One of the main rules for developing a good storyline is to make sure that the characters work for their achievements.

Perhaps before they can slay the dragon and rescue the princess the knight has to complete a quest for a scarecrow to get a magic sword, or win a ring of invisibility from a dwarf.

However the protagonist completes their quest it needs to be difficult and there must be obstacles for them to overcome.

Now, let's say that your main character is not in an exciting profession (in my case he works in an office). He doesn't need to find a magic sword to complete his quest, he needs to have a really good idea...

At the moment I tend to try to take my character out of the office and present a dubious metaphor which will jog his thinking but I'm not convinced this works especially well. How can I make a quest for knowledge difficult and interesting?

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    @Kevin - Why did you delete your answer? It was pithy and to the point... – Chris Sunami Sep 24 at 18:25
up vote 14 down vote accepted

There is a theory that the fantasy aspects of classic myths and fairy tales are actually dramatizing internal psychological conflicts and their resolutions. The hero is fighting a monster, but's its really an elaborate metaphor for fighting off depression, or overcoming selfishness, or what-have-you. The same can work in reverse. The hero may superficially work in an office, but inside his psyche, he's having epic battles. This can be treated more literally and externally (e.g. the "villain" is the boss, the "wizard" is his business mentor, the "princess" is his co-worker) but it can also be purely metaphorical and internal.

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy fights and kills a witch, but the real challenge is overcoming her insecurities, and learning to have faith in herself. Conversely, Remains of the Day takes place entirely in a bland, mundane, heavily bounded setting, but the main character's repressed inner life is filled with (psychological) dangers that are never acted out, but only hinted at. Done properly, even the most strictly realistic story can have many of the same pleasures as great fantasy. Note that the work put in by the character doesn't even need to be directly related to the goal in order for the audience to feel emotionally satisfied. They just want to see the work put in somehow.

In your story, your main character needs to overcome something in order to reach his resolution --a great idea. That something doesn't need to be a literal dragon. Rather, it could be something internal --his own insecurity, or his ego, or his selfishness, or some other deep seated, hard-to-dislodge character flaw. Only after he changes and grows as a person does the needed idea flow forth.

Focus on the failures to complete the task, the protagonist needs a particular idea/realisation in order to do something so run through ideas that don't fit the bill. Have them agonise over their defeats and throw their hands up in the air and walk away from the problem, and only after they have despaired of finding a working solution have them realise what they need. You can even use the existing realisation scene just built up differently, have it be after he has admitted defeat and left the office for the day or just to get some space to think about the seemingly insurmountable problem.

You should think about where good ideas come from. In general, finding the solution to any problem is the combination of parts. You've already identified this. In order to beat the bad guy a skilled swordsperson needs a magic sword. The parts are: Skill, Person, and Magic Sword. So, you have a challenge to go out and put those pieces together. When the character has their pieces, if it feels like they've earned them we appreciate the victory.

In general, an idea is no different. You need to have your character assemble the pieces and realize he has the pieces. So, figure out what the idea he's coming up with is and figure out what pieces lead to the realization of that idea. Then you can figure out if he actively or passively figures it out. Think about what makes the best realization moments as well. Is it, just sitting at your desk? Is it being involved in the investigation and happening upon the idea, neatly sitting on a table? Or, is it when a deadline is fast approaching, nearly on top of you and you find and put all the pieces together at the last possible moment?

Once you know what the idea is and its various components there are lots of ways to give the character pieces to the puzzle. The best ways will involve your character changing who they are, and solving some piece of emotional conflict in their life. Then, when they get their great idea, they have also become a different person. But, some pieces can also be handed out because they've formed a bond, solved some other greater problem in the world, or just been persistent enough to find whatever it is they are looking for. Another well used option is to observe other people solving your problem for you. If you happen to be in the right place at the right time, other people, unawares, may do exactly what you need to understand in order to solve the thing you're trying to solve. And they may never be the wiser.

You should also think about what the inspiration will be for combining the pieces. Because this is where we see the "skill" of our protagonist.

And finally, how you use that idea does matter. Having a great idea is just the first part of the problem. Getting others to accept and believe or even implement your own idea can be pretty hard. Whole books are written about people having an idea and being unable to get anyone else to believe in, use, or respect that idea.

An idea is a sword, a sword must be forged. You already know how to solve your problem, it turns out.

