In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Pow! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea.
King is of course talking here about how he got the idea for his debut novel, Carrie.
And you know what? Not only did two unrelated ideas make for one of my all-time favorite King tales. Two unrelated ideas have also made for the majority of my novels and short stories since I actively started writing in 2010.
My MFA thesis novel, which I’ve been writing and revising nearly every day since March 2017, has two story-lines running side by side for the entirety of the narrative. One is about a young man named Charlie trying to find his life again after he endures a traumatic sexual assault. Another is about a young woman named Isabelle making a documentary about her older brother… who just so happens to be the guy who assaulted Charlie.
From day one, I was never interested in writing an entire book just about Charlie or just about Isabelle. I could have, for sure. And either story probably could have been successful in its own way. There’s certainly more than enough drama in each narrative for its own thought-provoking novel.
But it was the way their stories connect (and at times, don’t connect at all) that excited me, that drove me. How these two lives that feel so separate for much of the novel in the end become so emotionally intertwined. I’ve always been driven to stories that do something a little different, that take a concept that might feel familiar but then becomes something totally unexpected. That’s what I believe my MFA thesis novel does.
And such has been the case with so much of my fiction, bringing together two unrelated ideas to tell what is hopefully an original story. Happy Birthday to Me: a boy obsessed with birthdays who encounters the wrong witch. The Vampire Underground: a group of teenagers making a movie in an abandoned ghost town that happens to be infested with homicidal vampires. Toothache: a girl who hates anything to do with the dentist suddenly starts receiving bloody teeth from a secret admirer.
Often I’ll come up with one idea. It interests me, but it doesn’t excite me. I’ll think on the idea for a few weeks, maybe even months. Hmm, I’d ponder. I could do something with that. But that’s not enough for a novel, or even a short story. There’s the start of something there, but…
Then I’ll forget that idea, maybe go on to the next. And sometimes, on the best days, I’ll think of a second idea, match it with that first one I came up, and, as King says, POW.
It’s big. You feel it. The idea of mixing those two ideas into one story suddenly gets your heart pounding, your mind racing.
Blending two unrelated ideas extends to any genre you write in. Think of it for romance: a man and woman meet and fall in love. Yawn. But what if you added a second unrelated idea: the woman’s younger brother killed the man’s previous wife in an accidental hit and run and has been keeping the tragic incident a secret from everyone. Now we’re talking! Now there’s something going on underneath the surface to keep you flipping through the pages. (That example, by the way, was from Nicholas Sparks’ A Bend in the Road.)
It can also work with short stories, if you want to try it. It’s not enough to say, okay, I’m going to write a ghost story. Delve deeper. What’s an unrelated idea, something unusual, you could bring to the ghost story? For me, it was telling a ghost story through the 1st person POV of a ghost, one who is stuck in the bedroom she died in, while the man who killed her — the girl’s father — taunts her for eternity just outside the bedroom door. That story was Human, which you can read here.
If you want, you can even mix more than two unrelated ideas. Try three. Maybe even four. (But don’t try ten. I mixed probably ten or more into my ambitious fantasy novel Over the Rainbow, and I think that was about three or four too much!) But please, be original. