Inspiration By Explanation

It’s not that rare that we get really, really stuck. Gamers, writers, you name it—the block happens to everyone. It’s what we do about it that varies. There are a lot of things we can do about it, but one of the most counterintuitive I’ve found is just finding someone who isn’t completely familiar with the situation and getting them to listen as we explain the situation or concept or what-have-you we’re working on. Not necessarily advise, though they can do that if they want to—not necessarily even talk, though asking questions helps. Just listen.

In short, to really understand or be able to work with something, one place where we can start is to attempt to explain it to someone else.

First off, having to get our difficulties across to whoever we’re talking to means that we’re having to get our thoughts in order. I actually had this happen earlier this week; my second retcon post came easily, but I didn’t manage to write the first until I was explaining the technical definition of retcons to one of my players. If we’re the kinds of people who usually write from a primordial soup of intuition and inspiration, sometimes putting the chaotic bits and pieces of plot into some modicum of order will shake loose an idea or two.

It works for storylines, too. While someone completely familiar with the material, like us, would be able to follow the kinds of conclusions that we take for granted, the more distanced listener probably needs to have the logic chains and the backstory explained. I’ve found there’s nothing quite like hearing or reading facts to shake loose some new and interesting logic chains; many have been the occasions on which, somewhere in the middle of an explanation of how my current mess of plots is going together, I say, “And if this is the case, then maybe… this… as…. well….” before grabbing the nearest notepad and scrawling notes. If the explanation on its own doesn’t do it, the questions (assuming there are questions) might—particularly questions like “Why doesn’t So-and-So do this instead?” “Why don’t” questions are particularly good, since they tend to bring up images of similar things that would fit the local rules, metaphysics or character abilities.

Moreover, to explain things to another person, we either have to understand them ourselves or begin to understand them when trying to get them across to someone else. Many teachers recognize this as a valuable tool, setting up the class in such a way that along with being taught by the teacher, the students would occasionally give presentations to each other, or even work together on new concepts individually.

So what sort of person should you ask to listen? First off, try to make sure it’s someone who’s actually interested. There’s nothing quite like explaining something to someone who’d rather be somewhere else entirely to sour you even further than the block alone can sour you. Second, try to find someone who understands at least a little bit of the setting and background already, or has parallel concepts that you can analogize to instead; the longer you have to spend dealing with things like generalized metaphysics, the less time you can spend on the parts that are actually bogging you down. If you can get someone willing to ask questions, so much the better.

Give it a try. You may find yourself going from explanation to inspiration!

1 comment

  1. Michael says:

    This is something I’ve known for a long time — and don’t really see why you call it counterintuitive :) Indeed, the second paragraph of your post is stated almost word-for-word by a character in “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”. Though he continues “And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas”, and I would not go that far. Much better to explain to someone who’s on the ball enough to ask the “why” questions — these can highlight problems with your plot that you have not even considered but that need to be fixed because your readers will spot them, or, more constructively, the answer to a “why” question can lead to whole new elements emerging or even take the plot in a new and more interesting direction. (If you read “The History of The Lord of the Rings”, it contains many fascinating insights into this process. For example, Saruman didn’t even exist until he was created to answer a “why” question.) I can also think of many examples from my own writing — for example, the ending I originally envisaged for “Soldiers of Love” would not have been consistent with the magic system of that story, but I didn’t really realise this until I had to explain it to someone else.

    Finally, it has to be said — you are the best person I’ve found to explain my ideas to, so thank you again for being such a good listener :)

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