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How to Get and Develop Killer Story Ideas

How to Get and Develop Killer Story Ideas
by John Brown and Larry Correia

Summary at

Life, the Universe, and Everything at BYU on February 18, 2011

[John] All right. I'm John Brown. I'm the author of Servant of a Dark God, Dark God series with Tor books and a number of other short stories. This is Vanna.
[Larry] I am Larry Correia, the Vanna to his Pat. Although I am the good-looking one. I am the author of the Monster Hunter International series from Baen books. Doing very good. Also the Grimnoir series that's coming out here soon. Also a thriller called Dead Six that'll be out this year, so things are hopping.

[John] Now, as he said, this is how to get and develop killer story ideas. I'm handing out some bookmarks. The reason why I'm handing them out, my website is on the bottom. A lot of this stuff and more, and there's other resources out there for you, is out on my website. Okay? So just take it, go to the website, if you have questions, you can contact me there. Larry's got a website, I link to it from my website. His is We're both available to talk to, and we'd be happy to do that.

Now let me just introduce this for you. When I was just starting out writing, okay? When I was first starting out, I would sit in audiences like this, or I would read books, and these authors, these big-time authors would all say, "Oh, ideas." They'd sit in their big author thrones and say, "Ideas are everywhere. There's an idea. It's a million dollars." I'd be like, "How did he do that?" I just couldn't figure out how to get these ideas. "They're everywhere. Away with you, you little hanger on. Begone." That's kind of how I felt. I would sit in the conferences, I'd sit in the meetings, and I'd go, "How do they get these cool ideas?" I could never get those cool ideas.

So, what I found out, and what Larry will tell you as well, is, well, they are just out there. But it doesn't require any special personality, it doesn't require any special gift to get them. It's just a couple of little principles. That's it. So what we're going to do today... or tonight... is share those with you, and then we're going to put them in practice and show you how they work. That's what we're going to do.

Now last year, we did How to Get And Develop A Killer Story. We tried to do it in two hours, and it was just way too much. So this time, we've focused down. We think one hour is going to be good enough to talk about these principles of creativity. So here we go. What I'll do is, I'm going to give a 10 minute introduction to this, and then we're going to get into it. Larry is going to share some stuff. We'll just all work together. So here we go.

Creativity... this is what I've found... is two things. Two things, two easy things that anybody here can do. Number one. You need to turn your zing sensors on. What I mean by a zing sensor is just that you're up... I'm alert, looking around for things that tingle my interest. That's it. Can you do that? Is that easy enough? It tingles my interest.

So, Larry and I are driving somewhere and he tells me a story, about the fact that when he was living in the San Joaquin Valley, there were some Mexican gangs that had assigned... to get in the Mexican gangs, these little kids needed to attract some big white dude. He was a big white dude. They were on the school bus, and they start whaling on Larry. He's like throwing them off, hah! Anyway, so that was...
[Larry] I won.
[John] Yeah, Larry won. That was, for me... my zing sensor's on, there's a little bit of zing. It's not a story. But it was a little bit of zzzt, right? It was a little zzzt. That's all it was. Most of these ideas are small little things.

The Tabernacle here burned down. That was a little zzzt. What happened there?

Here's another. There is a... we lived next to some friends. One of them was a Down's syndrome boy. I was talking to them... we moved away from them. We keep in contact. I was talking to them one day, and the guy said, "Yeah, we're having problems with Joseph. He goes in the neighbor's houses, and he like gets into their food, eating their Cheerios. He'll be sitting there eating a candy bar when they come home." I'm like, "I love that idea!" This kid that just walks in and eats food.

So I exaggerate that just a little bit. What else could he find? I can start... this is the second thing is that... you've got your zing meters on, looking for interesting things. Then the next thing, because story is character, setting, problem and plot. You need all four ingredients to have a story. Character, setting, problem, and plot. You cannot rely on having all of those just randomly come across in front of you in a day, and all of them mix together into a great story. You just can't rely on that.

So not only do you have to have your little zing sensors up, but you need to practice what's called creative... what I call creative Q&A,  question-and-answer. So you'll just ask a couple of questions. So, for example, that Down's syndrome boy that I love? What could he... whose house could he go into that would cause a problem? One of the answers that came up was what if there was a meth lab in the area, and he had formed a relationship with some of those guys? They would give him a beer, maybe, when he came by. All right. So, whoa, that's a story in the making. Character, setting, problem, plot. I had my zing sensor on, I asked a question, I started coming up with some other answers.

