Artistic Ideas that you can’t reasonably begin or create

Geoff OBrien

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How do you get your ideas?’ is a common question asked of writers. The question represents a yearning to learn how to create (and execute upon) unique ideas of one’s own.


The more I write, the more I experience the opposite problem: I beget too many ideas. First world problems? Oh, if only I had the capital of a James Patterson and thus could write some ten-page outlines of all my ideas and send them out to ghostwriters…


Moving on.


An interesting scenario occurs to me on occasion. My day pauses for a little while as I ‘chew’ it. This process tends to be mentally engaging, and thus enjoyable. A few seconds to a few minutes later, however, I shrug my shoulders and think something like, “That could make a really interesting story. Oh well.” Then I get on with my life, often forgetting about the idea.


Recently, I experienced two ideas in a row. We’ll get to what they are and what I’m doing about them soon.


Some writers give permanence to their ideas by noting them electronically or by hand. This can help them deal with the distress of not being able to write them out in a length and format that feels more just. Or noting these ideas may allow writers to ‘shrug’ them off in a more mentally healthy way, allowing them to let them go instead of the idea endlessly swirling around in their minds, disrupting their already chosen writing tasks. Or such notes serve as a well, from which the writer dips in to and draws from on occasion.


I’ve rarely noted/used ideas this way, because the process still feels unsatisfying. Such ideas tend to become stillborn whether I put them in the incubator or not. Or maybe I’m just lazy.


Yet what if those ideas could live on? What if, instead of essentially muttering them to myself, I speak out about them here? Perhaps I could inspire you. Perhaps I could eventually inspire another writer, artist or executive sponsor who’s more inclined/able than I to work on the idea. Perhaps I could inspire the next big thing. Perhaps we could toss a proto-idea back and forth until it gains a momentum that can’t be ignored.


Or perhaps someone brings me down to Earth with a common-sense one sentence reply that bursts my balloon, but enables me to realise it was a hopeless fantasy after all. Thank goodness I didn’t waste any more time and effort on that!


This is also where you come in. Have you got an awesome idea? Something that makes you all gooey and wistful inside? “If only someone created something about/like fill-in-the-blank?”


Share your idea here. It doesn’t have to be a novelistic or writing idea, per se. You could present it in a different form: as a picture, musical piece, video game, movie, poetry, graphic novel, dance routine, whatever. Maybe I or someone else could riff on it, give it a bit more visibility or coherence.


For example, a short while after I started reading Rand, I would sometimes daydream, “If only someone created something as groundbreaking and mind-bendingly awesome like The Matrix, but rational.” Almost a couple decades later, I start doing that with Existence.


To prime your pumps, I’ll begin with not one, but two ideas. One of them is what got me going with all this in the first place: what I consider to be a good basis for a video game mod that I’d love to either learn to do myself or sponsor someone else to do. And yeah, I could’ve placed it in my little idea incubator(aka ‘ideas’ file) like all the others, but…

heyyyy, why not try something different with this idea as well? Such as starting a thread on OL about it. Maybe you can add some details and ideas of your own – or tell me that it’s a ridiculous waste of time.


My second idea is something more deliberately concocted for my purposes here, to fire y’all up a bit. More on these two ideas below.


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Ever play Fallout 4? First released several years back, it’s a mostly lightweight, occasionally sordid and gritty role-playing game based in a post-apocaltypic America. The game tends to present itself via 1950’s-era thematic elements. The way Fallout 4 was designed, it’s also able to be ‘modded’. As a result, enthusiasts have created, and are creating, many ‘mods’ for this popular game, even several years after the game’s release.


What do I mean by modding? Fans of any given video game may use certain tools and techniques – either provided by the game’s developers and/or created by knowledgeable fans – to modify the ‘base’ game in pretty much any way they want. Commercial and moral aspects of modifying games can be an interesting topic in it’s own right. For our purposes here, however, think of game mods for games as basically being like fan-fiction for fiction.


Some game fans can get pretty creative with their mods, as a casual glance at a Fallout 4 mods list at a popular game-modding site shows. Unfortunately, these mods tend not to be especially original, sophisticated or mature. Some rare mods except themselves.


