First, let me say how freaking proud I am of myself for using the word "theorem" in my blog title. I haven't used that word since 10th grade geometry class. Go, me!

But on to today's inspiration.

When I first started writing, I found it terribly difficult to come up with ideas of what to write about. I'm not a particularly creative person. I don't have story ideas just popping into my head all the time like some writers do. I needed a formula.

At the time, I was reading Stephen King's ON WRITING (probably one of my top 3 favorite writing resource books, by the way), where he talks about the question "What if?" as being key to creating story ideas. Great advice, but I still had trouble translating it into real practice. How do you ask "What if?" if you don't even have someplace to start?

We're told all the time to "write what you know." Well, I've always rejected that notion. If I only wrote what I knew, you guys'd get real sick of stories on how to get stains out of shirts and what I'm cooking for dinner tonight. Instead, I've always thought you should write what you want to know, but start with what you know.

So I sat down, combined writing what you know with Stephen King's What If, and figured up a formula that I could use to pound out a story idea when desperate. It goes like this:

What I know + What I Wonder + And Then What = Story

In other words, I start with what I know. Add Stephen King's all-important What If. And keep adding those What Ifs until I can't answer the question anymore.

For HATE LIST, it would look something like this.

School shootings happen (What I know) + What would happen if someone stopped the shooting in progress? (What I wonder) + What if the person who stopped the shooting was in love with the shooter? (And Then What) + What if she saved the life of an enemy? (And Then What) + What if she and the former enemy worked together to make a change for healing in their school (And Then What) = HATE LIST!

Probably the genre I most often use my formula with, however, is humor writing. Almost every week the column I've written is the direct result of sitting down and braining out what I know and adding a bunch of what ifs and then whats.

For example, once I wrote a column about ordering coffee at Starbucks (a task I am, embarrassingly, unable to accomplish). A pretty narrow "idea," right? So what do you say? "I can't order coffee at Starbucks because I'm lame and can't figure out what all the fancy terms and words mean. The end." No, that won't work. But I can use the formula on it.

I'm a lamewad when it comes to ordering coffee at Starbucks (What I Know) + Once I stood in the middle of a Starbucks and closed my eyes and listened. I heard the sound of two chimps mating. And Chewbacca ordered a latte. (What I Wonder) + I ordered a plain cup of coffee and the manager had to fly in three therapists from Costa Rica to help the barista with her Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (And Then What) + After five years of Spanish, I can, ironically, order coffee in Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, Mexico, and Brazil, but not in Liberty (And Then What) = Column

If it helps to switch those What I Wonder and And Then Whats around to questions, the formula might look like this:

I'm a lamewad when it comes to ordering coffee at Starbucks (What I Know) + What would happen if I just closed my eyes and listened to other, in-the-know customers order? (What I Wonder) + I wonder what would happen if I just ordered a cup of coffee? (And Then What) + I wonder how many other places exist where I could successfully order coffee? (And Then What) = Column

When you pose your What I Wonder questions, understand that if you're writing humor, your answers to those questions are your punchlines (the place for exaggeration and silliness). If you're writing fiction, the answers to What I Wonder questions will be... your plot.

I know formulas aren't very romantic and certainly don't scream creative abandon. They're not nearly as mystical as a single word (Montana) creating a story. Not nearly as poetic as a trigger song ("If Everyone Cared") or poem inspiring a long piece of work. Not as fun as writers groups. But, believe me, the formula works when you're fresh out of mystical, poetic, and fun. I have three years' worth of columns to prove it!

Now go out there and get all theoremy on somebody's ass!
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Published on November 19, 2009 11:13 • 258 views

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