101 Uses for a Brick (Or a Ghost)

Hi all! I'm coming off a pretty intense few days of book events and have now caught myself a bit of a cold. But before I finish up my tea and put myself to bed I wanted to put together a short Halloween related post. If you haven't seen it yet, Nova Ren Suma (Imaginary Girls) is doing a great series of Halloween themed posts on her blog. Mine will be up there later today. By all means give it a gander. But I also wanted to talk about one of the other posts in this series that went up last week. Nina LaCour (Hold Still) wrote up an awesome true life ghost story that, in addition to being supremely creepy, illustrates an important writing principal.

From here on out there are going to be SPOILERS so before we go any further, read the whole story. Don't worry it's short. I'll wait....

Read it?

Ok. Wow, spooky right? A few nights after I read this I flew into Los Angeles late at night and as soon as I got myself settled into my big empty hotel room this story came rushing back to mind and I got properly freaked out.

Now about the writing principle I think this illustrates. For me, this story works so well because of the twist at the end, where Nina theorizes that it wasn't some kind of ghost taking the pictures but the girl herself waking up in the middle of the night as this malevolent "other person" and taking the pictures. There's just something so chilling and unexpected about that interpretation. That there's this other person living inside you that lives to terrify and undermine you. Nina could have easily left this story as just a creepy occurrence, maybe it's a ghost, maybe not, and it would have worked perfectly fine. That she takes this extra step to come up with a novel interpretation of the event is really what does it for me.

One standard test of creativity is to ask someone to list as many different uses for a brick as they possibly can. You know, you can hold a door open with it, you can crack a walnut with it etc etc. Generally when people do this the first few uses they come up with are the most obvious ones and then the longer they go the more outlandish and surprising the uses get. The idea is the more credible uses you can come up with for a brick the more creative you are. To me, this is what LaCour did so well with this story. She didn't stop at the most obvious explanation for the occurrence, a ghost, she kept going until she found something that had the shock of surprise. She found a new use for a brick.

This is something I'm trying to keep in mind as I work on my new book. If a character needs to get out of a tight spot, I don't want to stop with the first gambit that comes to mind, I want to come up with as many options as possible and pick one that feels fresh and surprising. It's the same thing when it comes to interpreting a character's behavior, or exploring their point of view, or describing a feeling or an image.

Our first idea is not always the best, often it's simply the most conventional, but if we keep pushing we can get somewhere really surprising and, in this case, scare the hell out of people.

What about you all? Do you make a point to push past your first ideas and find new ones?