Here's another one. I was in a workshop. Orson Scott Card. He said, "You need to go out and research something. Something that you don't find interesting." So at that time, American Indians, to me, were absolutely 100% boring. So I said, "All right. That's not interesting. I'm going to go read about Indians." I went to the Orem library and I started reading about the Iroquois. My zing meters were just freaking out. They've got guys called Handsome Lake. Who out there wouldn't want to be called Handsome Lake? I'm Handsome Lake. That's great. They have guys called Handsome Lake, they had all sorts of things going on, by the time I finished with that, I had a boatload of zings. Started asking appropriate questions. Went on to write a story that sold multiple times. Okay? Because I had my zing meter on and I started asking questions.

What's another one? Oh. My brother-in-law just got a job as a mud engineer on oil rigs and gas rigs. He's down in Bakersfield, California. He was telling me that he thinks half of the population that works out there with him are convicts. Like one guy took off his shoes, and there were swastikas tattooed on the tops of his feet. He's like, "What the heck?" He's like, "Yeah, I had to join the Aryan nation when I was in prison. You just have to do that."
[Larry] You've never been to Bakersfield before.
[John] Oh, yeah. I haven't. He's got another guy that was like, "Yeah, my relative was in prison and I was throwing bags of heroin over the fence into the garbage. I quit, because I knew I was gonna get caught." So what's happened? Zing meter, right? Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. I've got a brother-in-law working with these kind of guys. What kind of story possibilities are there?

So the basics are number one, you've got your zing meter up. Sometimes you get these huge, monstrous ideas that just shake you around, and they're wonderful. Sometimes you don't. Most of them are small. The next thing is you start asking questions. This is what you're doing with your questions. Character, setting, problem, and plot. You want to start asking questions around those four areas. You're looking for zing around those four areas. But you want to start asking questions. It doesn't matter where you start.

I sat in a number of panels today. I sat in Paul Genesse's panel. I sat in a presentation Robin... not Robinson Welles. J. Scott Savage's thing on the character compass. If you go... if any of you were in any of those things... the romance panel that I moderated... if you go back and look at your notes, if you took detailed notes... you're going to see something. You're going to see questions around character, setting, problem, and plot.

Orson Scott Card does 1000 ideas in an hour session. He sits down here and he says, "Okay, we're going to come up with a fantasy story." What is the first thing he does? He says we're going to start with magic, and then he asks the audience... does anybody know what he does? What does he ask the audience? Anybody here been to one of these?
[Audience] What does it cost?
[John] What's the magic cost? Then boom, they start generating ideas. After an hour, they have a story. But it started with asking a question. Okay?

So what you guys want to do is as you learn better how story works and what story is all about and character and plot and problem... you're going to have certain questions that you're going to ask. We don't have time to give you all those questions. That isn't what we want to do. We'll give you some of them, but being creative is nothing more than having your zing sensors on and then starting to ask questions and coming up with answers.

Some people might say, "Well, I'm not an outliner." You don't have to be an outliner to do this. People who do exploratory drafts... they say, "Well, where is this character going to take me? What's going on in their history? Who are the people around them?" They use a different set of questions to go about it, but the process is the same.

Is there anybody here who can't ask a question and start generating a bunch of answers? No. You all can do this. This is all it takes to come up with killer story ideas. Now, on your lists, I'm going to say this one last thing and then we're going to get into it, I think.
[Larry] Yeah. We'll get into it.
[John] Yeah. Your lists that you make, whether that's exploratory drafts or whether that's an actual list that you make, you want to have many options in there. As many as it takes. Sometimes it'll only take you two. You'll say, "Well, what about this?" Larry'll say, and he'll tell you about this, all the elves are all the same. What would be different? Boom. It might be just one or two, and you've got a great killer idea. It might take you 20, it might take you 30, it might take you... I don't know how many options it's going to take you, but you start listing many options, you want them to be varied, and you want to throw in some unusual ones into the mix. You do that, and I promise you... trust this process... you will come up with killer story ideas. Character, set, problem, plot. Creative Q&A. That's all it takes, and just a little bit of time.

Two last principles, and then we'll start doing it with you so you can see it in action. This is a principle I call farmer's faith. Sometimes, in some of these, people don't want the audience to give silly answers or they don't want them to give crappy answers because they feel like they're not going to be productive. I've found the exact opposite. I live up by Bear Lake, surrounded by ranchers. How they are, they know that manure produces gold. They throw it on their crops, they raise wheat, it grows from the poop, then they go sell it off for gold. You guys are going to come up with crappy ideas all the time. Cherish your crappy ideas. Throw them... I say this every time... throw them on the garden of your mind, and you will get wonderful ideas. Okay? Don't worry about listing out crappy ideas.

