We are storytelling creatures, we human beings. You see the tale-telling talent evident in the smallest child. We love stories: love to hear them, love to tell them. So I’m often surprised when I hear people ask writers where they get their ideas (read stories) for they’ve probably been weaving their own for years and have plucked snatches of story parts from here and there as they’ve gone along.
As much as it’s an old saw, it’s true: ideas are a dime a dozen. Perhaps what people are really asking is where do you get your good ideas. That has more merit, I think. For ideas are present in the daily fabric of our lives. They fuel our days. Like breath, we take them in and out. Pick up any newspaper and germs of stories nest inside the headlines. Take a trip down memory lane and pull a thread from your own life to weave anew. Examine your regrets, your almosts, your wish-I’d-done-that column and pluck one and say ‘what if?’ Look into the eyes of a beloved and clothe them in a new landscape of your own choosing or use that anger and hate you have against another to fuel a new story of vengeance or redemption. Your choice; you are the creator.
But good ideas require a more thoughtful consideration. They have weight and merit; they have the ability to stand alone. They must be able to fuel your desire to tell the tale for days, months, perhaps even years. They must curl your toes and pique your interest. Good stories are not so common.
There are plenty of interesting nuggets that get the storytelling juices bubbling but many fall short after a strong beginning. They lack the required oxygen necessary for the story to catch fire and burn. You may meet up with a cool character who begs for a chance to take part in one of your stories but once you begin to undress and unpack this suitor you realize he or she really is an empty suit. He lacks substance; she is void of motivation.
The trouble with all this is that there really isn’t any one good story test that will meet the needs of all the writers who seek to take measure of their ideas. At some point a writer begins to tap into their internal barometer and their ideas assume weight and shape—enough to provide the writer with some indication that there might actually be something worth working and they begin to invest time and labor, both precious commodities. The truth is no one can truly tell you if an idea you develop will be worth your consideration.
Take Mary Shelley. Who would have thought that this 19-year old woman in the summer of 1816 would accept a story challenge, a mere parlor game, and, over the next ten months, create a story, Frankenstein, that would live in the imagination of millions for generation upon generation. Did she know, you might ask? You tell me, for when she woke up with the idea she wrote that she knew she had a story “that would make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart.”
Perhaps it’s time to take your pulse: Does the idea, the very thought, of your story quicken your beating heart?