Thursday, October 28, 2010

Go Somewhere Strange - Keep Your Story Going

One of the tricks I like to use when I get blocked on my writing is to throw in an oddball location. The more incongruous to my story so far, the better.

So make a list - where's the last place you'd expect your characters to show up? Here are a few ideas:

The circus
A child's birthday party
A biker bar
A witch's sabbat
A parade
An antique sailing ship
The zoo
A greenhouse
A tour bus
A petting zoo
A nunnery
A dude ranch
The kitchen of a fast food restaraunt
A photography studio

Now if you're writing a story about a biker, then a biker bar won't be an odd place for your character to show up. And if your protagonist is a clown, then the circus or a child's birthday would be a normal location. But a biker in a nunnery? A clown on a sailing ship? That might spark some ideas.

Whole plots have come out of oddball locations. Put a second-rate Las Vegas singer in a nunnery and you have the beginnings of the plot for Sister Act. Throw an alligator egg into a birds nest and you have Flap Your Wings by P.D. Eastman. Have two kids run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and we end up with From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, one of my (many) favorite books as a kid.

Focus on Contrast

Send your steady churchgoing mother of three to a strip joint or bordello to help out a friend in trouble. Put your fashonista in a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. Throw your urban Sam Spade detective into a small Midwest town.

Why Are They There?

In Willa, I use a chase scene to get my characters through a petting zoo and onto a tour bus. And after that they get in even more trouble. Lets say your character is a fashion model turned amateur detective. What might bring her to any of these locations? Well she could be following a clue, obviously. Or maybe she's doing a fashion shot on a sailing ship when she finds a dead body hanging from the rigging. Perhaps your biker protagonist is conned into taking a friend's kids to the zoo.

Who Do They Meet?

At the zoo, the obvious characters might be:
A zoo keeper
A small child
A stall owner selling anything from touristy trinkets to cotton candy
A tour guide
The mother of a lost child

At a dude ranch:
A cowboy
Any number of patrons, also vacationing there
A horse or cow with a bad attitude
A wild mustang that needs to be saved from the knacker

Pick a character or two who would also be unlikely to interact with your character - or who might be at odds with them - and you have the makings for at least a chapter, if not an entire book.

Do The Research

If things start taking off, be willing to do more research into the location. For instance, learning that your local zoo has a herpetology expert might give you more information on snakes, and even if your character doesn't end up at the zoo, they may get bitten by a snake, or snuggled by a python.

Visit the circus and learn that each clown has their own personal makeup scheme. Or learn something about the rigging on ships and the history of figureheads or the difference between a belaying pin and a fairlead.

Or go into that fast food joint and find out what's in the Special Sauce. Of course you might not ever eat there again, but maybe the guy who works the fryer will tell you a story that leads to something else.

There's always the possibility that learning something new will spark a new plot direction or an entire book.

You Might Never Use It

Be prepared for the possibility that the scene you end up writing may never make it into your book. That's fine, if it gets you writing again and sparks other ideas. Even if the scene doesn't end up in your story, it may give you better insight into your character and how they react in strange situations. After all, this is just an exercise, right?

Or it may spark something that becomes a flashback, a future chapter or an entire new book.

So take your character somewhere weird and have fun.

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