from Writer's Digest
Finding the Idea
by Ellis Parker Butler
There are, to be rather inexact, two kinds of short story writers -- plot writers and idea writers. One builds a plot and fills in the characters, the other finds an idea and fills in both the plot and the characters. Nearly all the "plot writers" are writers of the "action story" type of short story.
I sell a few stories to the "action story" magazines, but usually when I submit one I receive a polite letter, like one I received this morning, saying, "I am sorry, but I am afraid your story doesn't seem to have enough exciting drama for our purposes." I tickle myself with the thought that if I wanted to do so I could write action stories quite as full of action as any other writer's, and now and then I do so just to prove it, but I am by nature an idea writer. Most humorists are. Most action stories are meant to seem serious -- narratives of actual-seeming sequences -- and in action stories one action can follow another rapidly, working out the plot.
The idea writer, if he is a humorist, cannot have overly much action in what he writes because he must set his stage for the laugh he is intending to bring out, give his characters enough life to be effective, and thus spend a good many words in atmosphere and setting that could otherwise be used in creating action.
At all events the plot writer and the idea writer have quite different approaches to their stories. The plot writer must find a plot; the idea writer must find an idea. I have read a great deal about how plots can be built up and perfected but not much about how an idea writer snares and captures his ideas, and my own method -- or lack of method -- may help someone.
Often, and perhaps most often, I hit upon an idea when reading. I think that is because my mind is most active when I am reading -- it is alert, agreeing or disagreeing with what the author is saying. Something the author says gives me an idea. If it is something that can be made the basis of a story I make a note of it, either mental or with a pencil. Suppose, in reading a novel, the author says of some character, a girl, "The mole at the side of Dorothy's mouth was a distinct disfigurement, but such variations from the norm of beauty seem to attract some men." There is an idea, and a truthful one, for men are indeed often attracted by some slight imperfection. It is probably because most of us have a certain inferiority complex and, feeling ourselves imperfect, do not dare aspire to the absolutely perfect. Only the daring and reckless men marry the superb beauties.
I wrote a story around that idea and sold it for good money. It concerned two sisters, one a perfect beauty and the other all freckles or something. If you stop to think a minute you will see it was the old Cinderella plot, but I did not think of it then. A chance phrase in a novel gave me an idea for a story. I put it into a plot that suited it, and it was a good story.
In one of Fielding's or Stern's novels I chanced on a comparison. Somebody was like "the ass in the clay-mill, going around and around," and that suggested my "Little Blind Ass of the 'Dobe Mill" who thought he was traveling a long road with a similar shed at the end of each day's journey. It was one of my most successful stories, published in the Century magazine many years ago.
The same method has held good in perhaps half the stories I have written. The publishers of the better magazines prefer stories to have an idea, and if the author can handle the idea interestingly the story almost invariably sells. I have found my best success through using ideas not usually taken up by other writers of short stories. I seek ideas that are basically sound, and then give them settings that show what I mean.
Underlying all this is what I may call my philosophy of life -- the broader beliefs I hold -- and I am not attracted by ideas that seem to prove what I don't believe. This should give all my work a certain general unity, making the whole of it a picture of me, but whether it does or not I don't know. I hope it does.
Often an idea comes to me when I am thinking of things quite afar from my writing. The trick is only to recognize the idea as something worth writing into a story. Thus there came to me the idea that I used in a story I called "The Great Deception" and for which I was paid the largest price I ever received for a single story.
I was thinking how little any man can gauge his own value to the world, and it occurred to me that a man might think he was no good at all when he was actually known -- by his employer, for example -- to be a very valuable man. I took a young fellow who did not know arithmetic, who always failed in his arithmetic exams, and put him in an office that was all figures. Because he could not figure he was extra careful with his computations. He introduced the first adding machine. His weaknesses were his strength, and he became a success because of them.