The second principle is... for me, I have a very small brain capacity. For most of us with our working memory, we only have 3 to 5 slots... 3 to 5 things we can hold our brain at one time. I have found if I actually get a piece of paper and list these things out, it doubles, triples, quadruples my mental capacity because I can see all those ideas right in front of me, and they start playing off one another.

That's it. That's the key to creativity. You guys ready to do this together? Yeah. Okay. We're going to do it. We're going to come up with an idea. Now, we're not going to come up with something from scratch. I want to get us a little bit farther along than we normally are, so I'm going to give you a setting. The setting is... Larry, if you could write that up there... the setting is modern day Wyoming. Okay? The other thing that we've got going in this story is ghosts. Ghosts... or, if you want, we can do demons. So put ghosts/demons.
[Audience] What about zombie ninjas?
[John] He says, what about zombie ninjas?
[Larry] I already did that.
[John] We'll see. So that's what we're going to start with. Okay? We're going to use one technique that uses this exact same stuff. That was my zing, guys, that I brought to you. Modern day Wyoming and ghosts or demons. What we're going to do now is we're going to interrogate this. We're going to do some creative question and answer. Here's one technique. The technique is called the list and twist. All right? All you do is list up all of the things you normally associate with this thing, in this case Wyoming and ghosts. Then you start saying, "Well, how could I twist it? What would be different? What could be something that's not there?" You're going to see, it's going to start to produce some results.

I want Larry, actually... because Larry did this with Monster Hunter International. He did this expressly in Monster Hunter International and I want him to just describe... describe what you did for Monster Hunter International.
[Larry] Monster Hunter started out as a project to kind of just be a homage to B movies. So one of the first things I did was, I made a list of all the various B-movie tropes. You guys know what tropes mean, right? Okay. So I made a list of all the various B-movie tropes. If you... who's read Monster Hunter? Okay, quite a few of you.

If you go back, and most people don't realize this, think about the characters. Every character in that book is a B-movie stereotype, that I then tried to twist into a believable person. I have the... the love interest was the girl that... Roxy, the sexy librarian look, the smart brunette with the glasses? I have a nerdy Asian. I have a black guy sidekick. I mean, this is pretty bad, I had the wise mentor that didn't speak good English. Are these stereotypes sounding familiar to you? Yes. I had the morally ambivalent hot blonde girl. Okay? These are all very basic stereotypes. But then what I did was, I tried to make these people believable. I tried to twist every one of these characters into a believable character. I think I pulled it off, because most people, until I tell them that, don't realize that's where the characters come from.

I am all about traditional ideas, because you... everything you think of has been done before. Every... don't ever think, "Ah, this is too mundane," because everything you think of has been done by somebody. No matter how innovative or creative you think it is, that idea has been done before. The key is what original concept you bring to that idea. That's what we're going to do here a little bit.

For example, I always use the elves. For those of you who read Monster Hunter, you know. For those of you who haven't, here's a spoiler alert. I was writing the book, and I haven't really had any comedy relief in this, and it's pretty dark at this point. One night, I'm up writing, and my wife is laying in bed and she's reading a fantasy novel. She just tosses it on the floor in disgust. I go, "Geez, what's wrong?" She says, "You know what? I am sick and tired of elves always being the same. Their always Tolkien rehashed, magic, happy, beautiful, eternal, magic forest elves, all in touch with nature." She says, "Just once, I'd like to see somebody do something original with elves, like rednecks." Redneck elves. [Laughter] See that? Okay, you guys laugh, but that was the zing moment. So, the lightbulb came on for me, and I'm sitting there like, "Redneck elves, hmmm?" So I started talking to my wife, and the next thing you know, we... the Enchanted Forest trailer park had been born. We had trailer park elves. So that's just an example of twisting.

Now going back to what I was saying about the characters. For example, I used one of the worst stereotypes of all in horror movies. It's the black guy who dies first, it's the sidekick. So I have this character. What I decided to do with him is, let's make him a person, let's make this guy a human being. So what I did... and I've told John, this is one of my pet peeves. If you watch movies, most black characters in most movies can be played by four different actors. You've got the tough silent guy, you've got a fat funny guy, the skinny funny guy, and the thug. That's it. They're either played by Denzel, Samuel Jackson, Anthony Anderson, or... so you've got a handful, but it's all the same trope. That's boring, because that's not real people. I couldn't take every member of his audience and have you played by four different actors. That's stupid.

