Turning an Idea into a Story

In Orson Scott Card's writing books Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, he mentions this thing he does called A Thousand Ideas in an Hour. It's fun to do and a good way to get past writer's block.

The idea is this. You start with whatever idea you have, then begin asking 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 if you continue to ask the same three questions. 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 with a class of highschoolers a year ago, and I think it was their favorite part of the class. It went something like this:
Me: 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.
I think around here we had to end the class, but hopefully you get the idea. It's really fun to do in a group with a leader - someone asking the questions and picking the most interesting paths to follow. I tried to follow paths that sounded more original to me and had more conflict potential. It's what I try to do with my own stories too.

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


The Wannabe Scribe said...

That's a great exercise. It sounds like something I could use to help my kids with their creative writing for school too.

I'm lucky so far, I haven't had any serious stalls in my writing, at least nothing that could be considered writer's block. When I do get the odd lapse I just mull it over when I'm sitting in the car, taking a bath or before I go to sleep.

Captain Hook said...

I'm going to have to try that sometime. So far I haven't had to deal with writer's block, just the occasional bout with Isuckitis.

Natalie Whipple said...

That's a fun exercise. Seeing it written out like that, I think that's how my brain naturally works. I get a premise out of nowhere and then my brain starts doing that.

MattyDub said...

Wow. That looks like such a fun exercise I kinda want to try writing something just so I can do that.

Adam Heine said...

It works for RPG campaigns or world creation as well. In How to Write SF/F, Card does it in a college class to create a feasible alien race. Then again for a magic system (one that he eventually used in Hart's Hope).

Alix said...

That sounds a really fun idea and great to use in a classroom. NO writer's block for me as yet but maybe I'm too new to this :)