Neil Gaiman & Generating Story Ideas

An ongoing difficulty associated with writing fiction is generating new ideas that can be used for storytelling. Often we look of inspiration in our own life, whether it be looking in the past, what we have been through, or seeking stories in our present, what we are going through. But such methods can be finite and also involves things that are too personal, which one may not wish to share or simply, perhaps you have not experienced something that is worth writing about. Additionally, we take inspiration from writers we admire. But such inspiration comes with its own issues of authenticity for we come to sound like other writers or write a story that borders on plagiarism even if that was not our intent. 

This is where Neil Gaiman comes in. Specifically, his Masterclass lectures. In those lectures, Neil Gaiman gives four techniques that can be used to generate new ideas and all four have one thing in common, approaching a familiar story with a new perspective.

One of the techniques involves changing the point of view of a story. By choosing a different character through which we, as the reader, see the story, it changes the story itself. Also, by imagining an old, familiar story through the eyes of a different character, you can open your mind to new possibilities.

Neil Gaiman cites the novel ‘Foe’ by J.M. Coetzee as an example of this technique. In that novel, Robinson Crusoe’s tale is told from the point of view of Susan Barton.

Another technique is to modernize the theme. This technique also involves changing your perspective. By interjecting modern themes into older stories you are able to form new ideas.

Neil Gaiman uses Margaret Atwood’s novella ‘The Penelopiad’ as an example of this technique. In that novella, Margaret Atwood interjected the modernized female point of view and told Homer’s Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective.

Switching of the story element is another technique that can allow for new ideas. Here you take an old classic story and simply have it take place in a different environment. By changing this one element you can get the idea of a new story.

‘Cinder’ by Marissa Meyer is used as an example by Neil Gaiman. Cinder is the story of Cinderella but unlike the classic fairytale, this one takes place in Beijing and with Cinderella being a cyborg.

Lastly, one can simply make the story their own. In this technique, you take a story that you are familiar with and then apply your own experiences and what you know to that story.

Neil Gaiman uses ‘The Godfather’ as an example of this technique. The author of the novel, Mario Puzo, was an Italian immigrant in post-war America and so, he combined his personal experience with the elements from ‘Henry IV’ by Shakespeare to create his own masterpiece.

These are all simple exercises that work one core value of fiction writing: imagination. You are essentially thinking “what if…”. What if we saw the Wizarding world through the eyes of Ron Weasley, instead of Harry Potter? What if the Odyssey took place in space? What if The Body had elements of my own experiences? What if our current understanding of trauma was applied to an older story?

Adopting a new perspective and view what you have already known in a different light can be all one needs as a writer to generate new ideas and hopefully tell good stories which can be used by others.

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