So what I decided to do is I took this guy and I based them on a few people I know in real life, some friends of mine. Instead of... I made him look like the big, scary thug. I gave him dreadlocks, he's a big muscular guy, kind of terrifying, just a big, glowering individual. And he was a fantasy nut. He goes to cons. He reads fantasy novels. He learned to read because of comic books. He played Dungeons & Dragons in his garage. Okay? The reason he's big and muscular is one day he discovered that he could go to college because he could run very fast with a football and it would all get paid for. The guy is a geek, he's a nerd. I also made him really religious. I made him a devout Southern Baptist, extremely religious individual. He's actually the most honest, good, kindhearted, just good person on the whole team. By the end of the book, everybody loves this guy. He's a very popular character. Probably going to end up having his own book one of these days.
[Audience sound]
[Larry] And he doesn't die first. And... another one of the tropes. He's a virgin. Which, if you've read enough... watched enough horror movies, you know how that goes.

Okay. So take those traditional things, take those characters, twist them. Flip things overhead. Make your elves from the trailer park. Make things different. Twist those ideas. We're going to do a little bit of that here. So...

[John] Yes. That's perfect. That's all we're doing. Now this is one question, right? This is one question. There are all sorts of questions that work. Character, setting, problem, plot. As you understand how character, setting, problem, and plot work, these questions are just going to come naturally.

Before we get into this, let me just give you two more examples. Michael Crichton. How many of you here have read Michael Crichton... his stuff? All right. Does anybody here know what one of his questions was to come up with story ideas? Anybody want to take a guess at... when you look at stuff like Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain and the one about nanotechnology? Anybody?
[Audience noise]
[John] Prey. That's right. Anybody want to take a guess?
[Larry] How do I make lots of royalties?
[John] How do I make lots of money? That is exactly the question. No. He took a technology and he asked, "What can go wrong?" Boom! Generate... what can go wrong with nanotechnology? Boom. Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. What can go wrong with bringing back dinosaurs? Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. That's all he was asking, folks. That's it.

Mary Higgins Clark, another best-seller. This is how she came up with ideas. Take a dramatic incident that happened to you... this is what she wrote in her biography... that happened to you or somebody you know or something you've read about, something that sticks in your mind. Take this dramatic situation and then start asking, "Well, what if and suppose and why."

It's the same process, folks, it's the same process. So here we go. We're going to do the list and twist. Larry's going to write it up. You guys are just going to participate. All right. I'm going to actually call on you. I'm not going to wait for you to answer. If you're spacing out or if you're like I don't know, trying to make up to your wife because you forgot to give her something on Valentines or whatever, you're just not present...
[Larry] It's too late.
[John] You're not present. Just say pass. No big deal. Or if the spotlight gets on you and you freak out, "Oh!" Just say pass. No big deal. I'll go to the next person.

So here's the question. I want to know modern Wyoming... and I wish we had three boards here so we could capture all these ideas. We won't have it. But I want to know modern Wyoming, what are the normal things you think about when you think about Wyoming? This gal, right here with the black jacket. What is one of the things you think about modern Wyoming?
[Audience] Well, I just think of cowboys.
[John] Cowboys! Put it down. Guy next to her. Modern Wyoming. Empty wilderness. Modern Wyoming? Fishing! Yellowstone. Can you keep up, Larry?
[Larry] Yes. Can you read it when I'm done, is the question?
[John] What was that? Farms. Moose. Mooses, meese. All right, go ahead. Are you catching up? What else about Wyoming? What about the people in Wyoming? Pass. That's fine. Gold digger! OK put up a gold digger there. I'm going to give you one, roughnecks. Right? The oil rigs and everything out there. Roughnecks. OK, go ahead. People. Small town rural. Ranchers.

What did you just say? Fireworks! Contraband! Booze and fireworks. Borders booze and fireworks.
[Larry] I almost burned down Utah State using fireworks from Wyoming.
[John] OK. Pass. Horse trainers. People. Cops. What was that? Cattle. Rednecks. What was that? Loaners... oh, loners, like people like alone. I was thinking like you're loaning something. I'm like, "What the heck is happening in Wyoming?" Loners. OK. Closed communities. People tight knit. Truck drivers. OK.

Little side story. Letter and I are going on tour out to Denver. We're driving along out on this winding road. It's in the winter, and we see... it was like an odyssey thing. All of a sudden, along the side of the road, we come up and there's a semi on fire and there's a dude standing out there like, "How about that?" So we go along, 70 miles an hour, a little ways down the road, there's a big old nasty humongous elk dead in the median, and there's a dude down there... it's like blowing, it's  minus 30, there's a dude down there with a knife trying to get the antlers off. We go driving a little forward, and his truck is like moving down the road. I look up and I'm like, "There's nobody driving that truck, Larry." I'm like, "Oh, my gosh. What is going on in Wyoming?"
[Larry] It took us 16 hours to drive from Denver to Rawlins. It was negative 30, like 100 mile an hour death winds. It was pretty awesome.

