As a writer, being faced with a blank page can inspire either crippling fear or wondrous anticipation — or both!
In this writing series, we’ll be discussing the ways we can generate some ideas to get started — though I love and worship the good ol’ imagination machine, I’ve found that mine can be somewhat unreliable at times.
How else can we practically help our brains fill that blank page? Take out your pen or bring up a new word doc and let’s get started!
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Part 3: Genre Checklists
If there’s any handy tip in this series that I’m unsure about (yet use ALL the time) it’s this one.
Simply put: choose a genre — romance, horror, sci-fi, anything — and play to its conventions.
Before you start calling for me to be burned at the stake for my conformity, let me explain why I suggest this technique, then I’ll suggest how you go about it.
Remember that this series is about generating ideas when you’re feeling stuck. It is not about plotting out a full-blown novel. I am heartily against sticking rigidly to form just ‘because’, but when you’re trying to come up with some initial ideas, talking about genre can be a good push off.
Although you might feel you want to break away from the cookie-cutter, pigeon-holed world of targeted marketing, in reality you need to know the conventions of a genre if you want to break them. More on this shortly.
It gives you an excuse to do a lot of research — this could be a con, if you struggle to reign it back in and start writing again, but it’s a temporary relief from blank-page-o-phobia.
Hopefully, you’ve put away your pitchforks!
We all have an idea of the kinds of genre-fuelled stimuli we can access. Pick your favourite horror books or films and list the things they have in common. Every rom-com has a familiar structure to it — you can either plot them on paper and figure out that structure for yourself, or *whispers* cheat and google it.
From thrillers, to children’s picture books, to non-fiction articles, to young adult romances, to experimental short stories, to flash fiction — all of these types of writing have a familiar structure and tone to them. If a certain type interests you, write to their conventions.
I often write fantasy young adult fiction, so let’s take that as our example.
What kind of things might we expect in a YA Fantasy?
A flawed, teenaged main character: Beware the dreaded Mary Sue/Marty Sue. No young person roots for someone who doesn’t struggle. It’s not merely about cheering an underdog, but rather connecting with something real. I also heard some great advice a while ago about specifying ages for young readers; they typically want to read about characters a year or two older than them, so writing for 15/16 year olds you should make your MC 17/18. Just a suggestion and of course flexible, but it helped me!
Supernatural elements: does your character develop powers unexpectedly, or are they born with them? Do they have to undergo training to wield them properly? Are the supernatural elements of your story focused on what they are, rather than what they do? Are they werewolves, merpeople, half-dragons, zombies, vampires, witches, or some otherworldly creature hitherto unknown?
Romantic interest: not a rule of thumb, but the central character in young adult fiction tends to have some kind of relationship brewing, whether it becomes fully realised or no.
Problem themes: young adult fiction (including fantasy) often focuses on societal or moral issues, including mental illness, racism, class divides, rule of government, sexuality, etc.
Characters thrust into power: whether through royal decree, usurping governments or unworthy authorities, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the main characters of YA novels are often found leading the charge. How will they cope?
There are more conventions, to be sure, but this list took me about fifteen minutes to research, glancing over my bookshelves and doing a little internet surfing.
Don’t get lost down the rabbit hole! Let’s keep moving.
2. Insert ideas
Taking those tropes we researched in the previous step, we can start spitballing some character traits and scenarios that would fit the genre ‘criteria’.
What will my story be about?
A flawed, teenaged main character: Noah, an eighteen-year-old athlete, lives with his dad and runs when he’s feeling stressed. He runs every night. He’s got a mild temper, though it’s pushed to the limits by his dad’s new girlfriend, and he finds himself judging her and snapping, which he doesn’t like in himself.
Supernatural elements: When out running on night, Noah wants to find a new route, somewhere that will take him further because he doesn’t want to go home just yet. As he passes through an alleyway, a warm wind rushes over him, and emerging the other side he finds himself in a completely new place, a different realm where elemental magic is not only normal, but compulsory to survive.
Romantic interest: a young woman in the new realm, Meli, who first finds Noah when he stumbles into their world. She is older than him by a couple of years, blunt and honest, doesn’t like whiners, and shoulders a lot of responsibility.
Problem themes: the story could look at class divide — those who have magic vs those who do not. Another theme would look at family relationships; Noah has a strained home life with his father, but misses him when he’s gone and has no conceivable way to return.
Characters thrust into power: Meli is her tribe’s heir to leadership and in order to prove her worth she must train Noah to not only sense his magic and figure out which element he’ll wield, but teach him to use it to fight and defend the tribe.
There you have a quick brainstorm based on the conventions of the fantasy YA genre. This particular list didn’t take me long at all, though it’ll depend on how carefully you want to plan and how many tropes you’ve researched. Make it yours — own it!
3. Develop the bigger picture
Once you’ve come up with your initial ideas, you might want to test the waters to see if you’ve got something worth taking forward.
PSA: not every idea you come up with will be novel-worthy.
Sorry to burst bubbles (including my own), but it’s true.
You might try placing your ideas into a three-point, five-point, eight-point, or twelve-point narrative structure to see how they fit and expand (all very easily-googlable, though I’ll write about those in a different post).
You might shape out your characters by looking at their desires and motivations versus the barriers and conflicts that will prohibit them from achieving those goals.
You might decide to bend and manipulate the conventions of your chosen genre to add twists and surprise or amuse a reader. This could be as simple as reversing gender roles — a princess saving a prince — or changing the location — a vampire headteacher in a primary school. Do whatever feels fun and creative!
However you decide to develop your ideas into a story, don’t let those initial writers’ stumbling blocks halt your progress. Even simple exercises such as these can produce some quality material — and a page full of odd and unusable ideas is still better than a page full of absolutely nothing!
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In Part 4, we’ll be looking at another technique for generating ideas: perusing the press.