Tag Archives: Ideas

Before Page One: The World Of Your Story

© Elena Schweitzer | Dreamstime.com – Desert

By Chris Hutton

          Two weeks ago, when discussing the blank page, I touched upon how I move from inspiration to detailing out an idea. This was in a brief segment, which you can find replicated below.

Beginning the Outline

          Let’s say you have an idea. It’s great. It’s an amazing idea. Now you want to write it. How does it begin? How does it end? Who is the main character? Where is it set? What is it about? What’s the plot? The themes? How do all of these elements tie together? How do you sequence this out to tell your story? That’s a lot of work to start. As long as the page is blank, the outline hasn’t begun and once again it becomes easy to say, ‘You know what, it’s late. It’s 12:30 am and I really need to get some sleep. I’ll start this outline when I wake up.” After finishing my work day on October 27th, (a few hours before this very moment mid writing this post), that seemed like a valid excuse. I could have ended it there and put this off until tomorrow. Instead, I sucked it up and drafted out the basic ideas of what I wanted to express. Why? Because once I start typing, the blank page is gone and I can move forward. As long as I mull it over and keep it blank, it is so very easy to stop before starting.

Detailing This Out

          This week, I’d like to expand upon what I only briefly discussed prior. First, the segment above really hints at two processes – 1) drafting the world of your story and 2) outlining. We’ll be focusing today on that first process. Before I start writing any of my longer works of fiction, I try to make sure I have a basic understanding of the story that I am planning. This isn’t outline detail, but its key aspects of the story that help ground me before I write. I’ll step through each portion of the process that I hinted at last week in the featured segment.

1) The Beginning & The End

          Usually, when I’m writing, I start with these two elements firmly in place. Even in my short work, these are the cornerstone upon which I build everything else. Typically for me, my work comes largely from dreams, everyday events, or what if scenarios upon which I’ve deliberated and each of these sources typically provides me a beginning point. For Last Call, for example, I came up with the idea, logically enough, after I woke up with a hangover. I realized immediately that’s where that week’s story had to begin – in the thick of an early morning hangover. Then came the deliberation. How did the story end? I paced. I ate and sipped some water and did what I needed to do to mitigate the worst effects of my previous night’s excesses. Then, at last, the image came to me: the thing responsible for the horror of that story birthed itself as I contemplated my pounding headache. I won’t say more than that about the end – as I hate spoilers – but with those two points locked, I knew the trajectory of my story and the real work could begin.

2) Note Taking

          Now comes the data dump. I jot everything down: every thought I have on the story, any lines of dialogue rattling around in my head, and scenes that I want to play out, etc. I write down anything and everything related to that story that is even remotely being considered. This usually provides hints at what is to come. The first inklings of my characters, my setting, my themes, all bubble up in this process. Of course at this stage, they are a jumbled mess, a mass of word vomit, and still need to be sorted out. The ideas need to be rewritten in a structure that makes sense.

3) Logline

          If I have drafted out enough details, I should be able to pump out a 1-2 sentence logline around which I will base the remainder of my work. This may get altered later, after I actually write the story, but having this up front gives me a guide to help craft everything that follows. Still, loglines are an art in and of themselves. Back in 2015 I entered numerous screenwriting contests, seeking exposure for my current scripts. During that process my werewolf pilot, The Cage, took honorable mention in the appropriately named Screenplay Festival. After that placement I received some advice on crafting loglines, which I have been using ever since. It boiled down to covering the following elements:

  • Hero
  • Hero’s Flaw
  • Opponent
  • Ally
  • Life-Changing Event
  • Hero’s Battle

          Now every time I’m crafting loglines, I keep this in mind. It allows me to ground the story in my protagonist, the prevailing forces helping and hindering that protagonist, his or her character flaw that needs to be overcome (seeking to move beyond just plot points, but focusing on three-dimensional characters), the event that sets everything in motion, and the battle that the protagonist must fight (which is usually more than just a plot, but something core to that character). Here’s an example from The Cage with the elements above highlighted:

The Cage – One Hour Drama – Supernatural

          A struggling father (hero) riddled with self-doubt (flaw) crosses paths with a local sheriff (ally) as a pack of werewolves(opponent) wreak havoc (life-changing event) in a small Minnesota town and is forced to find strength and faith within himself if he is going to survive for his family (battle).