[John] OK. We're going to do... now we've got a bunch of things here. All of you are probably looking at that and going, "Hmmm. Not too interesting." That's the point. Right? We're just asking questions. We're throwing out the manure. Here's the next one. Ghosts. Or do you want to do ghosts? OK, raise your hand. Ghosts or demons? Which one do you want to do? Raise your hand... I'm going to say ghosts. Let me see all your hands. Who wants to do ghosts? OK. Who wants to do demons? I think ghosts made it. We're doing ghosts.
[Larry] We're at BYU, John.

[John] In the back. You're going to have to shout, gal in blue. I want to hear what is something common... and put it over here... what is something common you think of... I say ghosts, you think of? Ghostbusters. OK. Dude next to you. Ghosts? Pass. Invisible. Cold? Cold. OK. Next guy. Scary. Next? Pass. Burned by light? Is that what you just said? Burned by light. OK. Pass. Next gal. Strange noises. Gal sitting over there. Pass. Guy? Unresolved issues.
[Larry] Paranormal activity of ectoplasm.
[John] Translucent. That blond dude. Yep. Mansions. OK, gal next to him? Ghost town. Dude right over there. Ectoplasm.
[Larry] Someone's going to make me write it.
[John] Blonde gal? Cemeteries. Dude next to her? Sad.
[Larry] That's a good one.
[John] Sad ghost. OK. Young man over there? Up there? Boo! OK. Gal? Dead people. That makes sense. All right. Next gal? Another dimension. OK, we're going to do for more, and I'll go over here with these hands. OK. Go ahead. Uh-huh, you. Vengeance. Channeling. Whoopi Goldberg.
[Larry] Change the channel area and
[John] Exorcism. Gallon purple? That was yours? You stole her answer! Fricking-rick... go ahead, gal next to her. Poltergeists. OK, one more. Casper.
[Audience] Wyoming? [Garbled]
[John] All right. One more.
[Larry] Whoa. OK. Mind blown.
[John] One more. They want to tell their stories. OK.

We've just listed up a whole bunch of stuff about ghosts and Wyoming, right? A whole bunch of stuff about ghosts and Wyoming. We just want to start twisting it. That's it. All I want from you now is, I want you to look at these things... and hopefully you can read them up there... you probably can't, but... whatever...
[Larry] Probably can't.
[John] I want you to look at these things, and now what I want is something that is either opposite or something that just doesn't fit. OK? Something that's opposite, and something that just doesn't fit. Then we might start asking some character, setting, problem, plot questions. We'll see. So, here we go. We'll start here with the guy in... I should know your name, but I don't...
[audience] Ghost wind makes the cattle disappear.
[John] Ghost wind... OK. Disappearing cattle.
[Larry] Casper ghost busters.

[John] Do we have another color? For these things, can you do another color?
[Larry] Sure.
[John] Green, right. Disappearing cattle. Ghost wind. Genealogy.
[Audience] Intelligent dinosaur ghost.
[John] Dino ghosts. Dinos. OK. Blue girl... guy here? Ghost stuffed animals. That's like Toy story three, isn't it? That pink bear was the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life. OK. Next to her.
[Larry] Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear?
[John] Yeah. Smells like strawberries... pass. OK, we got a hand. Go ahead.
[Audience] The Wild Bunch [inaudible]
[John] The wild bunch. We got the wild bunch. Something twisted. Go ahead, sir.
[Audience] The ghost from Manhattan.
[John] Manhattan. The lost ghost. Go ahead, gal.
[Larry] Really lost.

[John] OK. All of the ghosts hanging out together. OK. A ghost that hasn't been born yet. OK, all right. That's great. So that's before. Go ahead. Pro wrestling ghosts. It's going to be a rockalypse [my guess]. All right. Go ahead. One eye, two mouths. Happy ghosts. Ghost retirement community. Ghosts are protectors. Over here. Ghost rodeo. Yeehaw!
[Larry] Romeo or rodeo?
[John] Rodeo.
[Larry] Rodeo.
[John] Ghost of somebody who hasn't died. It could happen. I don't know how, but it could.
[Larry] I'm trying to think of what to call that.
[John] A ghost labor union. OK. Ghost labor union. Back there, there's a gal raising her hand [garbled]
[Larry] Are they schoolteachers from Wisconsin?
[John] Are you the one who said loners before? Ghost LARPers? What is a LARPer?

