Of all the frequently asked questions tossed at writers, in letters, at readings, or in interviews, the reigning champion of frequency remains “Where do you get your ideas?” Now being common doesn’t make a question bad. “How’s it going?” and “You want to get coffee?” can probably stick around. But “Where do you get your ideas?” irks me because it is the wrong question to ask. Ideas for stories abound. They’re an overvalued commodity, as common as dust pollen. If I were to ask you to stop reading this right now (not that I would), and tell you to think up five story ideas, you could probably do about as well as a pro in the same allotted time. So could your neighbor. So could your junior high school gym teacher, and he had all the imagination of a poorly maintained sump pump.
I was watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the other night. It’s one of the few passions from my childhood that still holds up today. On that night’s episode, Sagan illustrated the chances of a technologically advanced society developing somewhere in the Milky Way Galaxy with the Drake equation (bear with me, this is going somewhere):
N represents the number of planets with technical civilizations. R represents the number of stars in our galaxy. The next variable, Fb, represents the fraction of those stars that have planets orbiting them. Ne represents the number of planets that can support life orbiting each star. Fl represents the fraction of those planets on which life actually arises. Fi is the fraction of those planets that produce intelligent life. Fc is the fraction of those planets whose intelligent life manages to produce a technical civilization, and L represents the life span of those technologically advanced civilizations, expressed as a fraction of the planet’s lifetime.
Depending on how you play with the numbers, the Milky Way galaxy may be teeming with technologically advanced societies or it may contain only us. Something similar happens with story ideas, which, like stars in the Milky Way, abound. But only a fraction of them are memorable ten minutes later, and only a fraction of those that are memorable occur to a writer who can take advantage of them, and only a faction of those writers develop the idea into a working draft, and only a fraction of those working drafts go on to become finished works, and only a minuscule fraction of those end up mattering to anyone besides the writer who conceived and developed them. The idea of an office worker who loses the will to keep working has probably come to every office worker who ever sighed staring at a wall. It took Melville to write “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”
So the idea is not the issue; development is. And what must an idea develop into in order to survive?
I’ll turn things over, briefly, to screenwriter Terry Rossio:
Audiences love situations. They cannot turn away, they cannot remain passive, they cannot stand to leave a juicy situation unresolved.
Rossio later explains what he means by a juicy situation. It has immediacy, which is to say that whatever’s going on is important right now. It gains this immediacy by having a person there with an imperative, something they’ve got to have because failure means suffering consequences. We can’t look away from people who are going to take serious lumps if they don’t either obtain or avoid something right now.
The first scene of Dismantle the Sun starts with the following situation. Hal Nickerson is at home. His mother-in-law’s flight may or may not arrive soon–there’s a snowstorm–but if she does arrive he has to get the smell of his mistress’s perfume out of the house so the mother-in-law doesn’t catch a whiff. He’s got all the windows open. The house is freezing. Hal’s wife calls from the hospital. When he explains the situation to her, she suggests frying garlic to cover the odor. (She not only knows about the affair, she insisted on it.) Hal follows her recommendation. It works. He shuts the windows. There’s a knock at the door. Who is it? His mother-in-law. Just in time. He opens the door. It’s his mistress, come to get an earring she left behind. She comes in, trailing perfume behind her. Hal’s mother-in-law phones. She’s at the airport and needs to be picked up now.
The situation raises lots of questions for the reader. What is Hal going to tell his mother-in-law when they get home? How will she react? What sort of woman is Hal’s wife that she can convince her husband and her friend to have trysts? What’s going to happen next, and what will it mean?
This is the trick of fiction, to inspire readers to ask urgent questions. It’s why the question readers ask authors shouldn’t be “Where do you get your ideas?” It ought to be “How did you get me to wonder about your idea for 500 pages?” How? We built situations you couldn’t resist. That’s where the art is.
P.S. Here’s Carl Sagan talking about the Drake Equation. You can add it to the things you wonder about today.