When my creative arteries are clogged, I often seek a boost by browsing through art and photography. Stills, especially of the natural world, speak to me more than motion. Stills are one moment of life, forever frozen, before and after left up to interpretation. This is where my imagination spikes.
Forming ideas using the classic "what if" is old news for many writers. Before taking off, a better question may be "What if I pick the most insane idea I can imagine and massage it until it works?"
It's always possible. Any idea can be molded and shaped into a cohesive story—plot holes turned into mountains and dull characters transformed into fan favorites. Even if the finished tale isn't destined for the best-seller list, there will always be an audience outside our minds. Before I talk myself down from a concept or give in to negative peer feedback, I remind myself of the vast world in which we live. Billions of individuals, all with their own perspectives and life journies, mean billions of potential readers.
What does this have to do with the potted avocado tree on my back deck? Look closer. Perfectly camouflaged, pointing downward among the vibrant leaves and stems, is a praying mantis. At a glance, only insect enthusiasts or the meticulously observant may notice. This little guy was living the dream, snatching gnats and other small beasties hovering around my deck plants. I was grateful to have the free labor.
This image can do more than prove I had beneficial insects among my foliage. What if I create ten random scenarios for "the mantis viewer?"
- A child reaches for the bug on his grammy's plant, hoping to use it to scare his sister
- The gardener has a phobia of insects but tries to touch the mantis in hopes of conquering their fear
- A mentally off neighbor trespasses and frequents the plants, seeking bugs to add to his collection
- A chemical engineer sprayed the tree with a new pesticide and observes to see if the mantis and tree are spared
- A cat sits on the railing, preparing to leap onto the bug and possibly topple the tree
- The owner is holding their pet iguana closer so it can eat the mantis
- An alien the size of a human child stares at the mantis, surprised to find it resembles a miniature version of itself
- A mad scientist is using the tree as a portal to another realm and is about to send the mantis on a test run
- A parent finds their child playing with the mantis and tells them to release it where it will be happy
- A woman leans closer, speaking to the bug as if it's a treasured friend
Some of these lines are crazier than others. Safer ideas tend to come first. The nuttier ones emerge when I allow myself to let go of what others may like. What do I like? From each of these scenarios, a sense of tone and genre forms. While a few of the above concepts may sound familiar, others could be building blocks for a unique story. I'll answer my own question from before: "What if I pick the most insane idea I can imagine and massage it until it works?"
In this case, I think the trespassing, bug collecting neighbor makes the cut. What happens next? Time for ten more scenarios. A mentally off neighbor trespasses and frequents the plants, seeking bugs to add to his collection...and then:
- The portly porch plant owner emerges from the back door with a marshmallow gun in hand
- An old blind lady wakes up from her nap in the chair beside the tree, asking if Bug Collector is her husband or the cat
- Bug Collector fails to capture the mantis and falls down the deck stairs chasing it
- A kid bursts out the door and screams, "Don't touch my mantis!"
- The police show up to bust Bug Collector for freaking out the neighbors
- Just as Bug Collector picks up the mantis, it explodes and covers him in mutative goop
- A woman scrambles outside to thank Bug Collector for getting rid of all the scary bugs—and admits she's obsessed with watching him
- Before Bug Collector can creep away with their prize, a giant net snares him
- Bug Collector snatches the mantis and turns to bump into the identical twin she didn't know she had
- A noise from the house scares Bug Collector away, but they spot an even bigger mantis on an azalea bush in the next fenced yard
From any of these scenarios, a unique story can develop. Many of you may have already pictured the next events. Some scenarios may have bored you, made you raise an eyebrow, or triggered a creative gush. No two people will have the exact same reactions or ideas, but any of us can write the next line and take it to a unique place.
These were all jotted down over granola and a steaming cup. I enjoyed brainstorming and may use one or more of these concepts for a short story. The next time you're stuck, I encourage you to try this exercise and see what happens. Feel free to post your own ideas for "the mantis viewer." And, as always, keep up the writing!