An Idea, Broken

Ideas for short stories and novels almost always hit me while learning something. I will be reading the newspaper, or reading a great non fiction book, or traveling somewhere exotic, when a story idea will pop into my head, with the general plot outline quickly unspooling after. At TED Summit, ideas were hitting me while in conversation with some of the greatest thinkers alive today.

I’ve been to a dozen or so conferences like this, and they have become story idea factories for me. Often, the technology or discoveries being discussed aren’t completely new to me, but the back and forth with someone who has a hand in these discoveries, or who offers a new perspective, is what generates the idea. It also helps to be around enthusiastic and creative people.

After FooCamp one year, I came home and had an outpouring of artificial intelligence stories. At TED this past week, AI played a huge role in many conversations, but we also talked about the environment, security, globalization, robotics, and the future of work. This has me leaping from the novel I’m currently working on to push an older novel idea forward. Its time has come.

But what I want to introduce here is my method for coming up with science fiction plots (though I believe the same method works across all genres). The method is this: Come up with a new idea, and then break it.

It’s tempting to write science fiction stories and have them be about a new idea, whether that’s AI, or a world where dogs can speak, or a galaxy full of interstellar travelers. Science fiction authors are generally enthusiastic about science, and so the temptation is to write about gizmos, discoveries, future societal structures, and the like. This sort of brainstorming makes for great ideas, but also for boring as hell plots. Once you have the initial idea, you need to break it.

The idea for embedded identification and currency is not new. Some intrepid folks are already experimenting with embedding chips into their skin. But it was only after listening to two BitCoin lectures, and while chatting with Kevin Kelly, that the image of a sack of dismembered hands popped into my head. Here was a visual worthy of a short story: crooks who peddle in left hands; doctors who offer underhanded (sorry) transplants; scar and pigmentation creams and gels.

This entire criminal underbelly popped into my head, an idea of embedded wealth broken, but as is my brain’s habit, I wanted to break it further. What happens when a man gets the wrong hand? Or the stolen ID comes with more than he bargained for?

This is a lesson that I believe to be critical in storytelling, one that it took me ages to figure out and has taken me longer to attempt to put into words. Because the magic of breaking ideas, and breaking them even further if possible, is threefold: The first advantage is that this new world becomes more believable by having the new idea established and mature. The second is that it makes the story, inherently, about people rather than just the ideas. The third is that you have tension in the first paragraph or page. Let’s look at all three advantages.

Why does the world become more believable? Because the characters in the world accept and believe the new idea. This is important in separating clunky science fiction storytelling from the smooth. When the new idea is mesmerizing to the characters inside the story, it feels like the reader has stepped into a World’s Fair from the 20s. Or is reading a popular science magazine from the 50s. GEE WHIZ! Whouldya lookat that?! Which might be how we feel, as writers, about our ideas. But if we present them to our characters like this, our readers will feel the same disconnect. And they’ll often stay disconnected.

In WOOL, the fact that people live underground is not remarkable to the people who live there. Neither is the idea of porters, or wallscreens, or how to bury the dead. The people of SAND don’t geek out over the tech of sand diving; they just want to know how to get rich or stay alive. In BEACON 23, there is nothing amazing or unusual about lighthouses in outer space. Writing about the commissioning of BEACON 1 would be boring, because the story would be about the unveiling of the idea. All the good bits happen once the idea is established, and the unintended consequences come into play.

The best stories have memorable characters more than whiz-bang ideas. This is what draws the reader in, the age-old hero’s journey. And it is how innovation interacts with human nature that unintended consequences arise. This is where science fiction excels, because it can serve as a warning, as a glimmer of hope, or as satire to the current human condition. In BEACON 23, I wanted to explore the consequences of solitude on someone who suffers from PTSD and needs, more than anything else, human contact. The idea of a lighthouse in space is intriguing: You have a human being as far removed from his kind as is possible. How can you break this idea? Place a human there who needs the catharsis of empathy and human touch. What happens next?

Which brings us to the third and final bit of magic that comes from breaking your new idea, and that’s the tension from the first page. Too often, writers end their story where the story should really begin. The climax should be the opening act. It’s the aftermath that brings all the confusion and conflict that drive a story forward. We need to see the character change, and that is not nearly as satisfying when it happens on the last page, through some deus ex machina intervention, as it is when we’re aware of the troubles from page 1 and get to see the protagonist struggle, fail, adapt, and overcome during the course of the story.

Take one of your story ideas and apply this technique and see what you come up with. We might imagine a few SF tropes to see how it works: Instead of a first contact story (mankind meets a sentient race for the first time), what if we meet the fifth sentient race in the galaxy, only to learn immediately that the other three races have had contact with this new race for many thousands of years. Why haven’t these other three races told us of their existence, among all the other secrets we’ve shared back and forth? What are they hiding? (Make the new idea established, break it, then break it further.)

