So, where do good ideas come from? (Pssst, do you prefer listening to reading? You’re in luck: this article is an adaptation of Out on the Wire episode 1.)
This is part 1 of the Story Building series, based on Out on the Wire.
Part 2: The Focus Sentence
Part 3: The XY Story Formula
Part 4: Chronology and suspense
Part 5: Framing and the Story Matrix
You know how people are always going around saying, “there are no dumb questions”? Tell that to cartoonists and writers on panels at big events. The number one most-mocked question panelists get?
“Where do you get your ideas?”
(Well, that, and “what kind of pen do you use?”)
But I kinda don’t get it: that really isn’t a dumb question at all. Quite the contrary. The problem is not that it’s dumb, it’s that it makes some assumptions that professional narrative artists know to be deeply faulty: that ideas come from somewhere specific, fully formed, and they strike us with a touch of the ol’ genius, and then off we go.
That’s not how ideas work. Or rather, that’s not how good ideas work. Sure, they start with some spark or notion, but that bit could be as flimsy as toilet paper (“cheerleader who fights vampires,” anyone?).
What makes them great is what you invest into them, how you dive deep and find new angles and resonances, and build the idea from the ground up.
So. You want to know where I get my ideas?
I pay attention to my attention.
I follow my taste, and I dive deep, investing time and energy, until I have something worth sharing with the world.
When I interviewed Ira Glass for my book, Out on the Wire: the Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, I tried to get him to talk about writing technique. But he resisted. He felt like we were really getting off point.
There are things that come down to technique, which is how to make a structure and how to focus a story, but one of the things that doesn’t get talked a lot about is, so much what makes something good is just your taste. Enforcing your taste. And noticing what your taste is. And noticing what you really love, and what you only kind of like.
To be successful you have to have interesting taste.
When Ira first said, “you have to have good taste,” I was like, I was like, taste, what? pff. What’s he talking about? “Taste.” That sounds so weird and elitist.
But I thought about it, a lot. And this is what I think he means: Pay attention to your attention. Pay attention to what you feel connected to.
That’s your taste.
Your taste is what captivates you. You need to work to amuse yourself. Amuse yourself, and you’ll realize you’re following your taste. Making major creative work is demanding personally, and it’s a tough way to make a living, to boot. Following your taste is the only thing that will keep you going for however long it takes to get through it.
In a world where roller derby is the top sport in the galaxy…
I’ve got a funny story about how I managed to amuse myself.
A few years ago—actually, quite a few. It was in December, 2006—I was working on my textbook about how to make comics, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. I collaborated on it with Matt Madden, my husband and fellow cartoonist, and we were working on a chapter about how to create characters.
There’s an activity in there we’d done many times in our classes, where you randomly choose a physical characteristic, a job, and an emotional characteristic, and then you put them together, and you build a character out of it. It’s funny, and fun, and it demonstrates definitively the power of juxtaposition—just put those non-aligned things together and your mind starts working. I can’t tell you how many students have gotten bizarre combos like “melancholy jockey who wears colored contacts…”
…and then gone on to actually love those characters and use them in stories.
Anyway, I had Matt give me keywords for two characters, so I could draw some illustrations for the activity in the book.
Here are the prompts Matt gave me:
- spiked collar
- wears a skirt
- tour guide
…And I came up with a roller girl and a 7-legged Martian.
The second part of the assignment is to put the characters together into a scenario, and build a story structure. So I gamely put Trish Trash, my rollergirl, on Mars, and invented a wacky caper plot involving a stolen suitcase, and then drew another illustration to suggest that storyline. It was just an example for our textbook. I wasn’t trying to come up with anything deep.
But days later, I still felt myself drawn to the idea. On Christmas day, 2006, I jotted down a few notes:
Roller Derby is biggest Earth sport. But Mars is farm leagues – not competitive. Bad roads, too many rocks. Dust, wind. Can’t skate. No good arenas
Patricia lives in Tlaloc, dirt farmer. Grows spinach (popeye) curses lack of rain. Obsessed with RD, wants to go to Earth to join, strict immigration quotas. Loses dream somehow.
