Do you ever sit down to a blank page and hope an idea will flow from your brain to your fingertips like magic? Then do you simply stare at all that white space as your mind shuts down? I am currently working on the sixth book of my Edna Davies mystery series (Murder by Decay) and I have yet to run out of ideas, not because I’m a natural storyteller, but because I’ve learned a few tricks over years of taking classes and reading how-to books.
Why don’t I dread that blank page? Perhaps it’s because I don’t force myself to write every day—at least, I don’t always work on my story. I let a scene or chapter roll through my mind like a movie or a play, making my characters leave the stage and reenter, if I don’t like the way they’ve performed. When I’m satisfied with what they’ve done enough to capture the performance, I write it down. My rendition usually doesn’t do justice to their acting, but it often suffices for a first draft.
When I reach one of the many “What should happen next?” points in my story, one exercise I use to answer this question comes from a course I was taking while working on my first novel-length manuscript (Murder by Yew). Put your protagonist into ten good situations and turn them bad. Then put your protagonist into ten bad situations and turn them good.
Merging these two tasks made more sense to me than dealing with them separately. So, I had Edna take a walk along the streets of Providence on a bright, sunny April morning. As she passed the house of a long-time friend, she spotted something shining in newly turned soil on the other side of a tall, wrought-iron fence (good). Wishing to get a closer view of what appeared to be a piece of jewelry, she removed her hat and stuck her head through the bars of the fence (uh oh). Once she verified that it was indeed a valuable pin, she tried to remove her head and found she was stuck (bad). Her friend happened along and, with the help of a gardener, freed Edna (good). When Edna pointed out the brooch, her friend identified it as one believed stolen years ago that had caused the ruin of a poor woman’s reputation (bad). This assignment actually sparked a story idea that developed into my third murder mystery (Murder by Mishap). I’m sure if you take this exercise far enough, you could end up with the outline for a story of your own.
Another reason I practice this particular exercise religiously is to pace my stories. When the tension begins to build (bad situation), I pull back and allow my readers to breathe a bit (good situation) before dunking the characters back into hot water (bad situation). If you’ve ever read an author who kept piling wood on the fire without allowing you to step away from the heat, you know the importance of pacing your story. The good-to-bad-to-good scenario is also useful when I need to develop enough action to fill up the vast desert (known as “the middle”) between “the beginning” and “the end” of my book.
If you want to kick start your imagination, you might try the “Rule of 20.” Applied to writing (as opposed to stock prices or bridge bidding), this is a mental workout that will help you deliver the unexpected to your readers. The “Rule” goes like this: Given a situation in your story, make a list of 20 things that could happen next. Let’s take Edna on that walk again and imagine 20 things that might occur (good or bad, whatever fits the plot at that particular juncture). I’ll suggest just a few, so you get the idea … Maybe the weather changes suddenly and she’s forced to take shelter on a nearby porch (Does she then overhear something to please or horrify her?). Perhaps a car comes careening down the street, jumps the curb and crashes into the wrought-iron fence directly in front of her (Who’s at the wheel? Dead or alive? Sick or injured?). Maybe she’s mugged by a couple of kids (One of whom she recognizes before she loses consciousness?).
Whatever the stage in your plot, list as many possibilities as you can. Stretch your imagination and try for 20, at least. When you’ve completed the list, toss out the first six items. These are the ideas that came most readily to your mind, so they’re probably what your readers might expect. Choose one of the remaining scenarios. If you wish to surprise and delight your fans, write something extraordinary.
Suzanne Young is the best-selling author of the Edna Davies mystery series which put her on Amazon’s list of “top 100 authors of mystery” for five consecutive months. She is a member of RMFW’s PAL and iPAL groups as well as a graduate of the Arvada Citizens Police Academy. After earning a degree in English and U.S. History from the University of Rhode Island, Suzanne moved to Colorado and worked as a computer programmer and business analyst for most of her career. She retired in 2010 to write fiction full-time.