As a storyteller, I make my living as a tour guide of sorts, escorting my audience through vivid dreams. As a guide, I create the setting, with its landscape, history and its wonders. I may suggest entire cultures with imaginary languages and customs. I might develop characters with their own unique habits and ways of thinking and acting. I can twist plots like pretzels so that my audience will alternately laugh, cry, or stand amazed, or find their hearts pounding in terror.
It’s really not hard to become a virtual tour guide. The first thing that you need is a willing audience, someone who will allow themselves to become engaged in your story. Audiences aren’t hard to find. People seek out the experience. Anyone who is shopping in a bookstore, standing in line at a movie theatre, or simply flipping on a television set is seeking to engage in a shared dream.
But several times in the past few weeks, I’ve heard people describe the basic ideas for their novels, and felt that the basic concept was so weak, that I had to wonder, “Why would you write that one?” In each case, I was talking to speculative fiction writers and the idea for the novel was so simple that I had seen one like it perhaps a dozen times before. Maybe I’ve seen too many ideas, but I can’t help but think that the novelists in these cases somehow . . . went astray.
The ideas for your novel come from many places. You may make an observation about a stranger, and that becomes the seed for a character. Perhaps you’ll grasp onto a couple of words from a song while driving down the road, or while running on a treadmill an entire imaginary world will open up.
In fact, it isn’t hard to dream vividly. Any time that you engage in dull, repetitive actions it leaves your mind free to open up to flights of fancy. In fact, some jobs are terrific for inducing those dream states. I used to work as a prison guard. Believe me, when you’ve been sitting in a guard tower for a couple of hours on a cold night, watching a fence, you will start to engage your imagination. My old friend Brandon Sanderson had the same experience as a night clerk at a motel, where he spent his time writing novel after novel.
So imagining fantastic settings, characters, and conflicts, and then turning those into novels, comes naturally to most of us. The question then becomes, “Why do we often engage in mundane dreams? Why do some authors get excited about tepid ideas and worn-out storylines?”
May I suggest that it is because we allow our imagination to “run away with us”? When you’re new to the job, we often find ourselves in harmless little fantasies that genuinely do excite us. We’re so intrigued and gratified by our own ability to write these stories and make them come alive in the minds of others, that we don’t stop and ask ourselves, “Is this novel or screenplay really worth it? Is it somehow better than the other hundred iterations of the same story?”
And because the author never thinks to answer that question, he or she will often spend thousands of hours writing down a stale story, smoothing out the prose, and trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
But as a professional, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about stories, about pushing boundaries and creating new experiences for readers. As I said earlier, we can engage in vivid dreaming pretty easily. I once hopped in my car and drove 260 miles to see my daughter. When I pulled into her parking lot, I surprised myself because I had been working on a novel scene so intently, I hadn’t been consciously aware that I was driving at all. Just about every writer has episodes like that.
Dreaming itself isn’t hard, so why not consciously begin your work by shaping your dreams? For example, imagine setting your story in a time or place that no one else has ever visited. It might require some research before you begin finding images, imagining scents, or hearing sounds that have never been heard, but it can be done.
Or maybe you can travel into an imaginary world with its own cultures and civilizations, and explore that until you come up with some fascinating characters—and then bring them to life.
There are no limits to what you can do. So don’t steer your imagination down worn paths, into stories that your audience has visited a hundred times before. Dream big. Dream new dreams.
My friend Gama Martinez recently published his book Beastwalker, the third installment in his Pharim War series. You might want to check it out.
My fairy tale story, The Stone Mother's Curse, is up for free this week. If you haven't read it, now would be a good time to pick it up.
As always, make sure to check out my live writing workshops happening this year.