          It’s not a perfect logline, and I’m always adjusting, but it’s a good model for capturing all of those details in a succinct way. Of course, rigidity to any writing advice can be detrimental, so I allow for wiggle room if a logline flows better without strict adherence to these steps. An example of a more loose logline can be seen with Last Call.

Last Call – Short Story – Horror

          Teagan (hero), a foul-mouthed, rock enthusiast (flaw – not really), and her boyfriend (ally) find themselves hungover, struggling to remember the night before, and unable to reach their friends (life-changing event). But as flashes of the previous evening bubble to the surface, Teagan begins to suspect that something may be very, very wrong.

          As you can see, I am missing the opponent and the battle on this one, which I have eschewed in favor of a little mystery that hints at the danger. For this story that seemed a better path, avoiding spoilers. I also provided a character trait more than a flaw for the main character. These traits define her perspective in the story, but I don’t find them to be an inherent issue needing to be overcome. Were this for a novel or longer work of fiction, I likely would have set out establishing a longer character arc in my notes and thus called out a flaw in the logline. As is, I feel it does its job.

3) Setting

          This step, and steps 4, 5, and 6, are highly integrated for me, usually being developed simultaneously. It is key to me that the setting reflects the same themes that play into the protagonist’s emotional arc and that it fits within the tone & style (typically determined by theme). So as I draft out setting, I contemplate a place that emotionally resonates with a theme, which is critical to the protagonist’s journey, and matches the tone being established.

          For this, let’s look to a previous pilot that I drafted – Forgotten. In this script my lead is a former detective with retrograde amnesia (Character). I’m exploring perspective, how our memory shapes our perspective and defines us, and how those things that have been forgotten impact our lives and alter that perception (Themes). I knew that I wanted high contrast with extreme brights and darks and a scorched feel steeped in grit, tension, and mystery, and all grounded in a realistic world with some light comedy (Tone & Style). Setting wise, the tone & style told me I needed to be in the desert, with a past set in large city (playing on extreme contrasts and the scorched and gritty elements). Furthermore, thematically I needed to deal with the idea of the forgotten, and thus chose to set the story around Salton Sea, in a town once planned to be the next big resort city, but whose path shifted as the salinity rose causing mass die-offs and leaving much of the development a ghost town. For a big city, the logical leap to match geographically with Salton Sea was Los Angeles. This duality of the Salton Sea and Los Angeles, of the desert and the big city, of a city that became forgotten and a protagonist suffering from amnesia, all provided for me the resonance I find critical in setting a story.

4) Themes

          For this element I look for items that resonate with my notes around the lead characters. What journey am I exploring? What emotional arcs do I wish to follow with each? What is the age group of my characters? Matching with this, I look at tone & style. Is this a light-hearted show? If so that is going to impact the style of themes I explore. Is a dark story aimed at mature readers? If so, again my themes will shift. We’ll stick with Forgotten to help see this out, as steps 3-6 are heavily integrated as I mentioned.

          In Forgotten I knew that my lead character had retrograde amnesia. This idea was central to the whole concept of the show. I also knew that I wanted a gritty tone with extreme contrasts and that I would be setting the story between Los Angeles and the Salton Sea. With these elements in mind it was easy for me to work out the necessary themes. This was a series about the forgotten (the title came later). I knew that I would be looking at cultures, histories, and people that have been left behind. The show needed to tell the stories of cities that have been forgotten, memories that have been lost, and mysteries that went unsolved. It would be about the world that we choose not to see, a seedy underbelly hidden in the middle of nowhere, and it would play with our sense of perception. Can the past be trusted, or even our memories? The viewer would be forced to question the perspective with which they are presented to weed out truth from biased viewpoints and in so doing the story could explore themes of the forgotten and hidden, the gaps of our own memories and how our perception of a past partially forgotten shapes our culture and our individual selves.