With my AI story THE BOX, I took the idea of creating AI and made it well-established, to the point that this powerful technology was regulated and largely forbidden. Then broke those regulations. Then explored the worst-case scenario of breaking those regulations. I found it a lot more interesting and easier to write than a turning-AI-on story. Even when I wrote an AI-turning-on story in GLITCH, I was really writing about battle bots, war, and PTSD after talking with a friend who went to a championship finals with his battle bot.

Give your story layers, and give this technique a try. See if it works for you. Ideas are great. Shattered ones are better.



15 responses to “An Idea, Broken”

  1. Thank you Hugh, I needed this! I’ve been stuck on a few ideas and this really gives me some direction!

  2. Great post- I also like the idea of taking ideas and either “breaking” them or twisting, reversing, etc. For my novel, The Farthest City, I reversed the trope of machines killing humanity to the idea of them saving us. Besides the fun of morphing old, tired ideas into something new, it’s a great way to force yourself to expand your thinking. Theodore Sturgeon put it well when he suggested writers “Ask the next question, and the one that follows that, and the one that follows that.”

  3. Daniel Barnett Avatar
    Daniel Barnett

    Really clear and useful breakdown of how to turn a good idea into a great story. Thank you for this.

  4. Tension from the first page won’t necessarily win you a Pulitzer, but when I’m looking for a good story to read I want to be hooked in the first couple of chapters at most. Dan Brown is really good at that, no matter what you think of his writing.

    Great post and It sounds like you had a great time in Banff. Come back to Canada soon, eh!

  5. Peter Cawdron Avatar

    Great points, Hugh. Yeah, scifi fails when it’s all about the ideas, and not the characters journey. Films like Independence Day Resurgence try desperately to throw together complex characters but with no personal journey, no character growth. The stakes are contrived, instead of broken. This is a great way to rethink stories.

  6. Excellent science fiction is about character development and emotions… The technology and “science” is secondary.

  7. I’ve only ever watched the TED talks online, but now you’ve piqued my curiosity enough that I looked up what’s coming nearby and found a big one with tickets about to go on sale. Super excited to check these out! (and get my nametag ;)

    And thanks for putting this concept into words. It helped me solidify a few things (and give me a bit of permission) to not have to explain workings because there’s no reason the character wouldn’t just patter on knowing that things just are because they always have been. This is a first full-length sci fi book for me and I’m feeling the pressure to explain and I don’t want to weight the story. I want readers to fall into that space of belief and trust the character’s opinion of how things work (even though I am totally making everything up!)

    And for the love of all that’s holy, will you quit teasing us about all these story “ideas” and get one finished? Seriously, this is worse than waiting for another One Direction CD to drop :D

  8. Couldn’t agree more with you. It’s why to this day I still believe that the last edition of Battlestar Galactica was such a great show and stood out from other scifi: the focus was on the characters. I have a very similar approach to my stories because of the very reasons you say. Sure, the tech is great, but just like a movie with no plot and great special effects, a scifi book focused more on how great this tech or that tech is without developing characters just makes for boring writing.

    That focus is why my wife (who hates scifi) gobbles up my own stories. Keep it on the characters.

    Thanks for another good post, Hugh.

  9. ” … The best stories have memorable characters more than whiz-bang ideas. This is what draws the reader in, the age-old hero’s journey …”
    This is the crux of writing, of writing unputdownable stories – creating unforgettable characters. Ones we can love, loathe, fear, admire and identify with. And it’s so easy to get sidetracked with grand schemes and gadgets …
    Thanks for the wisdom, Hugh!

  10. Yeah, great point!
    I’m about to start writing fiction, and am already laying into my world with a hammer.
    That should give my characters plenty of pieces to pick up…
    Ideas like this are hard to articulate, but make a huge difference to the reader’s experience. I’m a big believer in ‘relevance’ – I like all the conflict between characters, internal and external, to be relevant to the theme and storyline of the book. I find it ties all the strings together, for a more satisfying read; there’s nothing worse (for me, anyway) than coming across a piece of conflict that doesn’t jive with the overall direction of the book. It feels like a stone in my shoe, or a wiggly tooth – I can’t stop my mind playing with it, wondering why it’s been crow-barred in. Again, it’s difficult to describe exactly what, or why, this jars so much. I guess if it was easy to put into words, there’d already be a computer program producing flawless novels…

  11. I so agree about the characters being the heart of the story. Great plots are essential, but without those riveting characters it’s just another Bruce Willis experience.

  12. That’s like Murphy’s law for writers, Hugh! Take a science factoid and then assume that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

    So, what about that new computer-controlled yacht that sails the seven seas and refuses to make landfall… Misery’s Wave ;-)

  13. Bella Forrest Avatar

    This is a fantastic post, Hugh. Thank you.

  14. Thinking of myself as part of the ‘second wave of modern self-publishers’, I did not know this behind the scene, but it was very interesting to get to know the struggle the first generation of modern self-publisher faced, and your personal experience in that period. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Thanks for putting into words what I had kicking around in my head, but just couldn’t articulate. Makes a lot more sense now.

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