Back in So Where DO You Get Your Story Ideas? I was making the point that “ideas” as such really weren’t the issue most of the time. The trick was to recognize a story when you saw one. I don’t take back any of that, but it occurred to me that it wouldn’t hurt to clarify a bit. Some people, especially in the beginning of their development, tend to confuse “story idea” with the story itself, as in, boom, you get the idea, and the story immediately springs to mind, fully grown, like Athena sprouting from the brow of Zeus, and that’s not happening, therefore you’re just not getting story ideas, and What’s Wrong With Me!!?? If you find yourself in that particular panicky death spiral, take a breath, relax, and try to understand that, odds are, there’s nothing at all wrong with you. What you lack isn’t brains, or imagination, but experience. Brains and imagination, so far as I know, you either have or you don’t. Experience is something you have to earn.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that stories don’t sometimes appear fully grown and ready to be written down. It does happen, and it’s a grade A rush. But it’s not a story idea, it’s the story. Not the same thing at all. If it was, then recognizing a story idea would never be a problem. In truth, you’d have to be pretty dense, tired, or distracted to miss one. Usually, they’re a bit more subtle. I tend to think of story ideas like a light switch in a dark room. You fumble around a bit, find the switch and recognize it for what it is, flip it on and bang! Illumination. Now you can see what you need to see to do what you have to do. If what you’ve found really is a story idea, then that flash of illumination will always follow. That’s how you know you were right, but the initial recognition is the crucial step, and we’re back to that. How do you recognize a story? I said some things last time that I think were true enough, but when you boil them all down to essence, there’s only one way to learn how to recognize a story.
By recognizing a story, of course.
No, I am not being flip. How do you learn how to do anything? By doing it. If you want to carve wood, what do you do? You can read books and study the subject, and watch videos, and if you’re very lucky, an experienced carver will teach you what they know by example. But sooner or later, you’re going to have to take chisels and gouges in hand and carve wood. You take that step or you are not and never will be a carver. In that sense, learning to recognize a story is no different from learning anything else. All it takes is for you to mis-hear a line of conversation that thus comes out far more interesting than the speaker intended. Or you see an odd-looking animal trotting into the woods one day on your way to work. It could be anything. But you start wondering about it, trying to make some sense of it. We have the instinct to create meaning in our lives, whether it’s there or not, and the same for the world around us. There has to be significance, and if it’s not there, we’ll create it. Maybe you take that misheard sentence and build a narrative around it. The same for the animal. You know what it was, even if the books tell you that such things don’t exist, and you build your narrative about why it was there, what it was doing. What it all meant. Because it has to mean something. So it does. And you write it down.
You do that. You do it over and over again, until one day the light dawns. You Finally Get It. From that day on you understand to the core of your being why asking a writer “where do you get your ideas” is such a silly question.
One last example, more recent this time. I have a Gmail account. On the page where I get my mail there is a theme scene of a Chinese studio/tea house owned by a fox. It’s just a cute cartoony throwaway, but it changes depending on the time of day. In the morning the fox is in his garden. In the afternoon he may be serving tea to a friend. But late at night, while the fox is asleep, three ghost foxes come out to play a game of Go at a table in his garden. That’s all it is. A picture of three ghost foxes playing a game, and yeah, you’re probably way ahead of me at this point. It wasn’t just a picture. It was a story. First the trigger, then “It’s not just about the game, so why are they there?” “What does it mean?” I wrote the first draft last week. A new Lord Yamada story with the working title “Three Little Foxes.” And if you saw the same picture and didn’t get a darn thing from it, that’s all right. It just wasn’t your story.