Buddy alphaCentauriian Mechanical genius, invents skates that blow air. Floats them.
Gary panter mars
Team: the Terror Novas.
town: terra nova. new earth. terrans—earth people. “terra formed.”
Farm machine breaks down. gets holo-image asking for help? Has to find old martian. Idea for skates. Gather girl gang at HS, side kicks (Wonder Woman). Practice w/ old shitty skates or no skates? Just running?
meanwhile, solve crime. Earth team concealing crime.
…that’s just goofy. clearly riffing on Star Wars and the silly illustration I’d done for the book.
martians use wheels – they’re uncool.. possibly based on mars lander, first time they saw them. Maybe have built-in wheels (biological?) It’s religious for them?
some friend has roller skates. they tease her, wheels so out, so old-fashioned. Retro?
dust, not rocks. One big dust bowl
Use Aztec design. jaguar warriors
Trish is Indian? indo-african?
all brown kids. the ultimate banlieues. political strife?
blonde earth teams.
…which is where I start to feel the pull of my usual, more serious concerns in fiction: class struggle, institutionalized racism, complicated personal relationships. About 20 minutes into making my first page of notes on this idea.
And I was off.
Six months later, I had read up on leaf-harvester ants, bee colonies, various theories about terraforming Mars, and I was halfway through Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy. I went to a bunch of derby bouts and talked to players.
And as bits stuck to it, my idea grew from a silly Nancy-Drew-on-Mars romp, to a massive, world-spanning story, touching on climate change, class conflict, and coming of age.
I built a world in my mind, and eventually, with the help of my assistant Lydia Roberts, I drew it. It’s now almost 10 years later, and I’m finally close to finishing the book.
Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars will debut in the USA in November, 2016 almost exactly 10 years from its inception. But it all stems from 3 prompts:
- spiked collar
And Trish isn’t even really all that cheerful anymore.
I paid attention to my attention, and I dove in, way way in. Eight years and two planets in.
And let me say again: this is MY taste. Someone else would see roller derby and mars and be like, whatever! And keep walking. I mean, that person would clearly be nuts, but hey, different strokes.
Learn to pay attention to what you pay attention to.
It’s so easy to dismiss it. You have to train yourself to grab onto those things and not let go.
Meanwhile, on the Planet of Money…
There’s a story in Out on the Wire about this same process, on a topic that’s much closer to real life.
As far back as 2005, Alex Blumberg—then a producer at This American Life, now founder of Gimlet Media (which I’m sure has a similar story to the one I’m about to tell)—became curious about how all his very non-rich radio producer pals were buying houses. How were they getting mortgages? What was going on in the housing market?
I became sort of obsessed with all these websites that were talking about it. I got totally obsessed with this one website called “Calculated Risk.” Early on in 2005 it was a place where skeptics about the housing bubble gathered.
Alex worried that reading sites like Calculated Risk meant that he was just succumbing to alarmist internet rhetoric.
He kept trying to pitch stories on the topic to This American Life, but nothing seemed to gel. He consulted his old friend Adam Davidson, who was a business reporter.
…And he would tell me like, the people I talk to say there’s not really a problem as long as the models are right. But you know, the models could be wrong. Ha ha.
There was something about the subject that he couldn’t let go of. And then, in the summer of 2007…
…The first big subprime lender collapsed, which was a company called New Century, I think. Then a bunch a bunch of them collapsed after that. And then, I remember Adam sending me this email saying, maybe it’s too late to do that subprime story. I was like, I think it’s still ok.
The 2008 story they made to explain what had caused our economy to virtually collapse is called “The Giant Pool of Money,” and it’s among the most listened-to, talked-about, important hours This American Life has ever made.
And that episode, and the reaction to it, is what inspired Adam and Alex to found the show Planet Money.
What’s important here is that the germ of the idea that eventually made Planet Money possible, this weird tingly feeling about mortgages, seemed like a total outlier when Alex started poking at it and developing it.
And then it took four years to come to fruition!
Sometimes that’s just how it is. I know:
- My book La Perdida took 6 years.