5) Tone & Style

          This element often pulls most strongly from the characters I have chosen to explore, though I perform a balancing act to make sure it matches as well with the themes and setting. Are my characters young or are they mature adults? This could make the difference between a light coming of age angle, or a dark and seedy tone. What about themes? What do I have in mind? If this is a TV series that could impact the network upon which I can air the show, which itself has some mandates on tone & style. If this is a book or a short story, what genre am I exploring. Much like a network that can have its own ramifications on tone. So now, back to Forgotten.

          My lead was a former detective with amnesia, so I already knew that this was a show that could deal with crime, murder, and mystery. The amnesia element had already helped me form ideas around exploring themes of the forgotten and memory and how this defines our perception of the world. Those themes meant I wanted a slower, thoughtful take on the story, and with the crime element, I knew I could take this dark. This made me think to aim for a FX-like cable network, or, with some loosening of the grit, shaping it for a USA style network. At the same time, if the idea of the forgotten was so central, than genre here became key. It needed to reflect on this concept of people, towns, and cultures that had been forgotten, which made me think to explore both the western and film noir. Now with my character age under consideration, a knowledge of my networks and genres, and a decent grasp on the slow and darker tones of my themes, I decided on a high contrast style of lights and darks (noir) with a scorched look (Western) and a tone steeped in grit (Western/FX), tension, and mystery (Detective show), all grounded in a realistic approach to the world with untrustworthy perspectives (themes) and some light comedy (USA network).

6) Central Characters

          Admittedly by this point so many ideas around my protagonist have been feeding into my themes, my tone, and my setting, that character has really become this ever evolving concept, birthing new ideas, then reabsorbing those ideas to shift and establish new takes on overall characters, which itself is now feeding back into those same three elements, until I have revisited this section over and over again. This is why it is the last of my four highly interconnected world-building elements. Until the previous three have taken final form, I can’t fully flesh this one out. Once that’s done, however, the dominoes usually fall into place pretty quickly.

          With Forgotten I always knew my protagonist was a former detective. But by the time I finalized steps 3-4, I also knew it was a show about contrasts. So my lead needed to fall. He needed to be on parole, which meant I had to have a parole officer. She quickly became my co-lead. I wanted to explore the Western, I wanted to examine other cultures, and I deeply value diversity in my stories, so I chose for the female lead and many of the characters to be Native American. Also due to the parole, I had to find a new job for my lead, which meant exploring his new town and peppering in local characters that helped define that setting and with the noir aspects to the story politics had to be involved. From these two strains, I evolved the co-lead’s brother, a shady politician and part of her own dark past, and the protagonist’s boss, an optimistic small town mayor firmly believing in second chances (for his town and for our lead). Crime would feature heavily, so I also needed a local sheriff. As a noir and a show about memory, this series had to delve into our lead’s past, which meant populating the Los Angeles portion of his life. As a detective he needed a partner that acted as his foil, other officers at the station, and a grounding figure, his fiance, who is no longer in the picture in the present, leaving him unmoored. We also needed a bridge character, someone tied both to past and present, someone to aid our protagonist but also be in constant friction with him. This birthed his ex-brother-in-law, who became a third lead, and established a central love-hate bromance into the series concept.

7) Plot/Story

          After I have laid out all of these concepts, I develop the story. How am I going to get from that beginning to that end grounded in this setting, exploring these themes, maintaining this tone, and building that progression from a place of character with the cast that I have created? Bear in mind this is not an outline, but broad strokes direction of the story. If it is a TV series I’m likely looking at some major act outs for the pilot, then logline level descriptions for the first six to ten episodes, along with end points for the first few seasons and the series. If this is a short story, I bare bones it with major elements that the characters are going to hit. Finally if I’m working on a novel, then I think about chapters. Here I look at which characters are point of view characters and determine a balance of pacing out chapters between each character. From there I think of each character’s arc, it’s beginning, it’s end, along with a few major beats along the way. Typically with a novel, I like to start with an idea of ten character beats, each defining a chapter for that character (more if my cast is smaller). Based on this information I draft out one to three paragraphs summarizing the story.

