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That’s the first question every writer is asked and the one they most dread. My friend, Harlan Ellison, usually answers, “Poughkeepsie.” He elaborates by saying he subscribes to a service, a sort of an Idea-Of-The-Month Club that periodically mails him new ideas and stories which he then filters through his typewriter (Harlan does not use a computer or even an electric typewriter – he still hunkers over his old manual which proves technology alone does not give one talent. He goes on, as only Harlan can, elaborating on this concept service, and by the time he’s done, the poor sap asking the question usually believes every ridiculous thing he’s said.

There are a few things to know about ideas. Ideas are, as they say in Hollywood, a dime a million. There are more ideas in the world than there are recovering celebrities at the Betty Ford clinic. It’s not the idea that matters. It’s the execution. It’s the way a writer filters that idea through their unique mind that is important. The same idea given to a dozen writers will elicit ten dozen stories as each writer will probably come up a number of approaches before settling on one.

But, you’re still asking the question, so I will give the tried, true and always constant answer: ideas come from everywhere and everything. You read a news story. You read a book and it kindles a thought completely unrelated to what you read. You second guess the ending of a movie you’re watching and you’re wrong, but that wrong guess leads you into a fascinating new territory you can mine. You mishear something. You miss-see something.

That actually happened to me. I was working on Tomb of Dracula for Marvel at the time. I knew the character story I wanted to tell but not the plot in which I’d tell it (I’ll get to the very important difference between plot and story and how most new writers screw that up in a future column).

When I need to think I usually make an effort to stop thinking. That is, I start doing something else, knowing the ideas which have been percolating in my mind, need to get away from any new input and sort through what is already there. So, to get away from thinking, I picked up an issue of some Superman comic (I don’t mean it the way that came out). It was late. I was tired. I’ve got what doctors call “wandering eyes,” an eye condition where my eyes, when tired, go out of focus. Doctors gave me eye exercises as a kid so it doesn’t affect me all the time, but when I’m tired, well, that’s a different story. So, here I am reading an issue of Superman. My eyes start to wander. One eye moves left, one moves right. The features on Superman’s face leave the outline of his head. I’m seeing Superman’s eyes, nose and mouth move away from his face and float in mid space.

I rushed back to the typewriter and wrote a story where, one by one, our villain is stealing the features of his targets. He’d pluck the right eye from one man, the left from another. Etc. It was one of the more successful and eerie issues of Tomb Of Dracula.

Bad vision. That’s where you get an idea.

But, I still hear you saying (this internet column has a sound card interface which sends your voice through your computer’s microphone, over the net to my computer where the program “Eavesdrop 2.6” catalogues them on my hard drive) you’re always told you need to be original, so why do I keep saying ideas aren’t important?

Well, first, I haven’t said that, but what I have said is it’s what you do with that idea that separates the people who can’t from the people who can.

So, how do you develop your ideas? That’s the real trick of writing, isn’t it? The first thing to remember is generally, stories aren’t about ideas, they are about people. They’re about people going through life trying to keep things together, and then, to create conflict and make the story interesting, they come running smack into the “idea” that stops them in their tracks.

The idea is something that forces the character to think about themselves and their world. It’s what allows the character to grow and change. In television and movies they talk about a character’s arc, that is, how a character changes from the beginning to the end of the story. In real life people don’t change that quickly but it does make for a good story with a satisfactory resolution. Note, by saying satisfactory, I don’t mean a happy resolution where everyone hugs and sings camp songs. Characters can not get what they want but that is still the resolution that works the best. Romeo and Juliet. They die. Casablanca. They part. Gone with the Wind. They don’t give a damn. Any Adam Sandler movie. He still lives. But that’s what we don’t want, not him, so maybe I’m wrong on this one.

On occasion, I’m asked to give a talk about writing and editing and I always bring up my big notion - the idea of internal stories versus external stories. As an example, I always use Spider-Man versus Fantastic Four. When you strip things down to their basics, the Fantastic Four is an external book. Although we certainly like the characters, especially The Thing, the series, at its best, is about the stories and not our heroes. If you’re old enough to have read them you think of the Galactic Trilogy. The Silver Surfer stories. The Doctor Doom stories. The Inhumans. The Black Panther. You think of the grand plots that Stan and Jack came up with.

ith rare exceptions you don’t think about character stories. That’s because the Fantastic Four has been best when the creators come up with great, new stuff we hadn’t seen before. Which, with time, gets very hard to do. In short, the series is more about the ideas than the characters. Which is why the FFs popularity changes so drastically depending on the creativity of whoever is working on it at the time. External stories: more about who they fight and less about the characters.

On the other hand, when you think of Spider-Man, you think of Peter Parker’s (alliterative) plights. You think of him struggling to save Aunt May or Gwen Stacy, or suffering at the hands of JJJ, or his other personal trials and tribulations. The core idea of Spider-Man is internal. You care about Spidey and his pals more than about the individual stories. That’s why Spidey has almost always sold no matter who works on it. Sometimes it’s better and sometimes it’s worse, but as long as the creators don’t forget to tell Spidey’s stories first and the external plot second, you find yourself invested in our hero. Internal stories. More about the characters and less about who they fight.

I like to think my best work has always been on internal stories. Spider-Man. Dracula. Teen Titans. Etc. I even tried to turn Superman into a more internal book when I wrote it, making the stories about him and not about the plot of the month. External books can be brilliant but I always found it difficult to write, for example, Batman, because it is an external book and not internal in design. His villains and the crimes they commit are more important than Batman himself. I also don’t have any warm and fuzzys about almost all the Fantastic Four stories I wrote with the exception of issue 200 – which was an internal story, the “final” confrontation between Reed Richards and Dr. Doom.

It’s always been my belief that after you’ve read maybe a hundred comics or stories, you’ve seen almost every Big Idea there is. From watching millions of hours of TV and movies we instinctively know where a story is going to go. That’s why, to my way of thinking, when you get your idea try to wrap it around a story about people. Make your ideas internal. Make it important to the characters. Make it less of a puzzle story and more of a personal quest. That’s how to take an idea and turn it into a story someone else may be interested in reading.

We’ll be talking more about writing, plots, theme, structure, etc. in a future column. Please let me know if this is something you’re all interested in reading about.

Also, please send letters with your questions about comics, animation, TV, movies, etc. to:
See you all in seven.



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