A particular favourite of mine is Horizon, which I happen to be playing(again) now. Horizon basically modifies, redesigns and adds to of a lot of elements of the base Fallout 4 game to make every aspect of gameplay more challenging, yet engaging. I much prefer playing a Horizon-modded version of Fallout 4 compared to the base game – though there’s a intimidating learning curve to Horizon(to say nothing of learning how to properly and safely use mods in the first place). The learning curve is worse for players who are very familiar with the base game, as a few things need to be ‘unlearned’.


Horizon honestly feels like something between a ‘Fallout 4.5’ or quasi-Fallout 5. Most game developers don’t bother to release updates and DLC for their own games that are so comprehensive.


Finally getting to my actual point now: what if someone created a halfway decent Galt’s Gulch-esque mod for Fallout 4? Or any game, I suppose. Maybe an ‘Atlas Shrugged 1.1’, where the player could assume the part of a new entrant to the Gulch and/or some part of ruined America and rebuild it with the help of other players and/or decent NPCs, protecting their settlements from raiders. It wouldn’t be full of just shooting and settlement-building, but include rare or game-advancing items, possibly to trade with settlements that one could only talk one’s way into(similar to the Vault 81 quest in the base game). Instead of collecting the usual doodads or macguffins, the player could search the ruins of the Twentieth Century Motor Company for parts, the Patrick Henry university for Hugh Akston’s old papers, or Galt’s old place near Taggart Transcontinental for tech…


If only I had the funds to sponsor someone to do that, or could spare several months to learn how to create such a mod myself! Awesome, eh? Eh?


Or, perhaps another creative idea; something maybe a little more controversial around these parts: a TV series, based on pretty much anything and everything to do with Rand’s life. Something at least somewhat autobiographical. Practically every period of her life has enough drama in it that the scripts practically write themselves(says someone who’s never tried scriptwriting) – especially the brouhahas surrounding the Brandens, other subsequent splits and controversies, etc.


(Yes, I’ve been browsing/reading some of those threads here. I had little idea; the extent of the explosions, or the amount of ash thereof covering the participants. I still refuse to ‘take sides’, because it’s all basically hearsay to me. I’m well aware of how truths can be twisted and/or wielded, even with the best of intentions. Also, I’m lucky enough to not have to care. Never had any skin in those games. I’ve always been more interested in Rand’s ideas and how to apply them to my life.)


Season one: Alisa is born. Growing up in Bolshevik Russia. Cliffhanger: can she escape and emigrate to the land of freedom?  (Postscript:  hmm.  Come to think of it, a TV series would probably show in some order other than chronological, using flashbacks instead, etc).

Season two: Rand adjusting/working/living in America. Cliffhanger: can she marry the man she loves and stay in the land of the free? Complications and subplots: surviving during the Great Depression and experiencing the Red Decade.

Season three: Rand the burgeoning novelist. Continuing to practice and learn her craft. The struggle to get published. Her early novels. The triumph of the Fountainhead. Atlas Shrugged will obviously feature here, but I’m thinking less about the novel itself and more of the circumstances surrounding her writing it: her indignance about writing/teaching her ideas(“What if I went on strike?”); her Collective beta readers and a bit on those meetings and their lives; the reactions – both Rand’s and others – when AS was first published; etc. All this could probably be shown(to lesser extents?) with the Fountainhead and her other novels, too.

Season four onwards: you can probably guess. Many here would know more than I.

Sprinkle all the above with appropriate and/or little-known and/or heretofore unreleased aspects of her Archives…?


I’m aware of not-sure-how-many autobiographical films of her that have been released. I’ve watched at least one. I’m thinking of something more dramatic, akin to the movies wrt to Churchill(ie; Darkest Hour, which I’ve watched) and possibly Oppenheimer(which I haven’t).


Face-slappingly obvious summary: Rand was a controversial pro-American who lived a rather unusual, achievement-filled and dramatic life, to say nothing of her actual ideas. Most/all the facts of Rand’s life and accomplishments are public record. Ditto the basic facts regarding any/all disagreements.  Unlike Atlas Shrugged, an autobiographic-esque TV series of her would be much more difficult(though not impossible) for showrunners to screw up, eh? Eh?


Any other/better ideas out there?

Edited by Geoff OBrien
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Interesting thoughts. I am way behind on things I want to discuss with you. I had items explode in my life at once that needed attention and I am finally getting to the end of the time they require of me.

