“Where do you get your ideas?”
Authors get this question a lot. For me the better question is “What do you do once you get an idea?”
I’m lucky that I’ve never had a time when I’ve not known what to write next. Because my genres are fantasy and science fiction, I’m constantly observing and asking “what if?” and sometimes have to expend a great deal of effort NOT to indulge an idea—like when I’m working on a book already and need to focus on the task at hand.
But once I decide to begin a new story, my first step is always to figure out the ending. My favorite endings are those that deliver on a lesson taught by Aristotle in Poetics: An effective ending must be unexpected but inevitable.
Aristotle analyzed the stories of his day, which were mostly comic and tragic plays. He talked about a concept called anagnorisis, which is when a character suddenly understands a critical truth about his situation. A good example from ancient Greek literature is Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, who finds out—in a tragic fulfillment of a prophesy—that the murderer he has been seeking is himself. A good example from modern literature is Ender in Ender’s Game, who discovers the truth about everything he has been doing at battle school. In my book, In A World Just Right, Jonathan suddenly understands a harsh reality about his world and about Kylie, his love interest.
I find the horror of such a moment very compelling. Aristotle says the anagnorisis is generally followed by the peripeteia, which is the reversal of a character’s fortunes. In Oedipus Rex, it’s when Oedipus, King of Thebes, blinds himself for not seeing the truth and then exiles himself from his city, thereby going from a man who has everything to a man who has nothing. I don’t always like to follow this strictly tragic formula, but it is essential that the dark moment of the anagnorisis prompts a change. Rather than a true and permanent reversal of fortune, I gravitate toward books that have an ironic ending—one where the character gets something, but also loses something, one that is bittersweet.
When you finish your next book, think about its ending. How was the ending inevitable? How was it unexpected? What did you like/dislike about that ending? What kind of ending do you like best?