Today’s writing tip comes from Hugh Howey, the New York Times bestselling author of the Wool series.
The next time you’re brainstorming for something to write about, try this handy dandy trick. Not only does it help with originating new plots, it’s a great way to take an existing story idea and kick it up a notch. Before I explain the trick, a note about what drives a great story forward.
You may already be familiar with the concept that tension is key for every story. Tension is what ushers the plot along. If you find yourself confused about what happens next, it’s because your characters have lost their motivation. There’s nothing ratcheted up in their world. It’s like a clock that has worn down and needs winding. That’s why you need tension. Whether it’s internal angst or whizzing bullets, a sense that something is wrong will keep you engaged to your characters (and in turn keep your readers engaged to your writing). The trick I’m about to discuss takes this age-old advice about tension, and allows you to craft a world brimming with it before you set down the very first word.
Here’s the trick: When you come up with an idea for a story, the very first thing you should do is take that whiz-bang idea and break it. Turn it on its head. I’ll give you a few examples, and in each one, I want you to pay close attention to where a writer could easily stop and craft a new world or a fascinating character, but where I’m urging you to go a step further, break these conventions, and come up with a story idea that will write itself, one that’s so full of tension the author’s job is simply to follow along as the plot unwinds like a coiled spring.
In brainstorming for HALF WAY HOME, my initial idea was to come up with a method for colonizing distant planets. My solution was that sending living and breathing people would be too expensive (they have to eat, and they generate waste). So what if they were sent as fertilized eggs and grown in vats after they arrived? That was the genesis of the story. It was a cool idea, but not much more than that. There wasn’t any tension. If I told that story, it would simply be a dry account of people settling a foreign planet. Cool, in a geeky way, but not a book begging to be read.
“Breaking” the story entailed thinking of ways the settlement could go wrong. What if not all planets were okay to colonize once the ship arrived? What if a computer had to make a decision on whether or not to land and set up base? What if, out of the thousands of such colonies sent out among the stars, there was one planet where this decision was impossible to make, and the computer vacillated back and forth until it went crazy? What if this colony was half-aborted before it even began, and the people growing in vats were awoken as teenagers with only half of their training and most of their comrades dead? That’s a lot of tension. The story begins to write itself.
Before I write my first sentence, I break each concept as much as I can. I did the same for THE PLAGIARIST. The original idea was that one day we would simulate worlds with such fidelity and clarity that the organisms living within them would evolve language, art, and feel that they were alive and real. Some of us would then log into these worlds and steal virtual art, bring it back into the world, and sell it as their own. That’s the baseline. It’s just a cool idea, but without tension. Well, what if one of these art thieves fell in love with a girl on a simulated world? What if he stopped caring about the art, stopped caring about his real life, and simply wanted to live among these digital denizens?
I didn’t stop there; I kept breaking. Suddenly, his only romantic relationship in the real world is with a girl he’s never met. It’s a relationship over a computer with a real person, while he has a relationship within a computer with a fake one. And more: The world in which his lover lives is set to be destroyed. Here’s where we start the story. We don’t begin with a cool idea and wind our way up to it. We start with a mess and a nightmare — allow the reader to slowly discover what is going on — and then allow the story to unwind from there.
The same is true of WOOL, the short story that allowed me to quit my day job and has sold nearly half a million copies, landing it on the New York Times bestseller list. I began with a source of tension. I didn’t simply tell a story of people living underground in a vast silo; I began with a sheriff exiling himself, a good man walking off to his death. While the reader is catching up and learning the rules of this place, someone is setting off to die and thinking of his departed wife. No buildup. You begin with the world broken and breaking. Put the action and mystery in the very first sentence and beg the reader to strap in and hold on.
All of my story ideas start in this fashion. When I decided to write about zombies, I began by assuming that the zombies still retained all of their memories and emotions, but that they couldn’t stop themselves from eating people. I told the story from their perspective, a completely different perspective. If I was going to write about a world in which magic existed, I might begin by assuming that one day, everyone woke up to discover that magic no longer worked. If I was writing about a secret garden in which fairies lived, I would write about what happens from their perspective when a human stumbles into their world, not a story from a human perspective as they stumble upon fairies. And then I would take those ideas and break them further. What if there was only one person on that formerly magical world who still had their powers? How would the world treat them? What would they do with those powers? How would everyone else feel to have lost their abilities?
The same is true of characters. Don’t plop people into your stories who are normal and whole. Real people aren’t like that! Just as worlds are normally messy and broken, so are those who live in them. They’re more interesting, too. Give them a disability, an old wound, a history of hurts. Give them a goal they can’t possibly hope to accomplish. Imbue them with flaws and mysterious pasts. And when you think you’ve broken them sufficiently, break them some more!
Your story should be about putting pieces back together, not wandering along, looking for something to go wrong. If you give this a try, you might find that the plots write themselves, and that readers are sucked in from the very first line and discover that they can’t let go.