But still, I only have a moment or two right now. So here are some ideas off the top of my head.


1. Too many ideas. I used to suffer from not enough ideas, but now, like you, I suffer from too many. This comes from a daily writing discipline I have been doing since May, 2022 (and I have not missed a day). I do a minimum of 500 words a day. That is the rule, but I often more. Never less. No adverbs and a few other rules.

If I talk about other people, it is in the sense of tying them to myself. Or to something that is working its way through my mind about myself and my outlook on life from a deep point of view. Never just to criticize them. I picked this discipline up from a guy named Jack Grapes and it is one of the most valuable things I have ever learned writing-wise. (He also likes stream of consciousness and what he calls "lack of field" and I do not value that part, to be polite about it--it is sort of like trying to make art with my mental poop. :) Rather than worry about how such genius and crap can reside in the same man, I take the genius and ignore the other stuff. Flush it when I can. :) ) 

But what to do with this plethora of ideas that come? In addition to my Writing Journal, I have a Scrivener project that is a kind of scrap pile for all the random things that come up that I think I can work into something good later. (Or interesting ideas from writing projects that I had to discard.) It is called Writing Ideas Notebook. I have a few file folders like Dreams Recalled (when I manage to recall a dream on waking up and I write it down), Random Sparks, Image Moments, Memoirs With Notes, Thoughts on Thrillers, Theme Ideas, and things like that. I have a couple of Folders that only have one note in them because that particular form of organizing ended up not being good for me. I keep them to remind myself that this scrap pile project is supposed to be all over the place. It's a friggin scrap pile. :) 

I have found great value in this scrap pile when I skim through it from time to time. It's amazing the dots that I start to connect, or a memory I needed for a project, or even the feeling of, "What the hell was I thinking?" :) 

I don't have any hard and fast rule for this scrap pile like I do for my Writing Journal, but I tend to add to it daily. Sometimes, I go for a few days without adding to it, though. It's all good. And it grows and grows.


2. What makes an idea worth working on and turning into a story? That, to me, goes deeper than what to do with too many ideas. As usual, I keep looking at places like YouTube and books to see what famous writers think. Or at least working writers. I have come across a few gems that I am going deeper on. Each shows a different path to not only becoming more skilled as a writer, but what to do with ideas.

I will only mention two people right now. As usual, I start writing and I don't stop. So I need to limit myself here. :) 


The first guy is Corey Mandell. He is a writing teacher to top Hollywood writers (many in the blockbuster category). He, himself, has worked as a writer with people like Ridley Scott. He has two theories I find fascinating. (I know more will come as I study him.)

He calls one "creative integration." Rather than divide authors into outliners and pantsers, he says we all have both in us and we need to integrate them. He acknowledges that, by nature, we favor one way over the other, but he has exercises for developing both sides. He calls it using the conceptual brain and the intuitive brain. To him, without conceptual organization, it is hard to write in a way that will communicate the artistic vision to readers on a widespread or universal level. And without intuitive writing, the stories becomes stiff and dull, for example, with cardboard characters doing things out of character just to hit plot points. So he teaches you to use both the conceptual mind and the intuitive mind and you learn how to go back and forth between them on command. 

The other idea of his I like is learning how to write in a compelling conflict style. In his view, if there is no compelling conflict, the audience soon gets bored. His success at turning the careers of writers around by teaching them how to develop this style (in their own voice, of course), is proof that he is onto something critical. That is if one wants others to read the fiction they write. (God knows, I have a lot of stuff I know readers would not like to read. :) )

Here is just one video so you can get a gist of him.

Corey has classes that are too expensive for me right now, so I have taken his comments and searched less expensive sources to develop these skills until I get the money (I am saving for this). Then I will take his courses.


For example, in developing a compelling conflict style, there is a book called Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell. I don't like James's nonfiction writing style since it is too full of lists, but he gives some great ideas for devising exercises. And this gets right to the heart of what to do with so many ideas.

To start with, James says conflict happens as a clash between at least two parties and one of them has to have conscious volition. And he says the best stakes always involve death (literal death, professional death, or psychological death). I have found a few more deaths that works well, the death of a relationship, the death of energy to win during a competition, the death of enthusiasm to finish a productive project, and so on. All these make great stakes for conflict to flourish.