8) Finalizing

          Now, if I have been constructing this all in one document, I have a mini-bible for my story, or a pitch one to three page pitch document for a series. I make sure it is clearly articulated by section, I proof it thoroughly, I sit on it for a few nights, then I go back and re-examine it. Over the course of those few nights or a week, I can sculpt this down to its core, make sure all elements are aligned and proofed, and come up with a reasonable document that is the foundation for every element of the story moving forward.

That’s a Wrap

          And, well, that’s my world-building process. This is how I go from the inkling of an idea to the basis of my stories. But as mentioned its not an outline. So, before I put word to actual story page, I still have to hit the outlining process. That, however, is a post for another day.

          Hopefully this can prove helpful to any of you out there looking for tips on how to sculpt your ideas and mold them into something more concrete. That being said, I would reiterate that holding to any advice rigidly is a recipe for disaster. This is just one approach, one that is the basis for my work, but one to which even I won’t adhere every time. You have to be malleable, but you also have to have a framework from which to deviate. In the words of Pablo Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

          Anyway, Happy Writing All!

Blank Page Syndrome

© Tomert | Dreamstime.com – Open blank notebook over wooden table. ready for mockup. retro filtered image

By Chris Hutton

          Almost every writer that I know dreads it. It may be the most daunting thing with which a writer ever has to grapple – at least when it comes to the work of writing. It taunts you; it challenges you; it just plain gets under your skin.

          I absolutely loathe the blank page.

          Sure, it is rife with possibilities, a clean canvas upon which to paint your story, a journey yet to be begun, or some other green grass metaphor, but it is also a trap. It is the source of every so-called “writer’s block” that I’ve ever experienced. Now as to the actuality of “writer’s block,” perhaps that’s another story, as there are ways to push through. Then again, perhaps it is entwined with this one. Maybe you’ll see what I mean momentarily.

          When I think about the blank page, it is not simply the empty word document or the literal blank pages of a writer’s notebook that come to mind, no matter my choice of illustration above. The blank page is the starting point. It is the beginning of something new, whether it is time to dig for new ideas, the moment you sit down to outline a story, the first moments before drafting those opening words, or even the return from a narrative break.

          It’s also an excuse. When I’m at a beginning, I might as well be at a stopping point. The two feel as one and the same. Let me explain.

          I’ll start with the first example:

Searching for New Ideas

          As discussed last week, searching for inspiration for that next story can be a difficult task. Yes, it is the beginning of the story, but it can just as easily be the end. Tell me, which is easier: 1) to push through all the techniques that I mentioned in the Searching for Inspiration post, or 2) to say, ‘You know what, I’m not inspired, today,’ then take a seat on the couch and watch some TV. When I’m tired I guarantee you that option B is the easier route, and I work a full-time job, have a two-year-old daughter, am writing new story material, and am managing my online presence completely on my own. I guarantee you that I am tired a lot. Hell, I didn’t come up with the idea for this blog until October 27th, while trying to justify why it would be okay to skip one day. Guess what?

          It wasn’t okay.

Beginning the Outline

          Let’s say you have an idea. It’s great. It’s an amazing idea. Now you want to write it. How does it begin? How does it end? Who is the main character? Where is it set? What is it about? What’s the plot? The themes? How do all of these elements tie together? How do you sequence this out to tell your story? That’s a lot of work to start. As long as the page is blank, the outline hasn’t begun and once again it becomes easy to say, ‘You know what, it’s late. It’s 12:30 am and I really need to get some sleep. I’ll start this outline when I wake up.” After finishing my work day on October 27th, (a few hours before this very moment mid writing this post), that seemed like a valid excuse. I could have ended it there and put this off until tomorrow. Instead, I sucked it up and drafted out the basic ideas of what I wanted to express. Why? Because once I start typing, the blank page is gone and I can move forward. As long as I mull it over and keep it blank, it is so very easy to stop before starting.

