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A lot of writers talk about how you can't wait for inspiration to hit, you have to just sit down and write. That's fine and all, but I can't just sit down and write without a method to attack my writers block. I need to have identified some problem clearly that I can brainstorm ideas to address. An ars poética.

Probably a lot of people are familiar with this series of questions for world building https://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/04/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

I find that to be helpful, but I'm also wondering what other people ask themselves to come up with compelling characters and plots. What have you found helpful to ask yourself to keep yourself writing or at least brainstorming?

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R L Stine suggests asking 'What if ...?' You have to fill in the dots. What if cars could fly? What if I could see when people are going to die? What if I could read people's text messages without even touching their phones?

I find this a useful approach.

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  • +1 but I thought this approach was attributed to Stephen King for some reason. Seems like it would be a useful way to leapfrog writer's block though.
    – elrobis
    Nov 14, 2022 at 13:21
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    @elrobis Many people use this approach. I think I have seen Stephen King suggest it too. I saw it first in a document written by R L Stine 15 or 20 years ago. Nov 15, 2022 at 17:14
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One thing I find helpful for my own writing is to watch bad movies, read bad books, or look at bad characters in genres I want to write in and think to myself, "If I were to remake this, what parts would I make better."

I find most bad works of fiction are not lacking in good ideas, just in good execution. Identifying what works and what doesn't can lead you to an idea to make a workable story of your own.

If you have your characters down, another good exercises is to find some websites with "writing prompts" and put your cast of characters into that situation. How do they react? What happens? These scenarios can be good if you need to find something that focuses on your characters and not their conflict.

Also remember, your final story needs a beginning, middle, and end... but nothing in the book says you have to write them in that order. Get your important scenes and conversations down. Did you know that Spider-Man: Into Spider-Verse the first thing written was the "What's Up Danger" sequence. Nothing else... the plot, the other characters, all of that, had not been developed... the entire film was made to get to the pivotal sequence. All they new is that this was Miles' leap of faith. For the crew, it was the most important part of the film. Everything leading prior to this had to build to this point.

Find your major moments and write them... from there it's connecting the dots. Lots of writers write "backwards" and settle on the ending, and where everything needs to be.

I also found that that getting into Roleplay games, specifically roleplay games where the focus is less on mathematical stuff and more focused on collaborative fiction telling (Not that D20 dice games aren't bad for this, but I did Play By Post games where waiting for dice rolls was inconvenient, especially when you had your character tied up waiting for an action from someone else.). Many of the big ones are using a fictional universe so it helps get you into a place with your genre of choice, but lets you get your "too close to copyright infringement" ideas out of your creative system. Look for works of fiction that would lend themselves to large ensemble casts of characters or has a large population of new characters who can have stories written about them (Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and X-Men are some good examples, where there is a diverse line of potential unique characters.).

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Look for stories that touch you emotionally in some way. A newspaper can be a good source. Or everyday life.

Whenever I come across something that touches me, I take some notes and try to figure out if this could be a good story.

An example: Some days ago, I read a short newspaper article about a musician who managed to live in a forgotten cellar room of a department store for four years before he was discovered. This was only a short note, but might be a good start for a story: Why did he decide to live there? What was his life there like? Why did nobody miss him?

Then start to change the story: Your protagonist is not a musician, but perhaps a former manager who has to hide from ... enemies? Debtees? Or it is a woman who wants to hide from a stalker ... a heiress who fears to be kidnapped... Or the illegitimate and forgotten son of the store owner, seeking revenge? Who knows?

The world is full of stories. The only important thing is that the story touches you. Writing has a lot to do with emotions, and it will only work if you are emotionally engaged.

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You say you need to know what questions to ask.

I write in different phases. The first is the idea-capture phase. This one is tricky because I'm not at all sure it can be forced. Either you have an idea or not.

You can gather ideas though, and combine them, pull them apart and put them together in new ways. But they usually need to simmer... for weeks, months, even years or decades...

I need to have a basic idea of a theme, an event, something I want the book to be about... if it's a kidnapping, an invasion, a betrayal, a bank heist, a kind of basic idea or picture that I can use to work from.

Usually, this is about something I feel I want to talk about. Yes, one important skill in my writing is to avoid soapboxing and it's sometimes going so-so. I get ideas like this from reading magazines and books, and watching TV programs and movies about things I care about.

For me, interest and a need to say something is important sources for ideas on not just what the story should be about, but why.

It's even possible the idea won't survive the process but did give rise to other, better ideas. Change is always good in the early stages... well it's good later on too... just not always as welcome...

Once I have the idea I start working on it using the Snowflake Method. It's great in that it expands the story incrementally and that it forces you to look at the two most important sides of a story; character and plot.