My "Pigs is Pigs" was a good example of how an idea can be picked out of most nothing, and how valuable one idea may come to be to a writer. It shows, too, how everything that happens to a writer, even before his birth, can -- and should -- be used by him. Very briefly here is the tale of the "Pigs is Pigs" idea.
My grandfather was a pork-packer, well-to-do, and he failed in the slump of the pork market after the Civil War. My father had to go work as a book-keeper, and he was one all his life until he retired. In 1889 I was given a job under my father in a wholesale grocery office and one of my duties was to file the claims against the railway for goods lost in transit. These claims, going back and forth from one carrier to another, accumulated dozens, and sometimes hundreds of letters and memoranda, all fastened together. I learned about the immense petty correspondence and time spent concerning claims. This was the basis of "Pigs is Pigs;" the story of the guinea pigs in the express office that accumulated while their claim was being adjusted.
In 1897 I came to New York and in 1898 I was in a hotel window in Cleveland, Ohio. I was there on business for the Tailor's Review, of which I was assistant editor. I was writing constantly for the magazines and always hunted ideas. In the hotel window was a shoe-shine stand and as my shoes were being polished a man sat down beside me. The attractive idea of something coming from a coincidence came into my mind, and I thought "Suppose this man, whom I have never met, turned to me and suggested some deal or plan that would make me rich." Then I thought "What deal or plan?" and looking out of the window I saw the signs of the patent medicine concerns for which Cleveland was then famous.
The signs suggested patent medicine, and hence porous plasters (which have a humorous context) and so I made the man besides me a crazy sort of advertising genius with a plan for booming porous plaster -- booming it and then not being able to supply the demand -- and I wrote "Mr. Perkins of Portland" that night, and sold it promptly. Some six years later Ellery Sedgwick was editor of the American Magazine and at his suggestion I revived Mr. Perkins and wrote six or eight more Perkins stories. All because a man sat down beside me in Cleveland.
Because these stories had to do with advertising I was asked to do still more about Perkins for Judicious Advertising and did twelve or more. The first of these I called "The Injudicious Advertising of Mr. Silas Boggs," and you can see where the title and idea came from. In that story Mr. Boggs, who raised guinea pigs, had born in his pen a male and female with long lop ears, a new sort. Because guinea pigs multiply so rapidly Boggs knew he would soon have a lot of them, and he had Perkins advertise them in all newspapers. Money orders began to come in by thousands, but the two lop eared guinea pigs died. This was the "Don't Count Your Chickens Before They are Hatched" theme.
Finally, in getting an idea I sometimes merely open the bag, put bait in it, and let the idea crawl in. I have written many successful stories that way. I discovered this method some twenty years ago when I had no ideas. I sat down at my typewriter and began a story without a title, without an idea, without anything. Anyone can do it. I began, let us say, "James Button, coming down stairs, tripped on the mop and fell headlong into Bridget O'Hanrahan's arms." Fine! What happened then? "His silk hat rolled on the floor." So it is a clubman and a scrub-woman, is it? Put in some amusing talk. "'An' how is th' baby this mornin'?' asked Bridget." And so on for the three thousand word daily stint. An idea is sure to come popping up during the writing but not, usually, a complete one. You get everything you want -- character, setting, tone. Then sleep on it. The next morning you will usually find you have your idea, and a good one. You may have to rewrite your first day's work, but you will usually have a valuable story.
This last idea finding method is one of the best. Your characters are apt to be more true to life when thus developed free from plot and idea, because they develop naturally. You can give them everything you have. Within the past month I have written, rewritten and sold at top price a story created in this way. It is a lot of fun; it might be called "the hard-working story writer's paradise." It is a delightful relaxation. Set the trap and see what creeps into it.
So now you know all the ways in which I get ideas. What to do with the idea after it is caught is up to the writer. Ten writers will handle an identical idea in ten different ways. But I cannot see why any writer should ever lack ideas; they're everywhere.