- another graphic novel, Life Sucks, also 6 years.
- A novel, which has never been published, 5 years.
- Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and the sequel Mastering Comics, 6 years.
- Out on the Wire, well, you could call it 3 years, or you could call it 16, if you count Radio: An Illustrated Guide, the comic I did with Ira back in 1999.
…And the tales I could tell about how I struggled to make these works real. In fact, probably I will tell some of them.
It comes down to this: When I have a good idea, I grab on, and I don’t let go. I read and research, I write and I talk, and I keep building material until it clicks into place, like Alex did with the story that became “The Giant Pool of Money.”
I also toss and cull, and strike and annul. I have plenty of ideas that I don’t like, but at the core, the ideas I chase are the ideas that I love.
My works take years to come to fruition, and I need ideas that can fuel me for a long long time.
I talked to Stephanie Foo, producer at This American Life, about how she approaches finding stories.
You are a hunter for stories. Go out into the wilderness with your bow and arrow and crawl through the brush. You can’t just sit at home in front of the TV.
You have to walk through the world assuming that you are surrounded by stories. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve figured out that’s not the truth, not everything is a story, but it’s a valuable way to live.
What I like to tell young producers who are starting out is, “Don’t get mad. Get tape.”
The second you feel irritated by something, delve really deep into that, think, why am I irritated right now. Do other people have the same experience? Are other people as pissed as I am?
I used to skateboard around San Francisco and guys would always holler at me, like “KICKFLIP!” That was always the holler. “Kickflip!” So original. “Is that your boyfriend’s skateboard?” And I would get so irritated. So I started carried a recorder around and I would get hollered at every single time I skated. So I started recording the things these guys were yelling at me. And then I started chasing down girls I saw skating. I would interview them about their experience.
[And as for] the yellow fever story, when I was dating, and I was encountering a lot of guys who dated exclusively Asian women, and I felt very threatened. I did a story on it. Vocal fry: people writing in, complaining about it. It was very upsetting. And so we did a story on it.
Which is not to say write a rant and then read it into a microphone. It’s about, go out and find tape. Explore why this phenomenon is happening. Find people who are going through the same thing, and find perspectives outside your own.
Like Ira says: your taste matters.
And how do you know what your taste actually is?
You have to listen to yourself, pay attention to what excites you (or pisses you off), what you talk about. And then invest in it: invest your time and your attention.
And chances are, like, if you’re somebody wants to make stories, the reason why you want to make them is because you love stories, and you probably do have interesting taste. That’s what’s getting you into the game.
Do you need some motivation to pay attention to your attention?
This is an adapted version of episode 1 of my podcast: Out on the Wire, which is itself adapted from my book Out on the Wire, about the narrative secrets of the best storytellers on the radio. But you don’t have to listen to the podcast if that’s not your thing (although it’s really fun!). When I adapt episodes here on my blog, I include their key feature, the challenge, where I give you an assignment that will put you on the road to creating a new story.
Come up with an idea for a narrative project.
Get your Idea Hunter cheat sheet (sign up below) to find ways into this. Research your idea by looking up related things online, or by questioning your friends about it, or by painting a picture. Get deep, and start attaching information and inspiration to it.
Your mission is to write up a one-paragraph description of your idea and share it with a group of friends. Do not ramble! Just tell them what’s intriguing about this idea, and what directions it’s leading you in. What is starting to stick to it?
And name your medium. What are you intending to do with this idea? A fictional short story? A nonfiction brick of a book? A 10-page comic? A short video?
Make as many notes as you can, but don’t go further. In the next post, I’ve got a bunch of tools to assess and strengthen your ideas. We’ll poke some sharp sticks at your idea, and see if it holds water.
Note to readers: some links may be affiliate links, which means that if you click a link, and then decide to buy something (like a book, for instance), I will earn a small commission, at no additional cost to you.
This is part 1 of the Story Building series, based on Out on the Wire.
Part 2: The Focus Sentence.
Part 3: The XY Story Formula.
Part 4: Chronology and suspense.
Part 5: Framing and the Story Madlib.