Starting the Story

          Okay, you’ve nailed the idea, the outline is down pat, and now it’s time to start writing (which technically you’ve already started even if you don’t realize it). So how do you get going? That opening line seems too cliché. It is always a dark and stormy night, right? You need something original. Did you just begin your story with the word ‘it?’ That’s a no-no. Is that opening paragraph too long? It’s too short. It’s too dry. Too clipped. No sentence fragments.

          As you start your story there is an immense amount of pressure. In screenwriting the purported rule is that you have ten pages tops to catch your reader, probably less. In prose, the literature always speaks about the great opening lines, and how the writer captures the reader from the first sentence. Likely this source quoted A Tale of Two Cities. In either scenario, the alleged experts have laid down the gauntlet and its tough to accept that challenge. Moving back to this post, as 1 am rolled by, and I fixed my OS on my computer and could finally start putting words to Word document, I reminded myself that I’m sick, and that a good night’s rest was in order. I still agree with that, but I post every Friday. This post had to get done. So I pushed all thoughts of perfection out the window, and I set down to type.

Returning from a Narrative Break

          Finally that story is underway, but then you reached a logical stopping point. You wrapped up your current narrative arc, saved the file, and shut down. When you come back, that page doesn’t look blank, but it is. You stopped before starting the next train of thought, and now you might as well be at a new beginning all over again. The best example I can give of this is when writing a novel. You finish a chapter and you close out. The next day when you return to write, you’re staring at the words ‘Chapter 2,’ but there is nothing yet written beneath that headline. You are once again at the blank page. For once, I have no scenario from this posting to provide. I’ve been pushing through as fast as I can, so no stopping point has presented itself, but I guarantee that had it presented itself, I would once again have found myself having to push forward.

Advice for Pushing Beyond the Blank Page

          And that’s all well and good, but how do you push forward when you’re on that blank page? Obviously saying that you’re going to do it is much easier than working up the nerve and plowing forward.

          In the end, I think it comes to will and desire. If you really want to write that story (blog, poem, etc.), you find the willpower and you push forward. But again, a few pointers can’t hurt. So here’s my advice, for whatever it may be worth.

Searching for New Ideas

          Be observant. Rifle through your everyday and your personal experience for ideas. Keep a dream journal, especially if you already have vivid dreams. List out what if scenarios off the top of your head and see what pops. Think about your favorite story types and what unique spin you might be able to offer on each. Try stream of consciousness writing. Whatever ideas you don’t use for that particular story, jot into an idea list for later use when confronted with an inspiration block, i.e., the blank page on ideation. See my longer blog post for more details on the above methods.

Beginning the Outline

          If the story hasn’t come to me with a narrative arc already set in stone, then I turn to drafting a bible (especially for longer works). In that bible I focus on these elements:

  • Basic Premise / Logline
  • Setting
  • Tone & Style
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Story Arc

          As I explore each in drafting the bible, the outline begins to shape itself. Looking at the premise I consider what setting might be a reflection of that premise or a natural corollary for that story. For instance, a story about a man with a forgotten past sets very well in a town that has itself been forgotten. With setting and premise locked, I think about what tone I want to use. If it is a series about a bunch of teenagers, do I want to aim for a CW style tone? If it’s a horror story of something beyond our imagining could I be looking for something more arcane and intellectual, something in which the prose itself is doused in insanity (a sort of Lovecraftian approach)? Once I lock those three aspects, themes often emerge naturally. Dreams manifesting in a town that is dying with a teenage cast and a CW tone? Maybe I’m looking at the difference between our dreams and our reality. I’m telling a coming of age story that compares the ideal world we hope to live in, and the reality or nightmare we face upon stumbling into adulthood. By the time I’ve moved this far into my process, my main cast has already begun to shape itself, I have an idea of where the story begins and ends, and then I can outline by determining major beats that I want to hit along the way.

Starting the Story

          Here I think one just has to let the idea of perfection go. It’s very easy to avoid writing caught in the impression that every line has to be perfect, especially those opening lines. They don’t. Writing is rewriting. Don’t trust me? Check out Jack Epps, Jr.’s book Screenwriting is Rewriting. He makes a valid case and offers up more suggestions for the process than I can here in the limits of this blog.

