THE ART OF FINDING STORY IDEAS
While enjoying a White Lover Cookie
In the office where I work, there is an unspoken “snack culture”. Anyone who returns from a vacation overseas is obliged to fill the office pantry with assorted snacks from the country he or she has visited. When I came back from a short trip to Malaysia, I contributed my pantry share with a bag of Indian crackers known as “muruku”. Muruku are slender, orange, and twisty stick-like snacks made from rice and flour and are quite addictive. Your hand goes into an automatic to- and-fro motion from bag to mouth five seconds after you open the bag and begin to munch.
It is THAT good.
A colleague of mine recently came back from Japan. She bought a variety of Japanese snacks. Everyone in the office buzzed with anticipation. One snack came in the form of a rectangular box. It was wrapped in lovely blue paper. The mere sight of that paper elicited gasps of recognition from everyone in the office.
After unwrapping the box, I noticed it had a Chinese name on the lid. When translated, it means WHITE LOVER. Go figure. There is however nothing salacious about the snack. It is a PG rated snack. A cookie designed to be enjoyed by family and friends as they go about doing wholesome activities. Unlike a cigarette, you don’t enjoy a White Lover cookie post coitus.
Everyone was aghast that I had not heard of the brand. They stared at me with incredulous expressions. As if I had committed some faux pas of ignorance. As if I had graduated from the University of Snacks and by professing my ignorance, I gave the impression that I had betrayed the fine institution of learning. Everyone gushed with praise about the White Lover brand of cookie.
I am here to report that the praise was justified. Each snack is wrapped in squarish paper. Once you tear it open, behold the snack. Two thin slices of biscuit separated by a thin layer of white cream. Bite into it. Feel the biscuit shatter into miniscule crumbs, causing the cream to ooze and spread all over your tongue. It is like setting off an explosion of sweetness in your taste buds.
That day, my mental horizon expanded by 7/8 of an inch. I made a note in my brain. White Lover. Japanese cookie. Chinese name. One day if I ever write a story where my hero is obsessed with cookies, I will be sure to mention the White Lover cookie.
This is how a writer’s brain works. Constantly storing quirky little details. And quirky little facts, like this one. The neck of a giraffe is really one long bone, a fact which I swear to be the biblical truth as written on the back of a Snapple bottle cap.
Snapple speaketh the truth.
If you imagine the mind of a writer to be a desk, with several drawers, in one drawer will be marked QUIRKY FACTS.
The other drawer would be labelled POTENTIAL IDEAS.
For storytellers, ideas are currency for the imagination. In my previous life as a screenwriting lecturer, I helped students in their efforts to find something worth writing about. It is a cliché to say that ideas are everywhere, but it is true. Ideas do not hide in the shadows. Nor do they creep about beyond the fringe of your imagination. Ideas love to play peekaboo with your head. All you must do is look a little harder. And you would be surprised at what you can dig up.
Here are 3 ways that one can find ideas.
One way is to watch popular films and then ask yourself. What if you flip the gender of your hero? What then? Well, instead of John Wick, you might come up with something like Atomic Blonde, a brutal spy action flick helmed by Charlize Theron.
Another way is to take a classic film and then consider the story from the point of view of a minor character. Billy Wilder, the director of Some Like It Hot, hit upon the idea for The Apartment after he watched David Lean’s A BRIEF ENCOUNTER which was about a couple engaged in an extramarital affair. Billy Wilder thought it would be fascinating to delve into the life of the unseen character who rented out his apartment to the protagonists for their illicit meetings.
Thus was a movie classic born.
The third way is one which I employed when I was learning how to write.
I have a habit of jotting down interesting quotes from writers. I even bought a book that collected quotes from all over the world. And during my apprenticeship as a writer, I would often browse through the pages, allowing myself to absorb the wit of writers who have managed to capture the essence of a philosophy or a human truth in a few choice words. One of these writers was Salman Rushdie. I do not know from whence his quote was taken from, but I do remember it to this day because it was so striking.
This is what Salman Rushdie wrote in one of his books.
How do you measure love?
You measure it by the hole it leaves behind.
It was those two lines that inspired me to write a love story. And in particular a love story that is narrated by the hero and the hero would end up saying those two lines. To which I added one more.
And she left a crater in my heart.
I knew in my heart of hearts that the final lines would resonate with an audience. Armed with that knowledge, I began to trace and weave backwards the fabric and pattern that would eventually make up a story.
These days, you can look for quotes online. Some are by famous writers, some are anonymous. Hopefully, one of those quotes will make you pause. That pause is important. It means that within that quote is a truth that resonates with you, and if it resonates with you, it will resonate with an audience. And when that happens, it is time you begin to work backwards and weave your story.
And as you weave, enjoy a cup of coffee.
And a White Lover cookie.