[Larry] OK. Speaking on that note of twisting ideas, have you guys seen they're making a movie starring Summer Glau. It's LARPers who go out in the forest and they accidentally summon a real demon and they have to battle it? I am so there, opening night.
[John] So I don't even know what that is. All right. So go ahead. Ghosts that can channel other ghosts? A moose? A moose...
[Larry] The moose whisperer...
[John] A people whisperer.
[Larry] They call those human resources.
[John] OK. Ghost nightclub. Go ahead. A jackalope. Prophetic ghost jackalope. What? A nagging ghost. Make the bed. What is it... fix that screen door, I can't believe it. All right. There's a girl in black up there. Go ahead. Ghosts that are scared of people. Let's do... go ahead, guy in green. A ghost that can someone people. OK. All right.

Now let's just pause here for a second. We've got a lot of ideas up here. We've got a lot of ideas that are a little bit wacky, a little bit different. What's the story? What do you have to have to have a story? Character, setting, problem, and then we have to figure our plot. That's what we have to have to have a story, OK? So what I want to do now, is I want to direct this a little bit more towards that way, and start getting something to hang this on. We've got to make some choices now with what we have.

Now all of these ideas that have come up, I'm sure could be worked into fine stories. Why not? I'm sure all of them could be worked into fine stories. I'm betting though, that each one of you has maybe heard a couple of ideas that you're like, "Oh, zing." And the rest of them, you're like, "Eh, I don't like that idea at all."
[Larry] Let me just say, don't get rid... I mean, when you come up with a good idea, it might not fit right now, but it might be something you can use later. So I like to keep a notebook with these things in them. When I have a zing idea, I will just write it down. Even though it doesn't work on my current project, I am prepared to whip that thing out for a future project.
[John] If it's a good idea now, maybe it will be a better fit later. Brandon... well, we won't get into this, but a lot of people have that. They have one idea hanging around that they love, love, and it just doesn't work anywhere. And all of a sudden, they start working on something else, and they bring that old idea over and it's like zzzt. And Frankenstein arises.

So the thing to note here is that some of these will have been interesting to you, OK? But we need to get into the point where we can actually develop some kind of story. Character, setting, problem, and plot. So I want to look at this, and I'm just going to choose things, not because they are inherently better. They're not. So those of you who made... I want to make a point of this. You might have things appear that you like better than the ones that I choose. You could run with them. All right? But I'm going to choose some here. You want to choose? I'm going to choose... I'm going to choose pro wrestling. I want the pro wrestling guy. You want to choose one here? Is there something here you want to choose?
[Larry] I've already circled ghost town.
[John] You circled ghost town. [Mumbling] What's this? Dino ghosts?
[Larry] Yeah. I tried to write dinosaur.
[John] [mumbling] protectors [mumbling]
[Larry] I had a few, and then you grabbed pro wrestlers, and it kind of... kind of threw me.
[John] I'm just going to just grab protectors and pro wrestling. Just because right now, that just appeals to me. And the nagging one... yeah, I kind of like this one.
[Larry] I'm just curious about the moose whisperer. I don't know how I could make that work.
[John] The moose? OK, you got moose.

So. Now. I'm going to ask another question here. Let's see if we can get... now I could go two ways. I could go with characters. I could say, "Let's think up some interesting characters that could be around here." I think that's the way our go to be. I could have, though, asked what are some problems that this pro wrestling ghost and these protector ghosts... I could asked questions around that and we could develop that.

The point here tonight is not to get to the point where we have a total story. The point is to illustrate having your zing sensors up and asking questions and generating answers. That's the point of tonight. If that's all you take away from here, and you go back home and you say I need to start at some questions to ask, and there's stuff out on my site or whatever, then we've succeeded here because this is all creativity is.

So let's do characters now. I want to get some characters... interesting folks. So who could be around at this time? Let's put up there a rancher, because they already said that.
[Larry] Yep, we've got rancher.
[John] So we got some ranchers. So give me... we've got this pro wrestling ghost, moose whisperer, protectors, nagging, I've got some ranchers. I want some other types of people here that you think might be interesting to have in Wyoming. OK? So let's just go with it. Here we go. Down below. OK.

An old-timer. Up in the corner. A what? A dog track bookie. Some type of gambling.
[Larry] Do they have dog tracks in Wyoming?
[John] They do now.
[Larry] I thought they just let them run in packs.
[John] Chase the people down. Go ahead. In green. Go ahead. What's another character that could be... a diner waitress? OK. Go ahead. Shirley Temple wannabe. A dentist. A hillbilly janitor. OK. Lost Japanese tourist. Lost tourist. [Laughter]
[Larry] OK. Did you hear that reaction? That's your zing reaction.