So here is the exercise. It has two stages:

a. Find an idea that causes a strong emotion in you.
b. Nudge it into conflict with something else.

Strong emotion in me, the author, for an idea is key. Otherwise, the conflict I add to it ends up flat.

I am doing this exercise and fiddling around with it and loving the results.

For example, I am using a list system where I take one idea that causes a strong emotion in me. Then I come up  with 10 different conflicts to add to it, some normal and others waaaaaaay out there. I also try to identify the kind of "death" involved in the stakes of each potential conflict situation just to keep things centered. Some of the ideas I come up with are crap, but some are great. By doing 10 each time, there is no way some of it will not be crap. So, in this way, I automatically give myself permission to write crap and get it out of my brain so I can discard it. (Believe it or not, for me, this decluttering of my subconscious works and gives me greater focus energy for the good stuff.)

That result, to find a great conflict idea, that product, I suppose, is a reason to do this. But for me, I want to develop the skill to think in this way. I want to develop this style of writing. I want this as an automatic process and skill I can call on whenever I wish. Then I will produce as much as I want at any time and know my ideas will be--at the minimum--interesting to readers. So I am in a phase of doing this exercise often with both focused attention and brainstorm daydreaming. I go back and forth. (Conscious and intuitive minds.) I feel myself getting stronger every day in this skill.


The other guy, gem, I found is John Bucher. I'll only mention a couple of his ideas that have had an impact on me. The first is that creative writing is one of the few fields where people do not feel the need to practice. If you want to become great at painting, you have to practice and paint exercises and imitations. If you want to become great at music, you have to practice exercises and scales. Even other professions like being a surgeon. You have to practice (on cadavers in the old days). But for a creative writer, most people just pump it out the best they can, emote and suffer, and hope something good will emerge over time. 

In one of the sections here on OL, I have shared some of my practice. I am a bit loathe to share too much because that is not my polished writing, but I wanted to inspire other writers to practice. I have a ton-load of stuff I will not share. To me, I used to be a professional trombonist, and sharing that stuff would be the equivalent of making recordings of me practicing scales. :) 

The second thing Bucher said is that a writer is a happy person when he discovers his themes. He said that great artists usually come back to the same themes over and over. For example, one of Steve Spielberg's recurring themes is the mysteries of childhood. Bucher goes on, but this led to me analyzing my own themes, ones that cause me great emotion and enthusiasm and even cognitive dissonance. I have come up with a few (positive ones and negative ones) and am working through which ones I want to hone. This, to me, tells me what to do with so many ideas. Just wed the idea to one of my core themes and see if it works. If it does, come up with the conflict and write a story. :) 

Here is Bucher talking about core themes of writers. Go to about the 6 minute mark.


You mentioned doing out of the box things with Ayn Rand. I like trying to find hidden gems, like a hidden theme with her (in the Bucher sense). One hidden theme I perceive is "What is mine is mine and it pisses me off when someone takes it from me." :) I see that theme over and over in her works. (I became aware of this in anecdotes in Barbara Branden's bio of Rand.) In fact, this was one of the themes that drew me to her. I never understood why people wanted to take my shit all the time, or boss me around as if my life were theirs to dispose of. Rand stood up over and over and said, "No," to the bullies. I resonated with that strongly when I was young. I still do.

However, oddly enough, from introspecting, I have found that this is not one of my own core themes. That theme involves social power dynamics and my heart leads me in other directions. As an example of one of my themes (that I was delighted to discover), I am like a cat I used to have when I lived in the country. She was always leaving a dead snake or something on the kitchen floor as if to say, "Lookee what I found. I saved some for you, too!" :)

That's a sorry state of soul for an aspiring Randian hero, but there it is. :) I love doing that and I love stories where people do that. (Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek comes to mind. :) ) Fortunately, I have come across other themes inside myself, not just that one. But, here in O-Land, for my taste, too many people want to preach. I had my spell of that, but it never satisfied me. So I go deeper into myself.

To be clear, and emphatic, in my way of thinking, there is no right or wrong in discovering or acquiring one's themes (even if it is preaching in the end). If you don't feel compelled to think about something constantly, to create around it, to act on it, how on earth are you going to write about it in a way others want to read it?


