My last blog post about the four requirements neccessary for being a writer discussed the love of reading. Today I'm going to discuss why imagination is important--and it may not be what you're thinking ;)
First, let me say that there are no new stories under the sun. Trying to come up with a unique plot twist is an exercise in futility. What one really needs to focus on is how to lead the reader down a path, without them knowing the true path they are on. That's the key.
In The 6h Sense, the audience is led to believe they are following the life of a lonely child therapist attempting to help a child who sees ghosts. The twist at the end is discovering Bruce Willis's character is the ghost. The idea that a ghost doesn't know he's dead is not unique. We've seen it time and again in a zillion different stories.
Second let me also say that there are no new characters under the sun. Every 'type' has not only been used, but defined over and over again from the time of Aristotle and Socrates to Vogler's Hero's Journey. To attempt to create a unique character is an exercise in futility. What one really needs to focus on is how to create a memorable character. That's the key.
A person who has fallen into insanity and obsesses over something he cannot have is not memorable: Golem from the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein is.
So where does imagination come into play if there are no new characters or stories to write? Why is imagination so important then?
Because without imagination we can't take what's been done and make it unique to our own style, writing, theme, plot, novel and voice. Imagination, therefore, is not how we create a story--but how we create a memorable and unexpected story. It's not nearly as easy as one would think.
There are a few methods for exercising your imagination in a productive way. The Snowflake Method is one example. There are others more or less along the same lines. The methods are based on the belief (and I agree) that our first ideas or thoughts are more shallow, have less depth, than those that would follow. The method teaches how you can take a central thought and make "branches" (or the design of a snowflake) and further brainstorm off a central theme. (There's more to it than that, but that's good for our purposes here.) Here's an example:
In the previous blog, I shared how to decide on your subject matter and what you're passionate about. Mine was apocalyptic settings with characters who are altered. Let's take a very popular option: A character surviving a nuclear holocaust. We'll call her Jane.
(Because I don't have the freedom to do circles with connecting lines, I'll do this in descendning order.)
Jane was a school teacher.
She has the polly anna style optimism that either infuriates, or charms.
She has darker secrets, the polly anna facade hides them.
Maybe these secrets give her an inner strength no one would believe.
Maybe her father was a perfectionist--maybe he abused her.
Or maybe her dark secret is deeper, more magical?
Maybe she surrounds herself with children because she can see people's souls?
(This can also be done for scenes and overall plots.)
So now, instead of having a bright and chipper Jane teaching the children who survived the holocaust, we now have a secretive woman with supernatural powers who prefers to avoid the pain caused by seeing into the souls of adults, a pain she learned at the hands of her perfectionist and abusive father. How might a character like this react to her secret being revealed? How might a newly emerging power struggle for governance believe an ability like hers could benefit them? What might this mean as a story of survival?
As you can see, very little thought went into the above--you're witnessing what it looks like to "wing" it--but I wouldn't be able to do that without applying experience and insight (coming soon!) into human nature with a focus on creating a memorable character. What will make her memorable (or not) will depend on how much she's challenged by the situations I put her in--and how unexpected is the nature of the path I take the reader down.
Had I focused on trying to be unique--I would never have chosen a nuclear holocaust, a cheery elementary teacher, an abusive father, or a 'psychic' ability. None of those things are unique. They do have the potential, however, to become memorable.
So when you start using your imagination, draw from the real world around you to make it believable, allow yourself to be vulnerable on the page (more on this when we discuss insight) and practice some derivitave of the Snowflake Method above to go deeper into that imagination to create memorable stories and characters.
Hope that helps and I look forward to reading what you think in the comments. If you have any questions, or want me to further explain anything I may have glossed over or been unclear about, please let me know!