Today in class, I handed out and read out loud Neil Gaiman's essay about where ideas come from. That blog post has long been one of my favorites because it's funny and TRUE and deeply, deeply inspiring.
It's a really great place to start thinking about ideas.
The problem I have with story generation is not one that Neil talks about, however. He talked obliquely about the process of sitting in your chair and doing the hard work with ideas, but, because this essay is meant to be about one thing, he doesn't really go into what that work *is.*
Of course, the other reason he doesn't go into that, I think, is that what that work *is* is different things for different writers.
For me, before I can hang anything on an idea like "what if a werewolf bit a chair?' (his) or "what if that song the humpback whales are singing is about their myths and remembrances of life on land?" (mine), I need to have a reason to tell the story. I need to know "what's at stake?" for the main character.
Because ideas are cool and everything, but stories that really work are, for me, at least, stories that are about something.
Sometimes that something isn't anything big--or it is, only it's masquerading as something dull and uninteresting seeming. For instance, I just read a novel by Tana French called The Likeness and it's about the quiet desperation of a police officer who has lost her sense of purpose, her sense of self, really, and, only by becoming someone else while undercover, does she regain it. The desperation, however, is very subtle, very heavy on the quiet. So, it doesn't always have to be explosions. But, there does have to be some kind of core, some kind of character change or something that... well, matters.
Neil himself is actually a master of this. I think one of the reasons I was such an avid fan of his Sandman comics in particular is because of the fact that his stories were always about something--something that mattered a lot. In his case, because of the medium he was writing in, it wasn't always character change, per se, (superheroes aren't really allowed too much of that), but yet he tackled major issues like the meaning of life and death and how dreams work and any number of profound things... things that, for the story to come to a conclusion, I had to learn or feel or process something.
For me, that's a real, necessary part of making a story work. I think that even stories that set out to be rip-roaring adventure tales, usually leave you with a sense that the story mattered to the actors in it.