[John] OK. Lost Japanese tourist. Go ahead. Somebody from the witness protection program. OK. Go ahead. Go ahead, gal in blue. Retired Vegas showgirl. OK. Retired Vegas showgirl.
[Larry] I could work with that.
[John] Astronaut. OK. Guy! Failing poet. Cowboy poet or another poet? Any type of poet.
[Larry] Are there very many successful poets?

[John] Just a second. Go ahead, what did you say? Belt buckle manufacturer. See this? That ain't big enough. I shouldn't make fun of these people. I'm sorry, I'm not as svelte as I used to be. I look at those belt buckles and I'm like, "How do those guys sit down?" I don't know what would happen... all right, go ahead, gal up there. Llama breeders. OK. Guy right here in the striped shirt? Schoolmarm.
[Larry] I don't think they have those anymore. I don't think they called them marms.
[John] Used-car salesman. I'm going to get two more.
[Larry] Does he get killed by the ghosts?
[John] Paul? Indian medicine man. All right. The dude with the computer... Apple, open. A supernatural critic? Oh, a skeptic. A debunker. All right.

Let's take one of these guys and work with them, or a couple of them. We have the Japanese tourist.
[Larry] Japanese tourist is in. Even if he's just a subplot, he's in.
[John] Get the used-car salesman? And the showgirl?
[Larry] Yep.

[John] OK, we've got three people. Showgirl, Japanese tourist, and used car salesman. Here we go, I'm going to ask another question. We've got 10 minutes, I'm going to ask another question. Again, this is just the process of creativity. You'll ask other questions, you'll come up with things, I have a question that I might ask about a character is... well, there's a lot of questions that I'm going to ask about characters, but... what about this lost Japanese tourist is interesting or noble? Does he have some secret? Does he have some skill or ability? Something that he does well, if we could be a little bit may be jealous of or little bit in awe of? What does this tourist do that we could be like, "What's this cool strength that he has?" What's his strength?

A photographer. OK. Takes pictures of ghosts. What's another thing? What something else he could do? Master sushi. OK. All right. What else? Possessed camera. OK. Come on. What else about this character? Belt buckle prison... ghost prison. OK.
[Larry] Japanese belt buckle ghost capturer... let me get right on writing that.
[John] He's so supernatural... like perpetually on tour. OK. He's perpetually on tour. Something about him that would be admirable... you actually go and look at him and go, "You know, he's an interesting guy. I want to sit down and talk with him."

Go ahead. In black. Samurai protector. He's got like skills, little knife or something. He's got skills. OK, he's got some skills, samurai skills.
[Larry] Man was skills.
[John] Gal with red. He's a duct tape master.
[Larry] OK, OK. On that note. Duct tape samurai is a good title for something.
[John] Duct tape samurai. It is good, isn't it?
[Larry] I could write a book called... I don't have anything, but I could write a book called that.
[John] OK. Professor of ancient Greek. Gal over here. Shinto priest. OK. Incredibly handsome. This is good looking, guy. All right. Gal up there. OK. He's a visible ghost. All right, go ahead, next to her. Was that your idea too? Videogame programmer. Guys, are any of you geeks out here? She's interested in videogame programmers. Oh, yeah. That's hot, I mean cool. All right, up in the back.

Origami. Super good with origami. Something else. Karaoke genius. He slays the people in the aisles. He is there in that hard western rock 'n roll roughneck hicks and he's like... they're like... yeah. All right, what about you? Hot dog eating champion. Fire eater? OK. Expert Elkhorn carver. All right. One more. Professional style consultant. OK. Good looking, he's in style, taking pictures. He thinks there might be some business in Wyoming. All right. Go ahead.
[Audience noise] [Larry] Aphrodisiac?
[John] Something. Aphrodisiac or something. OK, he's going to get elk horns. OK? Business connection.

All right. Let's stop here. Let's just stop here. We're almost out of time and I want to leave some time open for questions.
[Larry] Aphrodisiac elk horns.
[John] There are other questions I want to ask.
[Larry] Photographer ghosts.
[John] I am going to pick some of these things about this guy or if none of these appeal to me, I would keep going, I would keep exploring him. Does he have a secret? Does he have something that happened in his past? Is he a wanderer? Is he this perpetual loner or wanderer, this guy with photographs? Why is he taking pictures so much? Is it the normal Japanese... he's just on tour, or is he taking pictures for a reason? Why is he taking these pictures?
[Audience] He's a spy.
[John] He's a spy in Wyoming? Those jackalopes...
[Larry] They've come to take our elks.
[John] Why is he taking these pictures? Do you see what I'm doing here? All I'm doing is I'm asking questions, and I'm coming up with answers. The questions that I'm asking are based on my understanding of how story works. I want to know motives for my characters. I know that there are certain things that attract me to characters. So I'll ask questions and I'll say, of these 10 things that I no attract John Brown to characters, which one does he have? I want to make him something.

