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As some of you know, paying subscribers get the privilege of asking me questions. Recently, I got one that was not the dreaded, “Where do you get your ideas,” but rather, “How do I make my ideas better?”
Well, here goes.
Story complexity is a thing that comes with practice and revision, for me--and also comes from going out and looking for good ideas. I used to despair of coming up with A Great Idea. Eventually I discovered that the way to make my not-so-great ideas better is to keep asking more complicated questions about them.
Some writers refer to this as "asking the next question" or "using the third idea." How the first of these works is when you have an idea, start asking yourself questions about it. Who does this affect the most? for example. And then when you have an answer, ask another question about that.
How the second works is, when you come up with a solution to a plot problem, throw out the first and second ones you come up with, because they will probably be facile. Dig a little deeper and find something less top-of-the-mind; it will be less trite.
It's also okay to write most of a story and then wait to finish it until you come up with a really satisfying ending. I often find I need to wait weeks to figure out how to end a story well, or brainstorm the ending with friends. (They can't usually tell me what the ending should be, but when I am arguing with their ideas (quietly inside my own head! It's not nice to argue with people trying to help!) sometimes I figure out what I really think needs to happen.)
It’s okay to not know how it's going to end before you get there. I can and do outline sometimes but usually by the time I reach my planned ending I realize that it's a little trite and I could come up with something better. (With novels I generally know the *denouement* by about a third of the way through, because the emotional logic of the story is established.)
One way to kind of "greenhouse" and force creativity is to bump unexpected ideas together. That's where Ray Bradbury's advice to read a lot, constantly, comes in. Nonfiction is a great source of ideas. I listen to a lot of history and science and economics podcasts, too.
One of my first stories that really clicked came when I was trying to come up with a story for a prompt my writing group had given me, which was "blood and ink." I had been thinking about doing something with tattoos, and I happened to listen to a news story about a graffiti artist painting trains and why he did it. The two things collided in my head, created a synergy, and turned into a story about yearning.
There process I alluded to above, "asking the next question," comes from Theodore Sturgeon. His original writeup is here.
It's a little... bombastic and male-gaze, I'm afraid. Those were the times, and unfortunately some of that was reflected in his work, so I have reservations about recommending his writing to anyone today. But it's a useful technique, and he was widely considered one of the most radical writers of his day in terms of ideas and story structures.
Hope this is useful to some of the folks out there.