3. A quick comment on videogames. I believe doing some deep serious dives on compelling conflict and themes is the way to make successful games that go beyond the addictive aspects of them. And, I like the death idea for stakes. :) I'm running out of time, so I will talk more about this later.


4. A quibble. Your use of the term "cliffhanger" is not the same as mine. I understand yours to be more in the way of a story question. For example, about Rand, you gave the following as a cliffhanger: "Can she escape and emigrate to the land of freedom?" That, to me, is a story question. (In a mystery, the story question would be who killed the stiff? :) ).

In my understanding, a cliffhanger is when a situation has been solved, or almost solved, then things go bad with no certain outcome. For example, in Rand's attempt to emigrate, she comes across a bureaucrat who, watching her stare hopefully at him, milks the moment, then tells her that she better get used to staying in Russia because he is killing her application for an exit visa. End of chapter. Or she is on the ship to America, a strong storm appears and she is thrown overboard. End of chapter.

To me a cliffhanger has desire, sudden danger (of the death of something, even an application) and no way for the audience to know what happens next.

A story question runs the length of the story. A cliffhanger is for the ends of chapters (or major pauses.)

End of quibble. :) 


5. I love the way you think outside of the box, for instance, picking up the trivia in Rand's life-and-work like free money lying on a table. I think the challenge is to make it compelling and no longer trivia. Enter compelling conflict, compelling questions that the player feels a need answer (and answer right now this very minute), broader themes with universal appeal, and so on.


More later.


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On 11/15/2023 at 12:55 AM, Michael Stuart Kelly said:

For example, in developing a compelling conflict style, there is a book called Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell.

As a curiosity, here is a quote from this book where James is talking about emotion being the main value the reader gets from a story.

He talks about Ayn Rand, not in terms of politics, but in how she uses emotion in story. (I love it when she is looked at as a fiction writer and not just as a social-political figure or philosopher. She is a far better fiction writer than she is given credit for out there in the rest of the world. It's good to see recognition staring to arrive.)


Genre and tone don’t matter so long as the emotions of the reader are engaged, intensified, and ultimately, after the last page, given a certain release.

When you do all that you have a book that lingers in the mind long after it’s over and causes people to talk about your fiction.

And that’s the best form of marketing there is. Perhaps the only kind that works over the long haul.

Now, what jazzes certain readers may be the power of an idea. Or riffs of style. But those things work for those readers by gripping them emotionally.

Take Ayn Rand, for example. She touted a philosophy she called “objectivism,” which is based on “the virtue of selfishness.” Her novels are full of speeches on that subject. Even though that’s directed at the mind, those who respond to her work feel she’s offering a correct view of the world.

Amish fiction, a popular genre of recent years, appeals to readers who yearn for simpler times and admire strong religious convictions. It feels good to leave the chaos of the modern world for a little while.

I left in more than the quote about Ayn Rand to give some context to how that quote fit into James's line of thinking.

I know, for me, the almost religious experience I get at times when I read Rand is emotional, not logic or syllogisms. It's deeply emotional.


That is what I am focusing on right now.

And what are the main story emotions I have come across so far? Curiosity. Anticipation. Empathy (for a character). Fear. Hope. Frustration. Outrage. Tearjerks. Or moods like Dreaminess, Satisfaction, Anxiety, Boredom, a state of honing in on gossip (I don't know a word for that--busybodyness? :) ), Catharsis, Lust. Maybe another here and there I missed. These are emotions and moods that an author causes in the reader when there is reader buy-in to the story.

Here is a biggie. Rand was also very good at portraying a feeling of excitement and exhilaration that, in the contexts she provided, can be called triumph. (However, that same emotion and feeling are present in other situations, too. The state of being right after a Eureka moment comes to mind.)

These do not have to be the emotions felt by the fictional characters, although they can be. But essentially, reader emotions are a different animal than character emotions with some crossovers at times. For example, note what's missing in the reader emotions: love and hate. Those are emotions a character feels, not the reader. Granted, the reader feels them later, but not while reading for the first time. Imagine the first tentative kiss in a romance. And let's say the author milked the moment going into all the insecurities and longings of the lovers. The reader feels anticipation and catharsis, not actual love.

Rand was a master at prompting reader emotions of this nature.


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