A Thousand Ideas in an Hour


In Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, he this thing he calls A Thousand Ideas in an Hour. It's a fun exercise and a great way to get past writer's block. The idea is this. Starting with whatever idea you have, ask these three questions: How? Why? What result?

For example, you've got a princess locked in a tower. How did she get there? Why is she locked up? What happens as a result? Every answer is a branch. Some branches will end quickly, others will lead you into the rest of your story. Toss in a little, "What could go wrong?" and toss out anything that feels too cliche, and you've got yourself a story.

I did this once with a class of highschoolers, and it was their favorite part of the class. It went something like this:
Let's start with something simple. Give me an occupation.


Okay, let's go with the banker. What could go wrong at a bank?

It could get robbed.

Sure. I don't think we need to ask why yet, so how might this happen?

A man walks in with a gun and asks for money.
Some men take the bank hostage.
Someone blows up the safe.
Someone inside the bank robs it.

Okay, great. Let's go with someone inside the bank. Who could do that? Who's inside a bank?

Bank tellers.
Security guards.

How could one of these folks rob the bank?

The guard could let other robbers inside the bank.
The teller could grab some money off the counter when nobody's looking.
The guard could raise a false alarm and, while everyone's distracted, go into the vault.
...or take money off the counter.
...or take money from someone's pocket.

What about the security guard. Why would he do that?

He hates his job.
He's been planning to rob the bank for months/years, and got hired so he could do it.
He needs the money for his daughter's operation.
Around here we had to end the class, but you get the idea. Leading the discussion, I tried to follow paths that sounded more original and had more conflict potential, but any of these answers could be turned into an interesting story with some more work.

Try it out and see what you come up with. Better yet, tell me how you brainstorm to get past writer's block.


SM Blooding said...

I take a slightly different approach. I go for a walk or a run with my characters. They're literally all running with me and we're just chit chatting. We don't discuss the plot, and usually don't discuss the book at all!

I usually get stuck when I lose "the feel" of a character. *shakes head* I never thought I was the touchy feely type, but I now see that I am.

But I love this idea! This is awesome!


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

This sounds a lot like what goes on in my brain when I'm fleshing out a story. A lot of times I have to circle back, because the answers change the question!

And I may just steal this idea for a writing seminar I'm giving for teens this summer (called Writing While Teen, focuses on craft). :)

Matthew MacNish said...

I've never had to brainstorm for ideas. The only novel-worthy one I've ever had came to me pretty well fleshed out.

I'm not sure I'll ever have any others as good, but if I decide I need to come up with some, this is clearly a great way to get started.

Claudie A. said...

That's pretty much exactly how I roll. As I'm writing fantasy, I tend to ask "Why" a whole lot more and look at the setting for answers. It's satisfying when your world's unique culture contributes to explain the MC's actions.

And Susan's right. I often have to circle back to the original answers too.

jjdebenedictis said...

This is a great technique; I do something a bit like this already, but doing it on purpose would be a good exercise for me.

Unknown said...

Oh my. This is a process you should not have introduced me to. I could get lost for hours in it without ever actually getting any work done . . .

Adam Heine said...

@SM: Very rarely, I'll get all touchy-feely with my characters too. But I'm too analytical for my own good, I know.

@Susan: It's not even my idea. Steal away!

@Matthew: If I recall, Card used it not just to come up with ideas (like I did in the example), but to flesh them out. It's rare I have a novel-sized idea all at once. Usually it's more like, "Steampunk ninja mechas with krakens! Now what do I do with that?"

Adam Heine said...

@Claudie: I think it's especially good for fantasy. Card's examples were often for magic systems or alien races.

@JJ: Wish I could take credit, but regardless, I'm glad to help :-)

@Taryn: Ah, but see it is work! It's like pre-outlining :-)

Aurora Smith said...

It all just comes to me, I feel like I get a book completely outlined in my mine. Then I fill in the blanks.

Adam Heine said...

@Read: Man, I wish it all came to me like that. Usually I just get a cool world idea, and I have to figure out what story idea I want to stick in there.

B.J. Keeton said...

I wish I had the problem of lack of ideas. I tend to constantly have new ideas and motivations for characters, writing them down as often as I can, and never having enough time to get through them. At least in terms of premise and hook.

I think this is a fantastic idea, though, a wonderful process. I look very forward to using this to help smooth over a rough spot that may be too passive.


Adam Heine said...

Hope it helps, BJ. I'd be interested to know the results :-)