          The point that I hope you take from this advice, however, is not that you need to go read this book in order to write, but that it’s understood that your first draft is not going to be perfect. It will need to be rewritten, then rewritten again, then polished. Case in point, I’m currently rereading and editing this post at 2:30 in the morning. This is why writers need editors. So don’t get hung up on perfecting that first line right out of the gate – not at the expense of writing at all. Look back to your outline, push through those first couple of paragraphs, and get your momentum going. Once you do, once you have that forward drive, you can always go back and revise. Just don’t go back too soon. It’s good to seize that momentum while you have it.

Returning from a Narrative Break

          With this one, you could easily follow the same advice I applied to Starting the Story – just not getting hung up in perfection and reminding yourself that you can rewrite. That being said, there is an easier method. Don’t stop at a logical narrative break. Coming up with ideas, outlining, and starting your story are three steps that have an absolute blank page. At these natural breaks a writer will always have the temptation of avoiding the work and making excuses. But a narrative break, whether it is a chapter break or a scene break or whatever it may be, can be avoided. If you have your momentum going and you reach the conclusion of some narrative structural unit, then keep going into the next section. Ride that momentum through your next story beats. Don’t go far, but write just far enough that a new scenario has presented itself – that the next arc of your story has begun. Now when you return the next day to continue your story, you don’t have to face that blank page. You already have a few paragraphs or even just the first few sentences started. That can easily be enough to move you past the fear of the blank page, past the tendency to put off to another day, and on to writing.

Time to Draw This to a Close

          So yeah. That’s my basic advice. We are all faced with blank pages at the start of any new project, and at the logical structural breaks between the phases of that project. Each of those breaks is a blank page – one that taunts you and whispers in your ear that it’s okay to go off and get some sleep, or watch some TV, or do anything but move forward. You can’t listen to that voice. You have to be determined, and you have to seize on any method you can to move on and get writing, painting, composing – whatever your art may be.

          Though if I have any more advice to give, its just this. Work on your project every day. Even if only a little. As it applies to writing, write every day. At least jot down ideas. Outline. Rewrite. Do something. Keep yourself moving forward and avoid the negative writer brain telling you its not good enough. Don’t stop and give up, which most of us have wanted to do many times. Finish your story. If you do that, you’re already doing better than so many of us that get started, but don’t’ see the story through to its conclusion. Eventually, we too often succumb to that blank page and leave our work unfinished and unstarted.

          Don’t be that writer. Don’t let the blank page stop you, and don’t give in to excuses.

          On a side note, if you’re in a relationship, following any of the rambling excuse for advice given above is much easier to do if you have an understanding significant other. Thank you, Nicole. I realize it is 2 am right now (now 2:40 am after proofing) and I’m going to be very cranky in the morning and probably still sick, but hey… I finished my blog post.

          And that’s a wrap.

          Happy Writing

Searching for Inspiration

© Alexey Fursov | Dreamstime.com – Man in dark tunnel

By Chris Hutton

          So, I’ve been away all week at a work conference – super busy but good stuff. I managed to prep my short story for this week and next week in advance, and had the best intentions of drafting out my blog post for today while flying from LA to Madison. Instead I fell asleep within moments of boarding the plane. Suffice to say, not much writing happened. That left me in the decidedly awkward position of trying to brainstorm a blog topic while on a work trip, and there really isn’t much time for that. So, during brief moments of calm between meetings and/or assignments, I would ponder to myself what it was that I should discuss today, but I was coming up blank. Then, last night, at one of the keynotes, I bothered to open my eyes for a moment and take in my surroundings. The theme of the entire conference was Inspiration to Impact. My topic was right there staring me in the face the entire time.

          Inspiration to Impact, you ask? Well, not really. That’s a great topic perhaps for another day, but inspiration itself, that was the exact thing that I had been searching for all week. So today I want to explore the topic of inspiration as it pertains to writing (and quite likely can be applied to other arts as well).

