Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ideas: Stories are Molecular, not Atomic

Technique Tuesday

In The 5,000 Finders of Dr. T, a strange and delightful musical fantasy created by Ted Geisel, there is a climactic scene that includes the following lines:

"Is it atomic?"

"Yes, sir, very atomic!"

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Wikipedia)
You will, of course, have to see the mover for yourself if you don't understand the reference. I mention it here simply to lead into a discussion about the fact that novel-length ideas aren't atomic, they're molecular.

I first heard this concept from Brandon Sanderson. The essence of the notion is that if ideas are atoms, a single one isn't enough to carry a novel. You need a number of ideas.

But it's not simply a case of arranging a butterfly collection of ideas. The ideas must be related. Brandon described his process of developing a novel as, "bouncing ideas off each other to see which ones stick." ("Stick," here, means, "form interesting relationships.") As ideas stick together, they form a story molecule.

So, how do you build a story molecule?

Begin with the basic creative process: ask questions and then generate lots of answers so that you can find the most interesting associations. Often, the best associations will be between something common and something, which in the context of the first idea, is surprising. In The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, we have something common, a boy who wishes he didn't have to practice the piano, and something surprising, his piano teacher's plans for world domination!

When people ask where the ideas in a novel came from, they generally assume that the book was produced through an alchemical process that harnesses mystic forces to transmute the base metals of common ideas into the gold of a finished story. The truth, like the transmutation of alchemy into the cold, hard science of chemistry is more prosaic. Like chemistry, which produces complex and beautiful molecular structures through a series of processes, the final form of the story molecule in a novel is the result not of mystic transmutations but processes that anyone who is patient and persistent can master.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net