With so many brilliant works already out there, staying fresh is more and more of a challenge for writers. But people constantly look for new twists and flavors in their reading material, and woe betide the writer who doesn’t deliver.
Sounds intimidating? You bet. But good writers manage to captivate their audience time and again with fresh ideas and details. The following principle will help you boost your originality, too.
The key to finding fresh ideas is laughably simple. It comes down to a single concept: Instead of brainstorming interesting ideas, you should brainstorm interesting questions.
Ideas are like answers, and our minds are curious things—when they get an answer, they tend to stop looking for other possible answers. But the first answer isn’t always the best one. In fact, it’s often an obvious answer, and obvious is the enemy of fresh.
Here’s how the process looks:
- Question everything. Make your questions interesting and unexpected
- When you’re out of questions, start filling in answers
- Don’t stop at the first answer. Write down all possibilities
- Choose the most interesting answer for each question
- Brainstorm new questions based on each answer (a.k.a. repeat)
Let’s explore some examples.
You’ve worked out a scene in your mind and you know what your characters need to do. Now all that remains is choosing the backdrop for your action. It’s only the backdrop, so who’s going to notice it, right? Wrong. Choosing fresh settings can impact your action and dialog, and inject your scene with life. Think how tightly woven plot and backdrop are in Harry Potter: the elaborate settings of Hogwarts bring the story to life, and supply many opportunities for both plot and character development.
Questions you should be asking:
- What’s the most obvious place for this scene? How can you make it special?
- What’s the most unlikely place for this scene?
Choose the most interesting answers to find the best place for the scene. Once you have your location, don’t stop asking questions:
- Who else might be present? What are they doing there? How would their presence affect your characters?
- What history does the location have? How does that impact its current state?
- How do your characters interact with the location?
- How do they feel about the location? How does that impact their behavior?
And so on.
For example, let’s examine a conversation I was writing between a professional fighter (who happens to be an immortal fallen angel) and his manager. In the first draft, the scene took place in a club owned by the manager’s brother. The manager was lounging in a private booth with a lovely woman on either side, drinking some refined alcohol. Ugh. Boring. Predictable. Un-fresh.
Then I started asking questions. I needed the location to remain the same, but for everything else, I chose new answers.
Who else might be present? I decided to scratch the lovely women and instead gave the manager a little daughter.
What was she doing there? Spending a rare night at the club with her father, since she hardly got to see him. And she had him wrapped around her finger, so they’d been doing something together . . . something a little child would enjoy . . . painting!
So in comes my tough warrior, who gets searched thoroughly, and then looks up to see his cruel manager all absorbed in painting a pink unicorn, with his daughter sound asleep next to him in the booth. An amusing, unexpected, character-building subversion of a common trope: success! The entire scene became much more interesting, especially when the child woke up and joined some of the conversation before getting sent off to bed.
Building a round, authentic character is an art, but there are many less-than-obvious questions that can help you create one. For example:
- When your character was a child, who was their hero? What was their greatest fear?
- How does your character feel about their body? How does that impact them in terms of clothes, habits, love life, etc.?
- Who else is present in the character’s life? Think family, friends, past relationships, mentors, and so on.
- Has your character ever been seriously ill or injured? Has it left any marks or effects?
- What was your character’s childhood socioeconomic status? How did it shape them in relation to money, wealth, power, social strata, and so on?
- Does your character work? Are they happy with their salary/rank/position?
- How does your character like to relax?
- What is your character’s dearest wish? If they achieved it, would it really be as good as they thought?
- What would be the worst thing that could happen to them? (Tip: make it happen.)
I worked on a mystery once with two healer characters. The senior character I had a good feeling for, but the junior one—my POV character, no less—was more of a problem. I started exploring his background with questions until I found the one that unlocked his character for me: what made him want to become a healer?
The first ten answers I wrote down, I also scratched out. Too common. (This is crucial advice for answers to any questions you ask in developing your story; the first several answers will almost always be far too obvious to be interesting.) So I dug deeper and deeper, and came up with several interesting options. For example, he was in love with a girl (or a boy) who studied to be healers themselves, and wanted to be close to them. Or perhaps he was a sadist who was compensating for what he considered evil urges. Or, given the fact that his people toiled under the yoke of a cold-hearted baron, he knew that becoming a healer was the only way to gain access to the nobleman and take him out.
Equipped with either of these options, I suddenly had a character with an entire world view and set of values that defined his behavior, his actions, and his psyche.
Dialog is a tricky little beast. On the one hand, we’re encouraged to sound as natural as possible. On the other, most natural conversations are dull and boring—repetitive, meandering, full of pauses and shorthand and banality that don’t transfer to the written word at all. Striking the right balance is an art, but here are some questions that might help. Remember—choose the most interesting answer for each.
- What’s the most obvious thing to say at this point? (Obviously, don’t use that.)
- How can you make the obvious thing more interesting?
- What is your character feeling as they say their line? How does this affect them emotionally? Physically? How does this affect their speech?
- Is your character sarcastic, reticent, outgoing, or prone to babbling when nervous? How can you work that into their dialog?
- What is your character thinking a moment before speaking? How much of those thoughts will show up in their dialog? How much will show up in subtext? How much will remain strictly hidden, and why? (And how would the hidden end up showing after all, despite the character’s best intentions?)
Let’s examine a conversation between a mercenary and a young nobleman:
Mercenary: Everyone said you were dead.
Nobleman: Yeah, well, they were wrong.
Can you hear how boring that is? The nobleman’s reaction doesn’t sound authentic at all. It doesn’t convey personality, or rather, it conveys a dull personality that doesn’t fit the nobleman. Not to mention that casual phrasing like “Yeah, well,” is unlikely to be a part of a nobleman’s vocabulary.
So, as usual, I started digging around with questions. What was the noblemen feeling at that moment? I figured it must be some annoyance, because obviously he’s alive. What is his temperament? Being young and untried, I pictured him as vulnerable and unsure. Surely that wouldn’t make him feel comfortable. He would probably compensate for that with quick wit, sarcasm, and mockery.
And so my dialog ended up being:
Mercenary: Everyone said you were dead.
Nobleman: I’ve read this scholar, Everyone. Extensive works, but hardly accurate.
Question everything, discard the first several (obvious) answers, and use the most interesting ones. You can apply this technique to every detail in your writing, from what your character wears to how they behave under stress. Be bold with your choices. Dare. Your fiction packs a better punch when you step out of your comfort zone.