          The source of a writer’s stories can seem sort of mystical, this otherworldly thing conjured into existence from a mad mind that obviously just doesn’t work like everyone else’s mind. I imagine that many have pondered this sort of sentiment when thinking of the greats of any genre. For me that would be the likes of Stephen King, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Joe Hill, and Nick Cutter among many of the modern horror writers, not even touching upon science fiction or the writers of the classics.

          Obviously I cannot speak for those above, but I can attest to the origin of my own stories, and I can guarantee you that my stories don’t just leap from some sort of madness. While I may be a little crazy, inspiration is not plucked from the ether, nor is it created from nothing. For me it is sought and it is found. That doesn’t mean I have to meander around aimlessly (much like my current rambling) shining a light into the dark, but rather that there are methods that can be employed to help simplify that search for inspiration and keep a writer writing.

          Indulge me a moment or two more and I will provide another recent example. Before leaving for this work conference I spent my free time after office hours trying to develop ideas for two new horror stories that I could draft in advance of my trip to Madison. I tried pulling them from thin air… I really, really did. I would sit and stare at the monitor and I seemed to be pleading for a story to arrive. Bad method.

          Sure, after a few hours of this, some threads of a story formed, but were they any good? That’s another question, but my gut is going with not very likely.

          Well, after jotting down my rough notes for my potential story, I left the house to attend a concert. My friend, Michael Meinhart, and his band, Socionic, were playing at the Whiskey a Go Go. It’s not often that I’m free on a night that he has a show, so with the stars aligned and my wife watching our daughter, I left.

          One amazing performance, way too many beers, and a shot later, I caught a Lyft home and crashed for the night/morning. When I woke up, I had the worst hangover I have had in many years – mainly because I’m a prematurely old man.

          Point being, that hangover became my inspiration. It hurt. It hurt like hell. My head was pounding and some of my decisions (like to have that extra beer or two) needed to be questioned. Pondering those life choices and the dizzying, pounding world around me, I caught the scent of a story. There’s something scary about a hangover. About the lack of control. About the drumming pain. About the obliviousness of the night before (if you happened to black out – which was not the case here). Still, there was something to work with. I kneaded at that kernel and molded it until the “idea” of the night before had been completely abandoned, a new outline drafted, and a new story born – not from nothing, but from observation of the world around me. Thus arose my idea for Last Call (the first part of which posted on Monday).

          That’s not to say that if you want inspiration you should go out and get drunk and hope you wake up with a story. That’s terrible advice and you should definitely not do that.

          However, you should look at yourself, look at the life you’re living, and take inspiration from that real life experience to find a truth upon which your fiction can be built. Finding that truth that you want to tell and establishing that foundation provides an amazing place from which to draw your fiction – or not… maybe you hate The Last Call. If so we can talk about that later. For now, let me have this one. Please.

So what the hell am I getting at? Again, it boils down to methods of finding inspiration that can lead to your next story. Above I described one method:

          Being Observant

          Pay attention to your surroundings. Notice the large banners, signs, and programs, with the words Inspiration to Impact plastered all over them. There might be an idea for a blog there. Wake up with a terrible hangover? What does that feel like? What are you struggling with physically and emotionally? Is there something there that could help form an original horror story?

          Just open your eyes. Watch people. Open your ears and listen to people. Pay attention to your surroundings and be cognizant of your own emotions and personal experience. Everything you observe is potential fodder for a story – just find that main thread that sparks your interest. As an amazing writing professor of mine once told me, you have to live your life in order to have stories to tell. Now that’s terribly paraphrased, but the point he made was that you had get out into the world, you had to live new experiences, and from those experiences you could find inspiration and material for your writing.

          But obviously there is more that you can do to find inspiration than just open your eyes. So what follows is a brief list of some of the other methods I employ when searching for inspiration.

