From Sarah, With Joy

Writer querying two novels and some other word babies. I tend to effervesce.

New post every Monday

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Writer's Secret Weapon For Infinite Ideas: Incongruity

Perhaps the question writers are most often asked--and perhaps the one we have the hardest time answering--is where do we get our ideas.

Not only is it unclear where ideas come from, there seems to be no reliable way to make them come when we need them. If only there were a magic box under every writers bed that popped out the right idea whenever we needed it. If only there were elves that came out at night and finished that scene we've been stuck on. If only there were a tree that dropped idea apples every day at 5:47. Then we'd have an easy answer.

But, unfortunately, none of these things are actually available. The reality is much more of a slog. Whether we're trying to brainstorm an idea for a new novel, or we're stuck in the middle of our WIP and need an idea to get it moving forward, writers spend lots of time glaring at computer screens.


Now, there may not be a magic idea tree in every writer's backyard, but there may actually be a strategy or trick that's so helpful it may as well be magic. At least it has been incredibly helpful for me. This strategy can help at any stage of the brainstorming process--whether we're developing a character, designing our setting, or trying to figure out how to add more tension to a scene. This strategy--this secret weapon--is incongruity.

In other words, put something there that doesn't belong.

At least, something that doesn't seem to belong on the surface. Say you're working on a novel about two college roommates. One is a biology major, the other is going into physical therapy. Say you're in the middle of this novel, and you're stuck on a scene that seems to be falling completely flat. Then imagine the physical therapist finds a dozen Duke Ellington records under the biologists bed. That's something that doesn't appear to belong. That adds interest and intrigue.

Now, say you're developing your characters and setting. Add something to your character or setting that doesn't seem to belong. Here are some examples:


What is a piano doing in the middle of a possibly burnt forest? Aren't you intrigued by the back story of a man with a Mohawk and a Santa suit? These kinds of seeming incongruities are what catch and keep the readers attention. They are little mysteries your reader will keep reading to figure out. 

There are entire stories based on and extrapolated from a single incongruity. A human in Santa's workshop? That's the movie Elf. What about a blond high-school beauty queen going to Harvard Law School? Legally Blonde. That one is particularly fun because you get to see a bunch of stereotypes get busted. And perhaps one of my favorites--a meter-high gardener helping to take down a Dark Lord and his entire kingdom? Hello Samwise Gamgee :)

So next time you're trying to brainstorm ideas for your next project, or you're trying to flesh out your next main character, or you're trying to figure your way out of a mucky middle bit, try this simple technique. Try simply adding something that doesn't seem to belong, and see where that takes you. You may discover something delightful. Like Will Ferrell in yellow tights.

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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SUBMISSION OPPORTUNITIES:

  • The First Line Magazine: All stories must be written with the first line provided. Due Nov. 1
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  • Drunken Odyssey Podcast: The Drunken Odyssey, an amazing writing podcast, needs personal essays for its “Book that Changed my Life” segments. Send pitches for essay ideas to thedrunkenodyssey@gmail.com. For approved pitches, essays should be between 500 and 800 words. Ongoing. 

SPOTLIGHTS:

26 comments:

  1. Some days I'd like to drop a piano on my characters - does that count?
    Good tip! I'm going to use that one.

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    1. Haha :) I know that feeling :) Hope this tip helps!

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  2. This is going to sound funny. But I watch YouTube to get ideas for characters and dilemmas.

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    1. Oooh, that sounds great! Any recommendations on YouTube videos or channels?

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  3. So true. If one of these things aren't like the other, well make a story out of it. Great article!

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    1. Exactly, it adds a conflict that needs resolution. In other words, story! Thanks for your comments!

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  4. Mohawk + Santa Suit fresh from the cleaners: I love that idea.

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    1. Isn't it a good one? I've found Pinterest to be such a useful tool for keeping track of inspiring images and ideas like this one.

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  5. What an interesting tip and a great way to throw a twist to a scene!

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    1. Glad you think so, Cherie! Hope this helps :)

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  6. Hmm, I like that idea. I'll have to keep that in mind when I get stuck. Now I just have to think about what WOULDN'T fit in a story with talking animals, magic, spaceships, and fusions...

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    1. Oh now this is a challenge I love :) How about a kindergarten teacher?

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  7. Great advice. I'll try that out. What I sometimes do when I'm stuck is use a random word generator. What can I use to get that character outside the house? Let's see what the random word generator comes up with.

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    1. Haha, I like that idea :) How do they get out of the house? Alligator? Oven mitt? Clown? Hee hee :)

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    1. Oh good :) I hope so. That's the idea, anyway :)

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  9. Love this tip! Going to tackle creative writing with my students when I get back from baby leave, and will keep this in mind when they inevitably whine that they're stuck.
    You rock, Sarah :-)

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    1. Oh my word, thank you :) I super, super appreciate the kind words. Teaching creative writing is so much fun, I definitely hope this helps :D

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  10. Fantastic! I'm there now and an anxious to see what incongruity will pop out!

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    1. Excellent :) It's always an exciting discovery. Hope this turns out something great!

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  11. Eek! No more. Don't list any more wonderful opportunities!

    It's totally true: placing the unexpected within the expected makes for awesome story fodder.

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    1. Haha :) I know, it can be a little overwhelming, huh? Even though I list all the best ones I can find here, my personal strategy is usually to pick one at a time to work on. There will always be more when that one's done :)

      And hopefully this really can create awesome story fodder :D

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  12. Well, I didn't find Will Ferrell in yellow tights all that delightful, but this is a tip I know I can use. Thanks.

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    1. Haha :) Fair enough, Will Ferrell's not everybody's cup of tea :) Hope this helps!

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  13. After three novels and 12 episodes of my serial, I haven't run into any writers block (yet). I am an extensive outliner and not a pantser. I hear about the block all the time from other writers but I think it's something that is more prone to pantsers than outlining.

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    1. Oh wow...now I'm jealous! I outline too, but, for example, I recently got half way through my current novel and realized what I'd planned for the end wasn't going to work. So it was back to the drawing board. But I think I've finally figured it out...

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