How to make plot ideas pop into your head

15 08 2017

Novelists are often asked how they get their plot ideas. I get many of the plots for my science thrillers to pop into my noggin from extensive reading about science and technology. However, sometimes the idea will come before any research, often as little more than a phrase or sentence. I’ve found “What if…?” questions to be the most fruitful.

My first published novel, The Cerulean’s Secret, arose from the simple question “What if there was a blue cat?” The notion nagged and nagged at me, until I started spinning a plot around it. I realized the plot had to revolve around genetic engineering, so I began doing research, coming up with lots of articles that helped form the plot. As with all my novels, I included a list of those sources on my web site.

Similarly, The Rainbow Virus started with “What if there was a virus that turned people colors?” The plot and details from that novel also grew from research that I ultimately posted on my web site.

Authors have also gotten their ideas from some odd phrase or sentence that somehow pops up when their mind is wandering. My advice: let it linger! My favorite story is how J.R.R. Tolkien got the first idea for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was grading student essays at the time.

“I’d got an enormous pile of exam papers there and was marking school examinations in the summer time, which was very laborious, and unfortunately also boring,” he recalled in an interview. One paper had a page left blank.

“So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’” At that point Tolkien had no idea what a hobbit even was. But to the enormous benefit of readers worldwide, he let the idea blossom!

For me, sometimes it’s a passage in an article I’ve read that sparks a plot. For example, the idea for The Neuromorphs arose from two quotes. In 2014, Science magazine quoted computer researcher Todd Hylton as saying “We think robotics is the killer app for neuromorphic computing.” Of course, Hylton didn’t literally mean killer robots, but the idea stayed in my head that the kind of robots based on brain-like neuromorphic circuitry could somehow become lethal.

The kicker that really launched the plot was a chilling passage from an article on artificial intelligence by Jason Tanz in Wired magazine:

“With machine learning, the engineer never knows precisely how the computer accomplishes its tasks. The neural network’s operations are largely opaque and inscrutable. It is, in other words, a black box. And as these black boxes assume responsibility for more and more of our daily digital tasks, they are not only going to change our relationship with technology—they are going to change how we think about ourselves, our world, and our place within it.”

Of course, I needed a plot to go with those ideas, so I decided on a theme that no safeguards against artificially intelligent robots escaping control could protect against human greed and depravity. I found lots of good resources to help formulate a plot to support that theme.

In that plot, Russian mobsters bribe the chief programmer of a company that makes lifelike androids to alter the operating systems of androids belonging to wealthy people. Those androids would then kill their owners, be re-engineered to mimic them, take their place, and loot their wealth for the mobsters.

Sometimes, though, it won’t be articles I’ve read, but technology-related experiences that trigger a plot idea. The plot for my latest novel, The Happy Chip, arose when I realized how extensively companies like Facebook and Google were compiling data on my personal habits. That data, I realized, could evolve into a form of control. I wondered “What if people could have chips implanted that would give them data on themselves?” From there, the plot evolved in which corrupt company executives transform data chips into control chips.

My plot-conceiving technique has worked incredibly well. I now have 20 novel plots lined up and more coming. Now, I just have to write the books!

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