Back when I was in grad school studying all things writing, I had a professor who insisted that when you’re writing you should trust your instincts and always go with your first idea. He was really emphatic about it.
Well, I thought about that long and hard. Then I dropped his class.
Back then I couldn’t really articulate why I thought this was such bad advice. I only knew that my first ideas are, more often than not, my worst ideas. Cliché, predictable, boring.
But since then, I’ve had some time to think about it. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
Instincts Have Their Place
As humans, we are pattern seeking animals. We are quick to categorize. This has served us well over the course of our evolution. For instance, if you see a red glob of color with little black dots all over it and a green leafy top, you think “strawberry” and eat it. If you see a bug buzzing around in black and yellow, you think “bee” and leave it alone.
But as writers, we have to dig deeper than those first instincts, those base impulses that have kept our species alive for so long.
As an example, lets say I want to show that my character is happy at receiving some very good news. I could show him smiling. Yes. Smiling. Everyone knows that smiling means happy. But it’s boring.
To create a more interesting character, and tell a more interesting story, I need to explore what happy is to this particular character. Does he sing when he’s happy? Whistle? Does he tuck his chin, like he’s afraid to show his happiness? Is he more likely to buy something or give money to a homeless person on the streets? That’s five more ideas.
Five isn’t a bad start, but really I’m just sorting through more of the placeholder images in my head for “happy.” The reason people usually stop there is that it’s a lot of work to come up with unique ideas.
If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do It
Another teacher I had in grad school (one whose class I didn’t drop) suggested making a list of at least thirty possibilities. You’ll find your best (most literary) options at the end of the list.
So here goes… Things my character might do after receiving good news:
6. push his hair back from his head
7. go outside
8. jump up and down
9. call a family member
11. write a note
12. drink alcohol
13. drink something else
14. smoke pot
15. dance around the room
16. lay down on his back and lace his fingers over his chest
17. jump up and dangle from a tree branch
18. cinnamon toast
19. make his bed
21. talk to his cat
22. throw a rock
23. tell a stranger on the street the news
24. post it to social media
25. make a sign for the window of the house
26. sit back in his chair and just soak it up
27. polish his shoes
28. play an old favorite song
29. kiss his wife
You can probably tell I got a little stuck there around 19. Who makes their bed when they get good news? Nobody I know. And actually, it’s hard to say which of these is the right choice, since this is not a character I actually know, but I do think those last three are interesting. In fact, I really like 28. In my mind he’s putting on an old record of some Ramones song and rocking out, letting the excited energy fly. That could be a fun scene.
What do you think? Do you usually go with your first idea? If so, do you find it changes as you write it? Or do you, like me, have to dig to find the little gems that make a story fun?