The story herd

There are two models of creators: those who get great mileage, and those who seem to have eternal fuel cells. Beethoven wasn’t a big tune writer. When he got a good tidbit, he’d use it a lot, either in the same composition or recycled elsewhere. No waste there, and he was so clever about how he repackaged, no one minded. Others—Mozart and Dvorak come to mind—seem to be bottomless wells for tunes.

Authors are much the same way. Some seem endlessly inventive. Others work with a few themes, but keep coming up with new ways of looking at them.

For me, getting ideas is not a problem. I have herds of them. They don’t come from any place in particular—no catalogue, warehouse, wellspring, or oracle. Just stampedes of unruly thoughts, most of which are entirely useless, repetitive, or weird. Alas, shall we ever see my tale of the gypsy phrenologist and the missish Victorian bookkeeper who discover a frozen corpse buried at the crossroads?

The trick is figuring out which ideas are keepers. I tend to store them away, checking periodically to see which still interest me. Notably, they seem to form loose subject groups. I am apparently obsessed with a) social injustice and b) problem parental figures. You show me a guy with an absent father and a revolutionary streak, and I’ll show you a protagonist.

IMO, a viable idea must have the seeds of character growth. In my favorite books, a hero or heroine’s viewpoint radically changes over the course of the story. Plus, I need emotion and reversal. Emotion, because the reader, author and character all have to feel deeply about whatever problem the protagonist faces. Reversal, because the only way the character can solve the unsolvable dilemma is by changing his/her own vision. They have to learn, sacrifice, and earn their HEA. If this isn’t present in a story idea, I tend to pass it by.

Can you think of a story where the solution came from outside the character, and was it a satisfying ending?

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