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Imagine Beyond What is Safe

March 9, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 18, 2013

I spend a lot of time with writers as they’re trying to find the best way to word a phrase, the best way to frame a scene. But sometimes what’s needed is not a quest for that one perfect word that will make a passage sing. Sometimes the writer needs to take a broader look at a story and simply imagine.

When was the last time you let your thoughts and imagination run a dozen different directions as you were searching for a solution to a plot or character issue? Yeah, you probably let your imagination wander when the last story idea prodded at you, when you were looking for an idea to capture your own attention. But maybe you didn’t let imagination roam far. Maybe once you had an idea that sounded pretty good, you stopped imagining and started researching or writing.

Maybe you thought you were allowing your imagination to head in multiple directions when in fact you entertained only two truly fresh ideas with one variation for each.

Maybe you played it safe, worried about how your ideas would be received. Maybe you knew one idea would have made a stronger impact, but were afraid of repercussions.

Maybe those repercussions were solely in your mind.

I’d like to encourage you, especially if you’re stuck but not only if you’re stuck, to look for creative—and I mean truly creative—answers for your  problems. Imagine your character out of his problem box by throwing at least five outlandish and totally unrelated possibilities at him. Imagine a solution that’s over the top and then push it even farther. Take it over the top and down the street and around the corner. Imagine something that could never happen and then see what you could do with such a scenario if it did happen. If the idea produces conflict and great opportunities for your characters, you can always go back to figure out a way to make it play out. Don’t get too caught up in the how—aim for the what-if first. The how might just be revealed as the what-if plays out.

Make the unbelievable believable. See if far-ranging and wacky ideas don’t give you a stronger solution, a more memorable solution, to your story needs.

This doesn’t mean you’ll actually use the wildest idea you think of. But maybe that idea leads you along a path that you never would have imagined without going wild with  your imagination. If you don’t push beyond a certain threshold, you’ll never reach new possibilities. If you don’t push, you may never notice the fence you’ve placed around your imagination, the fence telling it that it can go only so far and no farther.

Writers are just like other people (in terms of certain characteristics, that is)—we can be satisfied in multiple ways. So if a writer finds something  appealing, she may not look beyond that point for anything more, anything tougher or bolder or more potent. But there’s always more. There’s always better. There’s always different. Don’t quit too soon—push yourself.

I’d like to challenge you—whether you’re at the beginning of a project or in the rewriting stages—to engage in some dreaming and imaginative  play.

Imagine scenarios for your protagonist beyond those you’ve already used. Push him harder and see what he does in response. See what your own mind does in response. Imagine new ways to get characters into trouble and out of trouble. Imagine a new dilemma for your lead character, something beyond the common and the tried and true.

Imagine a new setting for your next story, maybe a different world.

Imagine giving your lead character a true flaw that might jeopardize his career or his marriage or his life.

Imagine what a character could do with a physical limitation and how dealing with it could hinder him, maybe change his idea of who he thought he was.

Go beyond simple robberies or common crimes and allow your antagonist to be not just a mad genius but truly mad. Mad in ways that bring depth and emotional heartache to your stories.

Imagine a new world with physical and social laws different from our own.

Imagine a world that readers can get lost in, a world they can’t help but explore. A world they can’t help but remember.

Give readers a world that haunts them.

As you lie down tonight—notebook or computer or tape recorder at your bedside—guide your imagination into new vistas. Open the gates and let your dreams run free. Don’t censor, telling your mind even as it’s imagining new possibilities that a scenario is implausible or that a character couldn’t or wouldn’t do such a thing. Quiet the censors and let imagination take you where you’ve never been or where you’ve not been in a long while.

Dream as a child might, with no notions of what isn’t possible and what shouldn’t be. Play let’s pretend and see where you end up. I’m guessing you’ll find a solution not only fitting to your story problem, but one that just might be more memorable for your readers.

Don’t cut yourself off from imagination. Don’t play it safe to guarantee sales or acceptance with a publisher. There are times to rein in ideas that don’t fit your story or character or genre. But there’s also a time to be free and without restraint.

Make that time now. Toss in a little freedom for your imagination for your current story, no matter what stage it’s at. And then try it again with your next writing project. Let imagination lift you out of a rut and into possibility.

Pursuing the same types of solutions in the same manner yields sameness. To create something fresh, think in a different way. Challenge your imagination to produce something new. Kick it toward those new possibilities if you have to.

