System. Think Saudi Arabia. A version of the future where we sorted our differences… Though maybe not necessarily? Expensive racing ships don’t have to mean wide-spread prosperity. Maybe while the elites watch races on the rings Saturn, the general populace struggles to make ends meet? Well, sound a bit like the world we live in.
- Let’s change course. I was digging for ideas to make the scenery more interesting and three dimensional. What if Saturn or one of its moons was the battleground for the First Solar War? Reasons for conflict don’t matter yet. I want to think about how such a conflict could sculpt the environment. The reason Saturn’s rings are so flat is that they’ve been like that and undisturbed for millennia. What if we demolished them? Think mines exploding. Hulls of monumental battleships burning down and crashing into the high-pressure atmosphere of Saturn. Dust, rocks, and debris knocked out of its stable orbits. Whole currents of rocks flowing along wild new trajectories.
- These currents could form the racetrack we’re talking about. Racers would have to plot their courses through ever-shifting fields of death and destruction. Now, this is a spectacular sight! I love it already.
- The separate ideas we had so far start to mesh together into one. That’s more or less how we shape our stories, but for this exercise I want more variety and more ideas to chose from. The one important detail about our Inchcape Rock inspiration was how pirates cut the bell supposed to serve as a warning to passing ships, and then became wrecked themselves on the same rock.
I just passed the 30 minutes mark. I’ll pause the timer and go to see if I can convince my loving wife to brew me some coffee. My brain is buzzing!
- Hell’s bells and whistles. Pirates, pirates… Alright. This idea is shit, but I’ll write it down anyway. What if pirates attacked the rings? Next, please.
- It would be pretty cool if not pirates, but one of the racers tried to destroy a warning beacon in the currents of rocks but crashed as a result. To sabotage your fellow racers? Naughty. Especially if you know that a mistake on the racetrack means death. I think we found our anti-hero.
- The important question: How could we make the reader care for such a douchebag? …What if the hero had to do it because of his own shady dealings with the underworld? No, that’s too weak.
- What if someone wants the lead racer dead. I like that. A clean job. Once the leader crashes into a rock he didn’t see coming, the race will get canceled. That doesn’t solve our hero’s immediate problem. They’re still stuck on a rock that’s about to meet a speeding fighter. A desperate (and a somewhat ironic) tale of survival. I like where this is heading.
- But, I won’t settle yet. Let’s cast our net wider. Rocks, bells, ships, pirates, stranded sailors… Oooh! I think I have something. What if a pilot, or better yet, a whole crew became stranded on an asteroid hurtling through space? A completely inhospitable environment. It brings to mind the exploits of the early polar explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen.
- We’ll turn away from Saturn now, and look at a location more distant and hostile. What if our crew (scientists?) got stuck on the icy planes of Pluto?
- Early days of polar explorations were riddled with failure and death. Many brave explorers wanted to become the first in history to navigate the northern passage or reach the poles. Many perished.
- A whacky idea that just occurred to me relates to the recently observed planetoid cruising on some ridiculous orbit around our sun. I know there’s plenty of conspiracy theories surrounding Planet X (some call it Nibiru), but conspiracy theory or not, this is still solid material for a story. What if something important was discovered on that mysterious planet?
- I know others have thought about this before we did, but what if we found the remains of some generational ship there? Maybe the one that brought humans or life itself into the Solar System? What if the ship couldn’t make it all the way to Mars or Earth, and had to crash-land on a rogue planet. The whole expedition would have to make a last-ditch desperate attempt to reach inner planets. I like that. Never saw this concept used before.
- What will we get if we turn that idea around? A colony ship sent from Earth that barely manages to reach its destination. It’s forced to land on a rogue planet whose trajectory will take it (in the next few dozen generations) to the heart of the destined system. An amazing tale of desperation, survival, determination and a true test for human ingenuity. I would write it in a way that leaves the reader morally exhausted from all the moral compromises needed in order for our race to survive. The fact we made it wouldn’t mean much by the end.
And… done! My clock rang, and that can mean only one thing. We’ve reached the end of the one-hour mark. But what a ride!
Now that you saw rapid idea generation in practice, why don’t you try it for yourself? I’m sure that with a bit of practice you’ll never run out of fresh ideas again. Make sure you let me know where the journey takes you.