  • My brain is telling me that you're basically right, but my instinct is telling me quite the opposite ^__^ It's not such an obvious question the one you have there, "where do (good or bad) ideas come from?". You can learn how to play chess. You have the rules, which are the pieces of your puzzle, but you can't win by simply applying the rules. You need something different, an insight. Some of it comes with experience, while some... I think nobody knows. – ChatterOne Sep 25 at 10:38
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    The line between instinctive play & moves made with understanding is the line between a person who plays chess for fun and a master. Both may serve you for the duration of a game, but one leads to victory and is the stronger if your goal is to win. A well formed, truly revolutionary idea is like the chess master's understanding of the moves he makes. It is not just a feeling. Which is not to say that there isn't something interesting there; and it may serve a story to work off of instinct instead of some big idea; but an idea story is usually more thought out. – Kirk Sep 25 at 12:13
  • That's slightly different than the point I was trying to make. Having "understanding" of the moves is the same as being good at using the tools you have. The better you are, the better the results. Having an idea is different, especially an innovative one. That's something that nobody has thought of before, so by definition you can't rely on experience. But if it's not coming from experience, where is it coming from? How do people come up with ideas at all? How did Aristotle come up with the atom idea? Or Einstein with the relativity theory? – ChatterOne Sep 25 at 12:31

To kill a dragon you need a lot of prequisities - magic sword, ring of invisibility, knowledge of his weak point, skill, motivation and mainly you need a luck (which itself solve nothing, but enable you have all you need at the right time) and hard work.

There are two main schemes, how to obtain prequisities - one (usual in old sci-fi) is by planning for everything from start and make all the hard work to reach you goal (stalking the dragon, questing all failed heroes (or studining their remains), then you make list of subquest and go for them (maybe reiterating in frame of subquest - study, make plane, get prequisities), until you have all ready and then go and kill it. Your luck helps you in geting the right idea, making the working plan, meeting the right people, or even needed to have artefacts existing and know about them.

Basically it is first see the whole target, then work hard to get prequisities, then get the target as expected.

The other one (more usual in legends) is beigin "good person", take a few steps more to help somebody/discover something strange and getting prequisities as reward for those random subquests (help ants from good heart, the say "we will help you too" you say "whatever small onec, how it could be possible", then later suddently had to do impossible (find lost pearls in big meadow to the evening) and bam - ants came "you helped us, we help you" and as there is soo much of them, they can cover the whole area, and bring pearls one by one to you just in time). Your luck lies in beeing offered such subquest, go to do them and get seemingly unusable thing, which later turns to be plot-devices. When you meet the dragon, you are overhelmed by it, by in the dire situation you think fast (or other helps) and came with use all of such already existing bonuses to get unexpected result (kill the dragon). Your luck hits here too, that you use all you have in creative ways and it somehow works.

It is basically going somewhere, do a lot of (seemingly random, just by luck appearing) character-describing things, then came to big obstacle and combine all you get by luck and being good in creative way to overcome impossible and get reward.


To get great idea you also need some luck and lot prequisities - knowledge ( better from more different ares, which nobody would connect), skills (to know how it could work an to be able make experiments), tools (laboratory,library, electricity, spare junk ...) and such.

Again you can have big target (say antigravity) and study hard to find what all you need to obtain, study, train, than do it and finally be able to came either with perfect theory or working device. But it is lot of technical and you need the base idea from start, and reward is the idea in full and complete form.

Or you can have different target (say help disabled friend to live better) and go this way, make a lot of simple tools for him, then complicated one), which rewards you with a lot of knowledge, skills and equipped workshop+lab and one day you stumble on something unrelated (why this prostetic works erradically), when you notice, that there are some cross-interferrecies from your self-made devices, which make no sence at first, you try eliminate it, and there are still some minor problem, until you take another look at that and discover, that there is something strange, enhancing it to be better discoverable and eliminated, then you realise, that this small part yous floats in air - and bam, you realise, that it for some reason as by-product created antigravity - so you finally can solve, how to transport the friend from basement to higher floors conveniently. Well and by the way you discovered antigravity and then you can make as well rocket and take you two to the moon. And everyone else.

You get your big idea, beacause you collected enought sources (knowledge, skill, equip) to one place and with a little luck you realise something strange (which would not appear elseway) and got the BIG IDEA.


Ususally in such cases you stubmle on many ways, which simply does not work, they you see (hear, dream,...) something totally unrelated, which makes you to temporary put away all you was doing now and look at a problem from totally other side. And as you have all ingrediences already, the IDEA can just pop in your head and you finnally see, how connect strings and why the previous attempts must failed in hindsight.

Something like "when student is ready, teacher will appear" or as solving koan.

Maybe have the character can go throught iterations of ideas; thinking them up, implementing them and trying it out, only to fail somehow. For example an idea that doesn't quite work, an idea that was already invented and patented etc.

Or have other characters also work ideas, and then have them combine their ideas in the end. So then "the battle" is overcoming their own egos and work together as a team, something like that.

Try to make the character feel that it is his own idea, his own personal fight. People can get impressively more hard working if they get that feeling. It will not only be a job but start to become a personal battle for them.

For example, maybe he saw cute dragonlings next to his tree hut when he was little and that made him always want to save a poor dragon from a princess.

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