Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 1: Imagine the Worst Case Scenario

True story: Many years ago, four Atlanta businessmen decided to take a weekend trip to the woods of North Georgia, hoping to canoe a river one last time before it got damned up. They didn’t plan things very well, and soon found themselves hopelessly lost on the river, far away from their cars or any town. They gradually came to realize, however, that the woods around them were filled with backwoodsmen. What happened next?

I’ll tell you what happened. Some mountain folk invited them back to their cabin, fed them a great meal and then escorted them back to their cars, with a warm farewell and an offer to stop by again anytime.

As the four men were on the way home, one of them wondered aloud, “Gee, what would have happened if those mountain folk hadn’t been so nice to us?” Things might have ended there, but one of the four men was James Dickey, who wrote the novel (and later screenplay) “Deliverance” based on that supposition. Ever since, the whole world has associated the fine people of North Georgia with psychotic depravity. No good deed goes unpunished.

One can carp about the ethics of throwing one’s rescuers under the bus like that, but it’s still a good lesson to writers: if the worst thing that ever happened to you wasn’t that bad, feel free to write about the worst thing that could have happened to you.

This gives you a chance to tap into the fears you actually felt, even if they turned out to be unfounded. After all, what really fuels Deliverance isnt the (invented) evil of the tormentors, but the (very real) feelings of feelings of masculine inadequacy and disconnectedness from nature that grip the isolated men.


j.s. said...

What I like about this tip is the implication that there's not such a meaningful distinction between a writer's experience and imagination. Without sufficiently interesting input from both modes of writerly being, DELIVERANCE as such would not exist.

Matt Bird said...

Certainly: If you base your story entirely on imagination, or entirely on experience, it probably won't be very good. The best stories connect our imagination to our experience.

j.s. said...

The DELIVERANCE origin story is compelling, but there are other great stories with an even more obscure connection to outward life experiences.

I guess what I'm really getting at is this: The emotional experience of any given situation is the most important part. Everything else is secondary. And if you're smart enough, empathetic enough and diligent enough about it, all the rest can almost certainly be created through some combination of research and pure imagination.

Paul Schrader was never a pimp or a cab driver. David Chase was never a mobster. George Lucas never flew space craft or even real planes.

But Schrader knew what it was like to be desperately lonely in a city of people, Chase to feel like a monster at the head of his family, Lucas to want to get the heck out of a provincial small town.