I'm going to be asking questions about problem. What is the problem here? What's the danger rushing mark what's the threat? As I was thinking about this coming up, something stuck in my mind, I remembered a writer with codex writers and he was talking about a ghost story where the guy... there was a scene and the guy had to kill his dog, because he needed the ghost of the dog in the afterlife. I think he was doing some detective stuff, and somebody's mentioned here as a protector or to hunt people down. I thought, "How would that work in?" There's another question. I like that idea.

Why would somebody have to kill somebody else? What if he had a... does he have... is there something along... I have no idea. Another idea. What if... I thought if... what if for the magic... there is magic in this and this is fantasy. What if you have to be in the ghost form? What if you have to be in the ghost form to actually work your magic? What kind of problems does that present or what could they do in that way?

These are just questions, guys. These are magical questions. These are questions you need to write up and say, "Oh, my gosh. That's the magical question." No. No-no-no. If you understand how character, setting, problem, and plot work, you will know the questions. These questions... you'll know what you need to have. You'll know exactly what you... and you'll just start asking these questions of these ideas. Soon enough, you'll have all the ideas you need in character, setting, problem, and plot. You'll have a story. You'll be able to outline it, or you'll have written a draft or two, and now you know exactly where the story needs to go, and you can write that draft.

This is the creative process. It is nothing more than this. All right. And feeding your imagination. Bringing in new zing. Going out and hunting it. This is it. This is the creative process.

[Larry] I think the beautiful part of this is, honestly, some of you guys could look at this list and come up with some things on here and some of us could write a romance or comedy and some of us could write a hard-core horror novel or an action adventure. I mean, you got... here, in an hour of dinking around, we've got tons of things that you could fill a good book with.
[John] Yeah. You could take any of these and develop them more. So, I want to pause here for a second. We've got just a few minutes. Are there any questions about the creative process? I've got two minutes. Go ahead.

[Larry] OK. I write an alternative history series, and I'm a research geek. You can research all you want, as long as you're having fun. Just don't try to stick it all into the book. Just stick the pertinent stuff.
[John] Are you finishing at least a book a year? OK. Stop researching and writing down in a book. That's my advice to you. All right. What else? Any other questions? Go ahead.

[Larry] To restate her question, so you guys can hear her, she asked... basically, if I can condense this down, correct me if I'm wrong... what about when you have just tons and tons and tons of ideas, how do you condense that down? OK. Like I said, don't get rid of any of your ideas, save them, you might be able to use them later. But only take the ones that fit. If you've got a great idea for this really awesome super funny hilarious romantic comedy scene, which are writing a hard-core horror novel, you may want to save that one. OK. Just stick the ideas that make sense in it. If it doesn't make sense, don't cram it in.
[John] Prioritize. The other day, I was like... I need to do a new... I'm going to start a new series in young adult. I want to do a contemporary thriller type thing. So I brainstormed for half an hour. I came up with about a dozen ideas, all of them that I thought zzzzt. They were all zinging me. So after that, I just had to say, OK, what are the top three? What are the top two? Which one do I want to look at next? The rest of them I'll keep. Maybe I'll develop them later, maybe I won't.
[Larry] Let me tell you, me and John have spent a lot of time in a car together. Usually, that's coming up with ideas. John has got a fantasy idea that I think is the best magic system idea I've ever heard. I've got a thriller idea that he thinks is the best thriller idea he's ever heard. So, don't be afraid to bounce ideas off people. You might come up with some really cool stuff, and get some good feedback.

[John] One more question, and then we're done. No, no. Sparkling vampires work with millions and millions of people.
[Larry] She sleeps on bags of money.
[John] If you could come up with... here's the deal. You're following your zing. You have to follow your zing. If at any point, you stop caring about or believing in what you've just developed, you know you need to stop and fix it. It's all about what your passion is. Don't worry about what everybody else thinks, you have to develop your passion. As long as the zing... as long as the electricity is running through you, go.
[Larry] I've got one rule. If it's good and the readers like it and it's awesome, write it. If it sucks and it's lame and the readers don't like it, don't write it. So if it sucks, you've gone too far.

[John] We're going to close this up. Go out to my website. There's other stuff out there. I have a list of 20 idea generation methods out there, I've got questions, all sorts of other stuff.
Tags: brain capacity, character, farmer's faith, ideas, list and twist, plot, problem, questions and answers, setting, zing

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