Write with imagination today.

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Tags:     Posted in: A Writer's Life, Writing Tips

14 Responses to “Imagine Beyond What is Safe”

  1. Holly says:

    Great post. I know I haven’t commented on here in a while (heck, you probably don’t remember me) but I am still here and reading and being inspired by your words.

    If I’m playing the ‘what if’ game, I like first grounding it in reality. I imagine my characters going through all the scenarios of my daily life, or doing things I see other doing. I imagine them as that homeless person, that street performer, that friend. I imagine them into news stories. I pick up anything that seems to have affected me emotionally and write it from the character’s point of view. It’s good fun. But I’ll definitely try to stretch out of the confines of real life in the future, and maybe introduce the possibilities of flying fish and zombies and buses being on time.

  2. I’m always reading articles in hopes that even some microscopic gem of advice will kick-start what has become a very long writing dry spell for me. Today I clicked on the link from this offering from “Writer’s Blog” expecting another well written and informative article that unfortunately I would promptly forget and fall back into the black hole that has been sucking away every bit of creativity my little soul can hold. But…. this one stirred something in me. It slapped me in the face and said, “Here stupid! This is what you’ve been missing! This is what you’ve denied yourself for a very long time because you are afraid of taking a chance on writing anything other than what you perceive might be acceptable. This is your A-HA moment and you better take advantage of it because nobody else can tell your story except you!”

    Thank you for reminding me life is too short to only color inside the lines!

  3. My apologies to EDITOR’S BLOG in misquoting the title of the blog in my comment…. but in my defense, I was terribly exciting with your post and I have only had one cup of coffee today!

    So thank you again, Editor’s Blog for the wonderful kick in the rear your post gave me.

  4. Ah, very timely. I have a huge imagination that requires constant supervision, but once I sit down to edit, I cut myself off from a lot of my ideas, mostly to avoid causing my characters pain. It’s a struggle every day, but this is a great reminder. Thanks!

  5. Holly, those buses being on time will be a hard sell—who’d ever believe it?

    I’m glad you’re still being encouraged and inspired by the blog. I like the way you think, grounding the improbable or impossible into what is already possible.

  6. Judith, sometimes we just have to let go and imagine wildly. This is what it took to make space flight possible, to make heart transplants possible, to make the Internet possible. Who knows where your imagination will lead you, your readers, and the world.

    I hope you’re permanently out of your black funk soon. Let writing be fun again.

    And feel free to be as enthusiastic as you want to be.

  7. Lisa, I encourage you to let you characters feel, make them feel. Whether you use pain or fear or sacrificial love, your readers will thank you for giving them characters who are touched by their world. Unless characters are moved, readers won’t be moved.

    You are most welcome for the reminders. Thanks for letting me know you were here.

  8. Frank says:

    Sometimes, I find the problem is the sheer limitless notion of imagination can stifle my brain into being unimaginative. Knowing I can think of absolutely anything does the opposite. Also, the pressure of finding something new, or original, can stall the whole process.

    However, this blog is always a source of inspiration, and often pushes me into new territory.

  9. Frank, being faced with limitless possibilities is indeed another problem writers can face. With so much to choose from, how can the writer narrow down the choices to just one? If all are truly equal, you could just throw a few into a hat and pick randomly. Yet I’m guessing for most writers, such a solution wouldn’t work. If you were to choose using that method, you’d probably find that the option you chose wasn’t one you really wanted to work on. We want the one that stands out, that gets us excited about putting a story together. But maybe choosing the wrong option a few times will narrow the choices and help us focus on an option that does move us.

    Thanks for pointing out problems at the other end of the spectrum.

    I’m glad the blog inspires.

  10. Kat Sheridan says:

    Oh, I do love your encouragement to not only color outside the lines, but to go right ahead and scribble on the walls as well! And I must say, I do have a soft spot for the truly mad, over-the-top villains! Thank you for smacking upside the head right when I needed it.

  11. Kat, was I smacking? That sounds painful. But I’m glad it helped. Does that mean you’re writing us some fascinating villains to enjoy? I hope so.

  12. Stella says:

    After reading every blog post on this site I must say thank you. Thank you for the tools and the inspiration. This particular post has inspired me to subtly change the social foundations of my story and for the first time I feel like it is MY story. It has my stamp. I just created a world. I didnt realize I was being timid until this wake-up call. Thank you!

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