Once I start working with the Snowflake Method the questions tend to be more pragmatic; what happens next? How do I solve this problem? What does this character work with? How does it end? Where does it start? That many catastrophes, really? Oh well, how do I create catastrophes? What bad things are going to happen?

At that level, I force myself to come up with a solution or idea or piece of text or character development, and usually, I end up with something. Not always good, sometimes I find something better later. Improvement!

It also helps to be a kind of annoying naysayer. Whenever someone says something with determination, my mind always starts trying to find holes in their reasoning. I guess this would be a version of "what if"-questioning... In the early stages, it's great to intuitively look at situations and things from different angles... in later stages, it can be a pain...

If you use the Snowflake Method you find you'll spend a considerable amount of time before getting to even write the first draft... depending on how fast or slow you work. But doing all that work with characters and plot tends to get me more and more triggered to get to the damn draft and it happens that I just start writing out of pure desperation.

So, is the first draft any good?

"The first draft of anything is shit."

/Ernest Hemmingway

The first draft is not the last draft. If it was, some bastard would edit their texts and become a brilliant best-selling author compared to everybody else because of it.

You're not going to escape editing the first draft. At least not if you want to do more than just write the first draft...

And with editing comes a completely new family of questions... how do I make them sound different? How do I make them look different? Wait, wasn't she supposed to be introverted? Well, she is here, but not here... what happened? Does it work? Do I need to change one place? Then what? What if I get her drunk? Hey! What if they're at a party in this scene? Aha!

The good news is that you get many chances to fix what's not working in the first draft. It's a bit like being able to retake a test until you get the score you like. Amazing and a bit dangerous... at least if you're aiming for a full score... and planning on getting anything out there...

So, what you write in the first draft is much less important than what you write in the last... if, consciously or not, that great white unwritten page is somehow interfering with getting the words down...

"Inspiration is for amateurs. If you have ambitions as a writer, you should just write something, anything, and then work on it."

/Jan Guillou

This quote is from a best-selling author with a past as a journalist. Several best-selling authors seem to have a past in journalism... perhaps it's because they're used to producing texts and have less romanticized views of writing as a whole. It's about words on the page that you get down, then reshape until they shine, or get cut. Or your deadline is here and whatever dungheap you have gets published...

I might also add that Guillou does not produce perfect texts, not always, and the more I write the more I find minor and major faults in them... But he has for sure published more books than I have and he's made more money than I have... and most importantly, he's been read by and is known by a lot more people than I am... or likely ever will be...

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I exclusively use the "discovery writing" method meaning I do not plan out my stories. I create the characters as they are required but it is they, based on their characteristics expressed as decisions, dialogue and actions, who decide how the story will progress.

I do have a "world" to begin with but in my case because I write near-future, hard science fiction it happens to be Earth in this and the next two centuries. That has its pros and cons.

All I start out with is a "big idea" about the story but all the rest comes into being as the characters express themselves.

Examples can be helpful so here is one. In my novella "Metamorphosis And The Messenger" I only have two characters to start out. While both are in a Master of Futures Studies program, one has an Bsc in Natural History and the other in Computer Science. These represent holistic and analytic perspectives. The "big question" they explore is "Will AI become cooperative or competitive regarding humans? Will it become our friend or foe?" The Computer Science character is concerned with The Singularity treating us the way we treat bugs. The Natural History character sees things from a different evolutionary standpoint - Metamorphosis. Caterpillars and butterflies get along just fine.

Because I don't have a plan starting out I often come to to a point where I don't know how to proceed. At this point I have to trust in what my characters suggest because usually it turns out "I" am trying to take control of the story and the characters want nothing to do with my wrongheaded ideas. So I let them tell me what happens next, no matter how much I don't understand. For example at a particularly challenging point in the story one character says, "Hey let's go for a bike ride to the beach." What! What's that got to do with anything! Well it turns out they meet an interesting character at the beach (an architect in this case) who introduces a new viewpoint. His contribution resulted in a major turning point in the story.

The most difficult part of this is that I have to trust that the characters, who are of course in reality my own subconscious, know better than me and in the manner of a dream are tying to tell me something. Trusting is the most difficult part of this process and I mean really difficult.

This approach has helped me get past every instance of writer's block I have ever had without fail. I have never had to abandon a story and I have written seven novellas and 34 short stories. My stories are all about Social Robots and most explore different forms of intelligence with a particular focus on human values so I am aware that while my approach works for me it is not likely to work for everyone. I'm just putting it out there as something for you to consider.

How does this apply to your question? Just create a character and let them lead the way. The story ideas are already there in your subconscious. You probably think about them all the time without realizing it. Trust.

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