          Rifle Through Your Personal Experience

          Explore your past. Maybe you had a unique childhood experience, or probably many. What are those moments that you remember most vividly and why? Is there a story there? What jobs have you worked? What experiences have you lived? Which ones rocked you to your core, bowled you over, knocked you off your feet and other cliches? Myself, I have to look at those experiences that inspired me, hurt me, and shaped me. The happiest and worst moments of my life, of any writer’s life, those are the depths to be plumbed to tell a story with true emotional resonance.

          Keep a Dream Journal

          If you’re a vivid dreamer like me, there is plenty of material. Half of my stories come from my nightmares. While my deranged mind decides to torture me in my sleep, I try desperately to remember that horror upon waking, write it down, and file it away. With a little twisting to reinsert the logic of the waking world, one’s nightmares make a great starting point for unique tales. At least two of my pilots and a quarter of my prose has been drawn from dreams.

          What Ifs

          Maybe you’ve tried being observant to no avail, and your dreams just aren’t providing. You can still generate inspiration. Take a moment and brainstorm. One of the methods that I enjoy is to start a document with ‘What if…’ at the top. Then I create a bulleted list and type out as many possible ways to finish that statement as I can at that time. Many of these ideas are going to be terrible, but one or two of them might just spark something worth writing.

          Story Types

          Let’s say you’ve gone through all of that, and it is still not cutting it. Well, though I love looking to the real world, to my dreams, and to my imagination as a starting point, there is nothing wrong about considering your favorite stories. If I know I want to write horror, I might stop and think what are some of my favorite horror stories and what type of story is each? A zombie story? A vampire story? A ghost story? The destruction of the fabric of the universe by some Eldritch God? It could be anything, but I try to boil it down to its simplest. Now I have a list of story types that I enjoy reading. That’s great, because you know what, we write best what we know and what we love. If you don’t want to read it, why write it?

          Anyway, with a list now generated, I examine the common story types and I think to myself, what can I do different here? For instance, I like stories about Mars, so maybe I want to set a story there. Okay, but what is my angle? Well, what if I examine a problem like drought, which I see often in my home state of California? Is there a story that I could uniquely tell about the value of water on Mars? Maybe. Currently its called Inflow, and this is how I came up with it.

          Stream of Consciousness

          Another method I like to employ is stream of consciousness writing. I just sit down at the keyboard and I write. Usually this doesn’t start off pretty. Half of the time it starts off with, ‘I really want to write, but I don’t have an idea right now. What can I write about?’ Even then, at least it started. From there, I just let my mind go. Though it may not result in something every time, plenty of my story ideas have birthed from this random vomiting of my stream of consciousness onto the page. In fact, my last pilot, The Cage, began in just this same way. After five minutes or so of random nonsense I stumbled upon my own unique perspective on a werewolf story. Then I tucked it away and let it simmer for five years… which brings me to my final method:


          Sometimes I can try all of the options detailed above and still come up with nothing. My observations from that day aren’t popping out at me. My recollection of my past just isn’t hitting me upside the head with anything useful. I didn’t have any good dreams the night before and my what ifs are coming up blank. In addition, I might try to twist some common story ideas, but I’m not finding an angle that is uniquely mine, and none of my free-writing is producing anything worthwhile. Those days are going to happen. That’s why you create lists, at least that’s why I do.

          When all else fails I go to a saved folder on my hard drive or open up my Moleskine, and I look through lists upon lists of story ideas that I’ve previously jotted down, but didn’t explore. And where did these ideas come from? From every other method listed above, because I guarantee if you’re employing methodology to find your inspiration, there are going to be times when you come up with multiple excellent ideas, some of which just have to be saved for another day if for no other reason than the constraints of time.

          Moving on…

          So… yeah. That’s how I do it. That’s how I concoct the madness that is my fiction. You might have other methods. Feel free to let me know in the comments. I am always curious about new ways to find that next great story idea. Right now, I’ve got my ears open, and I’m observing. I’m listening to a strange, howling wind blowing through my hotel room despite the lack of an open window, and I know that an idea is forming, and it’s being written down in my Moleskine as soon as I press publish on this post.

          That said, go find your own inspiration. Get cracking. And as always,

          Happy Writing