The Power of Lists
I’ve talked before about the power of What If questions when it comes to creativity. What I want to talk about today is related: the power of making lists.
Lists force you to move past the first idea that pops into your head in answer to a What If question.
When I get stuck, I like to pose myself a question.
Okay. Vghex is an alien who just crash-landed on Earth. His ship doesn’t work. He’s an eight-foot tall dude, who looks a bit monstrous. What is he going to do?
A few obvious solutions pop into my head. But if they’re obvious to me, the solutions will most likely be obvious to the reader. So I decide to make a list of 10 possibilities.
- Vghex calls his friends to see if someone can come pick him up. In the meantime, he’s going to hide his ship with branches from the nearby woods.
- Vghex attempts to fix his ship. This requires him to break into the local automotive shop. Chaos ensues.
- Actually, this requires him to break into the nearest nuclear energy plant – which is several hours away by car (which he “borrows” from a nearby house). He soon winds up on the run from the police, after the car is reported stolen.
- Or he tries to steal a car, but gets caught in the middle of hot-wiring it – by an eighty-year old grandma. Who was a huge Buck Rogers fan, back in the day. She agrees to drive him, and help him break into the power plant.
- Vghex attempts to make first contact with this new planet. He sneaks into a narby campground to observe the locals and calibrate his translation software – and is mistaken by two teenagers for bigfoot. And it all turns very Harry and the Hendersons.
- Actually, he’s mistaken for bigfoot by a girl who is a selective mute, due to trauma in her life. She has to figure out how to tell someone what she saw. But at the same time Vghex tries to make first contact with her, since she seems sad and in need of help. Can they overcome the communication barrier to help each other?
- Vghex discovers a nearby abandoned mine. It is showing readings for some of the elements he needs to fix his ship, so he goes in and starts mining. He soon uncovers a horrific secret involving a group of murdered miners. Can he solve this mystery, without getting attacked by the bad guys – or by the local townfolk?
- Vghex uses technology to shape-shift into something closer resembling a human, so he can get on a bus and head for an area where he’s heard people dispose of old space shuttles. But this is compressing his mass into a much smaller form, which is terribly uncomfortable and requires a ton of concentration. And somewhere along the way, he discovers that this space shuttle graveyard is just a myth.
- Vghex knows there are other aliens living on Earth secretly (so as not to freak out the locals). He covers his face with a mask (as many of the locals seem to be wearing – which is odd, but whatever) and starts trying to find information on this alien underground, so they can help get him home. He meets a girl at a massive dance party who says she wants to help him, but she seems a little odd. Should he trust her? Especially since he can’t see her face?
- Vghex has landed on earth in the middle ages, and terrified villagers attack him, believing he is a local monster. Vghex decides that the situation is hopeless. He’s going to climb up into the mountains, where he will probably starve to death – but at least he will do it in peace. Only – he’s not alone up there. There’s another alien presence (that purposely shot down his ship) with a malicious intent. Can Vghex figure out this other alien’s plan before he winds up buried in the snow?
The number ten is important. You can see that the first three or four ideas aren’t really getting past the obvious. Even if number 4 has a quirky character, who popped up out of nowhere, it’s definitely not the most creative possibility on the list. Once you start getting past 5, you have to start thinking harder, and it shows. The elements you used for earlier parts of the list may collide with some of these other ideas, springboarding you into different directions. By the time you get to ten, you will likely have come up with several ideas that could be worked into different stories.
Or – you might be able to make a more complex story by combining them. The story here that I’m most likely to write is either #7 or #10. But there’s no reason that the characters from #4 and #6 couldn’t both show up in story #7, if it is set in the near future, or in modern day. You could use variations on these characters for #10, changing the car to a horse and cart, and changing the reason the grandma believes this guy is from another planet – which could add an interesting wrinkle to the story as you incorporate the history of astronomy.
This works to generate an entire story from a single starting point, but you can also make lists on how to deal with smaller stuck points in your story. You know that your character has to make a decision at your stuck point. And you know that later, the character winds up leaving town, to either chase something or run from something, so that she can get to the town where she meets her love interest. What decision does she make? And how does the fallout from that leave her running or chasing whatever it is? Make a list of ten possibilities, and you’re found to find something that works.
If you would like to learn more about Generating Exciting Plot Ideas, join us on Zoom for this month’s Saturday Night Write session on Saturday, September 19, 2020. More information is on the Facebook Event. Free and open to all.
Note: Photo is from our 2018 trip to Carlsbad, New Mexico.