Questions as Idea Factories

I was in a wedding this past weekend, which unfortunately meant trips to the airport.  Like most freeborn citizens of the Republic, I’ve come to loathe the airport.  It’s hard to think of anyplace else in the country whose standard operating procedure more readily lends itself to police state stereotype, an observation that was made repeatedly by several people who were in line with me.

Pictured: Gubmint keeping you safe from suspected terroristYou’re welcome.

Standing there in line, getting told to remove not just my shoes but also my belt, wondering if I was going to get sent through the body scan machine or be one of the lucky ones that went through the old metal detector, I let my mind wander.  I tend to do that anytime I find myself unpleasant.  While the practice sometimes has penalties (especially in office meetings or during fights with a girlfriend) it actually pays big dividends for one’s writing.  How does this work?  More info after the jump.

When you find yourself stuck someplace you’d rather not be (or simply stuck for story ideas),  look around and ask yourself questions.  This is similar to the Socratic method where a teacher asks questions to stimulate creative thinking and problem solving, except here, you’re the teacher and the student.  Questions that can get the ball-rolling include, “How can this be worse?” or “How can this be better?”

Let’s return to my airport security line example.  Standing there, I asked myself how this could be worse, and got the same unpleasant answer I hope the government’s Wizards of Security Smarts have at least pondered a little bit: these security lines make nice chokepoints; instead of trying to get a bomb on the plane, why not just detonate one as people get backed-up waiting to go through security?

Pictured: a terrorist layup.

Like I said, not the most pleasant of thoughts, and certainly one that makes you feel exposed.  But this doesn’t exactly make for the most original of stories, since Islamic terrorists already executed a similar attack earlier this year.  What to do?

Well, in true Socratic method style, you ask another question.  Using our example, this question might be, “How would security change after such an attack?”  Perhaps try to make feeder rail lines into the airport; passengers could be screened as they arrive at the train depots, thus pushing the security perimeter further out.  This leads to another question: “Why might this not work?”  Never mind expense (present economic policy, after all, is that all our problems can be solved by printing more money), what about security?  Terrorists could try to jump on a passing airport trains from overpasses (so perhaps the railcars’ hulls are electrified).  But the more ready problem is that you’ve still got your chokepoint, where a bomb could be easily detonated as people line-up for security screening at the rail depot.

So the question in our example becomes, “How do you diffuse crowds while maintaining security?”  Perhaps government run taxi shuttles?  In other words, the State will pick you up from your house, check you for bombs at your own driveway, and then cart you into the airport.  Is this efficient?  Hell, no.  But think of the jobs program this would be!  And how safe everything would be!  (This is discounting passengers killed or injured in auto accidents while being ferried to the airport, natch.)

Now that we have a suitably Kafkaesque world, and only slightly moreso than our own.

But now comes the most important question in all story writing, taught to me by the mighty George Scithers, first editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine: “If this, then what?”

In other words, in our airport security example, we’ve got an interesting world which readily lends itself to comment on own.  But the idea doesn’t matter as much as what happens with it, and this is why “If this, then what?” becomes crucial.  If government is taxiing everyone to-and-fro the airport for security reasons, what happens because of this?  Maybe a passenger is delayed for some important meeting — he’s flying somewhere to try to win back the woman of his dreams — because of bureaucratic ineptitude.  Maybe the security guards stumble across a domestic violence incident in progress as they go to pick-up a passenger; less nobly, maybe they allow themselves to be bribed in exchange for sparing their passengers the indignity of having their bags rummaged through.

It’s at this point you truly find your story — and maybe have even killed enough time that you’ve made your way through airport security…

Lessons:
1. Never let idle time go to waste.  If you find yourself someplace unpleasant, try to make the most of it by coming up with a story.
2. Do this by asking questions.  Questions to get the ball rolling include, “How can this be worse?” and “How could this be better?”
3. In writing, questions can lead to some really interesting answers.  Follow the Socratic method of following-up questions with yet more questions, thereby forcing you to test your idea, and push it even further.
4. The most important question is “If this, then what?”  In other words, if things are a given way, what happens because of this that wouldn’t happen but for it?

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