Writing Excuses exercise 10.2 – developing ideas

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As mentioned in a previous post, the excellent Writing Excuses podcast is running as a free fiction writing course this year. I’m following along, completing the exercises and sharing my results here, and I hope you will too. If you’d like to join in, please feel free to leave your answers to the exercises, or a link to where you’ve written them up, in the comments below.

This week’s episode, titled ‘I Have An Idea, What Do I Do Now?’ discussed developing story ideas once you have them. The exercise is:

Using last week’s five story ideas (or five new ones):

  1. Take two of them and combine them into one story.
  2. Take one and change the genre underneath it.
  3. Take one and change the ages and genders of everybody you had in mind for it
  4. Take the last one and have a character make the opposite choice.

You can see my five ideas in a previous post, and here’s what I did with them for the exercise:

1. Combining:

I decided to combine my second idea, a historical novel about a young bowman’s experience on the Agincourt campaign, with my fourth idea, a science fiction story about trying to police planetary borders. It felt like a suitably challenging pair to combine.

I think that the most interesting way to do this, while keeping plenty of elements from both stories, is to make it about people trying to enforce customs duties along the English Channel during that period, with the sci-fi element becoming a bit of secret history. So these local officials – probably a couple of minor nobles or merchants with official tax-raising positions, along with a local militia – have to struggle with two issues making their life difficult – the huge disruption caused by Henry V’s campaign in France, and strange items they start running across while stopping smugglers. It is gradually revealed that these are extra-terrestrial gadgets, being used by secret societies fighting a private war behind the historical scenes. Someone is running a very different sort of smuggling operation, and things are about to get ugly.

Different characters interpret the devices in different ways, and all struggle to be believed. Someone turns out to be a traitor who’s in on the secret war. Everything comes to a head around the same time that the military campaign does.

2. Change the genre:

I’m changing the genre behind my third idea, a cabal secretly running the world using playing-card-powered magic. Instead of fantasy it becomes science fiction. The people running a future society do so through extremely advanced technology, but they have a limited number of one-shot devices and have lost the ability to make more. The shortage causes bitter competition for this limited resource, in which more and more of the devices are used up. It’s a situation that could bring the whole institution to its knees.

3. Change the ages and genders:

My first idea, about an ageing bureaucracy running a baroque galactic empire, gets a big age switch-around. Now it’s the young who are using ancient traditions and strange practices to exclude older people from any influence or power. After witnessing her wife’s death from neglect at the hands of this failing system, a grandmother sets out to begin a revolution.

4. Change a choice:

As in my original fifth idea, a pair of angry lovers decide to destroy the town that harmed them. But as they begin their rampage, one of them feels a great sense of remorse and tries to stop the other. Soon the lovers are battling each other, one defending the town, the other trying to destroy it.


Reflecting on the exercise:

Even after years of practice, I often still just write the first version of an idea that pops into my head, rather than trying to vary it or take a different angle. This exercise was good for making me move away from obvious choices, and I think that the stories are richer for it. I like that I now have an octogenarian revolutionary protagonist, but I felt like the most interesting shift came in the fourth exercise. Changing a character’s decision also alters their motives and character, as well as the course of the story. It took things in an unexpected direction.

What do you think of my ideas? Do you have any good approaches for refining story ideas? And if you did the exercise how did you get on? Please feel free to leave any comments or your own answers to the exercise below.

Happy writing!