Ray Bradbury once said, “That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: You make them follow you.” Far be it for me to take issue with Mr. Bradbury, but I find myself wondering whether the real secret of creativity is to train ourselves to follow our ideas. Take curiosity, for instance, which the old saying tells us has killed more than one cat, but that’s neither here or there. Curiosity has always been my impetus for following my ideas. I get curious about something, and I have to keep writing to satisfy that curiosity, while making sure not to completely satisfy it too soon.
The spark of an idea must bring with it questions to which we have no answers as we begin to write. In fiction, we follow those questions by dramatizing scenes and thinking about the causal chain they create. Our main character, amid some sort of instability, takes an action. That action creates a consequence that requires further action, and on and on, until the narrative reaches a tipping point beyond which nothing will ever be the same for our main character. I always follow the questions when I write. The key is having a premise that creates those questions.
Here’s an example. Your main character has an article of clothing that they never wear, but they can’t bring themselves to get rid of it. What is it? A dress? A hat? A sweatshirt? A scarf? A pair of gloves? Where do they keep it? Hanging in a closet? Stuffed in a drawer? Under a bed? In the attic in an old trunk? Where did it come from? Did they buy it? Did someone give it to them as a gift? Did they find it somewhere? Did they inherit it? Why don’t they wear it anymore? Does it no longer fit? Is it out of style? Is there an overwhelming memory associated with it? What would it take to make them wear it again? What might happen if they did?
The story might very well open with the day they decide to put that article of clothing on and go out in public. Or maybe they go to someone’s house. Maybe it’s someone associated with the item, or maybe not. At this point, we’re merely following the actions of the main character. We’re also beginning to face this important question. What’s at stake for the main character and how will the wearing of this article of clothing affect those stakes?
At some point, we may want to deal with another question. How will the wearing of the article of clothing create a result that’s opposite to the one the main character expects? This type of irony—one in which the character gets something they never could have imagined—often provides a resonant end to a story.
A sequence of narrative events can come from a small detail that invites us to consider certain questions. All we have to do is follow them to their significant and consequential end.