Elusive Elaboration

My friend bubbled over with excitement about her new concept for a river adventure story. She had all the characters, the settings and the basic ideas in her mind. However, as she began writing out scenes, some of the escapades shrank into a few paragraphs. This was just too monumental of a plot for her to relegate it to a short story. But, where was she going to get enough ideas to fill up a minimum fifty thousand word manuscript?

I tend to look around at other authors and refuse to write anything that resembles their work. All of this comes from a desire to be different, no matter how well certain types of genres sell, such as murder mysteries, tales of suspense and romance stories. When studying creativity, I encountered the research of Robert J. Sternberg who identified this trait as doing things contrary to the crowd. This idea resonated with me, so I continued to read his studies. One of his theories was that creative people use the idea of buying low and selling high, a technique for buying stock that has been around for awhile but is not particularly valuable at the time and waiting until it is in demand. In literature, this means reading old work, books that often seem outdated because of the archaic language. Then, reworking those old ideas and techniques into something new for a novel, which the modern reader may not have yet encountered.

My friend with the river adventure could have borrowed incidents from Huckleberry Finn’s travels on the Mississippi, even though the major plot is still well known. The escaped slave would have to be replaced with some other likable fugitive from the modern period. She could have adapted bits of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to embellish her book without many people recognizing the similarities to his account of traveling up the Congo to find an aging rogue. There are more obscure books to choose from as well as nonfiction accounts of life on a river by authors such as Peter Lourie and John Hildebrand. Even as a contrarian writer and nonconformist I find no problem with this as long as she put her own unique spin on these events.

When I have an inspiration for a story, it seems to glow in the distance, beckoning me like a rising sun. But, as I think of all the possibilities to reach the end I enter a maze where the walls shift without warning, blocking any logical way to the end that I originally envisioned. My problem is not expanding an idea by looking at different viewpoints but collecting all the scattered ideas into one cohesive viewpoint. Still, I catalog all these rabbit trails in case I end up finding that there’s not much to the paths that I’ve chosen to take for the story.

Elaboration is the hardest part of creativity. Awesome ideas in our heads become fairly simple as we record them. I have seen lists of ideas for adding excitement, mystery, or suspense to plots so often that I don’t bother to read them any more because I’ve heard them before. Other previously heard advice also comes back to haunt me—good ideas are a dime a dozen. They seem cheap because they are easy to generate. Building something out of them is the real work.

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