Writing Short Stories - Getting Acquainted With Your Ideas
( Originally Published 1922 )
Ideas Are Common to All.—Many aspiring writers have said to me: "I would love to write for the movies or for the magazines and I know I could if I only had the right kind of ideas. But I don't think my ideas would make good stories or photoplays." How very amusing indeed are such statements when one impartially considers the truth of the matter. Every person, I care not who he is or what his position in life, has daily so many ideas and thoughts, and receives so many impressions, that he could not make into stories a small part of them—not even in a lifetime. Every time a person walks down the street he comes in contact with people concerning whom he draws conclusion—about their life, their looks, their destination, their position in life—so on without end. Everything anyone does or sees or hears or perceives with any of his senses starts a train of thought. Every human being is constantly arriving at conclusions with regard to those things that are occurring about him and in which he is taking an active part. Let anyone banish from his mind instantly the suspicion or fear that he does not have ideas. He has far more than he ever possibly can use.
Choosing Ideas That Mean Most to You.—But the fact that nearly everyone has innumerable ideas is not an important one as far as the actual writing of stories is concerned. The vital factor is the choosing of those ideas that live with one, that stay with one, that are a very part of one's being. Ideas mean very little and are of no practical value to the prospective writer unless they have grown from little suggestions and thought-germs into big ones. A writer could not choose at random an idea from those that run through his mind and hope successfully to make a story from it unless this idea so had him in its power that he were passionately fond of it. Only warm, breezy, living ideas make salable stories and photoplays. Ideas for ideas' sake are valueless, but ideas taken from the very blood of the individual are tremendous.
How to Select Your Ideas.—We come to the conclusion that a person must select his ideas with judgment and purpose. The writer should not under any circumstances choose an idea because he thinks it would make a good story, but because that idea means a great deal to him, because he wants to express its meaning and to impress its vividness and significance upon the reader, to make the reader feel about it as he does. Any other kind of an idea would make very dull reading indeed. Words mean nothing unless they have ideas behind them, and ideas mean nothing unless they have the punch of belief behind them. I am constantly urging beginners not to think of writing as a mere exercise or duty to be gotten over with quickly. And I have cautioned others against the tendency among beginners to cast about laboriously for very startling situations that could be built up mechanically, bit by bit, as is an automobile engine or as a child builds a house from his blocks. Perhaps the latter illustration would be more illuminating. The child usually works after no exact design. He merely places the blocks upon one another without any clearly defined purpose or end; when all the blocks have been used, there is nothing left to do but knock them down.
I do not say that the writer cannot derive themes and profitably secure suggestions from other plays and stories he sees and reads. He can and should do so, but he should consider only those suggestions that immediately appeal to him as reflecting something he has thought on the very subject, or as picturing some experience he himself has felt. Ideas cannot be forced if they are to be effective. Every person's emotions are aroused sufficiently during the course of a day to serve as a foundation of stories having feeling and depth.
Good Ideas Spring Naturally from a Person's Self.—I am sometimes greatly provoked when I read stories with not even a semblance of personality or distinction. Some of these stories are utterly lacking in originality—the writer has taken one situation from one story and another situation from a still different story. He then combines the two into a product that is meaningless, lifeless, and lacking in any positive qualities whatsoever. The writer has not thought about his own feelings regarding the matter; his characters mean nothing to him—their emotions strike no responsive chord in his own heart—his characters are mere puppets and he is faking emotions.
In such a case, the writer probably thought that inasmuch as certain situations took well in another story they ought to take well in his in a slightly revised form. He did not consider that ideas grow step by step just as does anything else. He did not perceive that the working out of a theme or idea, a situation or emotion, is a gradual process. The writer's mind must nourish an idea from all angles until it has blossomed forth from the germ idea into a well-rounded, complete, and original plot containing unmistakable marks of the writer's own personality.
Such writers might be greatly astonished were they informed that their own ideas, taken from the very beginning and built up in a manner calculated to bring out an emotion or impression or to convey a certain effect, would be far more salable than any haphazard collection of situations that have appeared in other stories.
The Endless Source of Ideas.—Some people probably do seriously entertain a doubt as to their having worth-while ideas about which they could express themselves vigorously. But how very much mistaken they are. Everyone has his sorrows, his joys, his disappointments and his gratifications, his set-backs and his rewards. How the heart of the reader does thrill and throb in reponse to emotions that ring true—emotions that the writer lives over again as he sets them down on paper, responding, as the seismograph registers the slightest earth tremor, to the struggles of his hero and the perils of his heroine.
Fixing Your Idea Firmly in Mind.—After the writer has chosen his pet idea, he must by all means mull over it for a period extensive enough to fix all its angles firmly in his mind, so that when he comes actually to write he does not need to think of what he is going to say to fill up a certain number of pages, but has only to convey his emotions and to express his convictions clearly and briefly. After the would-be author has his idea firmly fixed in mind and has arranged the situations attendant upon the development of his idea, all that is left to be done is to tell the idea in a grammatical and rhetorically correct fashion. But this latter phase is merely the mechanical detail of writing. It is a thing that anyone can acquire with a little practice, being merely the means of conveying ideas clearly, significantly, and beautifully. The idea is a living spark that will grow. After the idea has been arranged just as it will appear in the story, the rest is relatively simple.
The Complete Idea.—In referring to completed ideas, I refer to the completed structure that the writer has built up in his mind from the original theme. This idea in its completed form will contain all the situations and will take cognizance of all the characters, the motives that move them, and their relations to each other. Writing is doubly hard if the beginner writes as he goes along and tries to evolve his plots as he proceeds. Such a procedure is like attempting to build a house without a set of blue-prints. The writer should have just as keen a vision of what his story will be as the architect who visualizes the palace he has designed—seeing is before him in all its magnificence.