Here is some more advice from Brandon Sanderson’s English 318 class at BYU…
One of the first things we talked about in class this semester was how to come up with good ideas for a story. I think that this part of the class was really excellent, especially coming from Brandon and not some English professor who’s never written or published a novel. There is a big difference between analyzing and tearing apart a novel and actually sitting down and writing one, and I’d rather take a creative writing class from those who have direct experience with creative writing.
Brandon started off by saying that one idea does not make a book. Neither do two. If you can take about six ideas–really awesome, jawdropping, heart-stopping ideas–and combine them into one place, then you’ve got yourself a story with some novel potential.
One really interesting thing he said was that ideas in themselves are cheap. Everybody in SF/F has some really cool idea or two, and ideas are constantly floating across the desks of publishers. What they’re looking for is not necessarily a good idea so much as the skill to take an idea and make a really fine book out of it.
Some people are afraid that if they share their story with publishers, those publishers will steal the idea and get someone else to write it. Brandon debunked this and said that we shouldn’t worry about it–it’s monetarily cheaper for the publishers to get you to write your own story (or reject you) than to hire someone else to do it.
A book is like a chemical reaction–good books are born when ideas mix together.
Brandon divided story ideas into three basic categories: setting, plot, and character. He advised brainstorming ideas before you write, and looking for something like a one sentence plot summary.
The plot ideas have almost all been done somewhere before and you probably aren’t going to come up with something terribly original here. That’s ok, though. One really cool thing he said was that in SF you can take pretty much anything that’s happened in history–and tag “IN SPACE!” on the end. Hannibal crosses the Alps with an army of elephants…IN SPACE! (of course, the “elephants” are some kind of superweapon, and the “alps” is some kind of nebula or dust cloud, but you get the idea). Cool!
Setting, though, is the place where things get original–especially in SF/F. Brandon suggested combining a couple of ideas from here. Things to look out for with regards to setting include (but are by no means limited to):
- Politics and government
- Methods of warfare
- Gender roles
Also, you need to come up with some kind of unique magic system. The way to do this is to think of some kind of unique cost or unique reception.
Brandon said that the most important ideas, however, have to do with the characters. He suggested thinking up these ideas last so that they can intertwine with all the previous ideas.
“Characters are about conflict.” That is a direct quote. The protagonist must be in conflict, and the protagonist must also be proactive in that conflict. It’s also a good idea to write characters that come into conflict with the setting itself–such as Vin in Mistborn, how she struggled to learn the magic system, or struggled to rise above her lowly position as a runaway skaa.
Brandon also said that as a beginning writer, you shouldn’t write stories with more than two viewpoint characters. This…is where I’m going to have to do something different. But he said not to do it.
It’s important, also, that the villain be interesting and have different motivations. Two motivations to avoid are: “I want to destroy the world because I’m evil,” and “I want to destroy the world because I’m insane.” (Kefka, the most awesome RPG villain, doesn’t quite make the cut here, but RPGs are different–you can get away with more there).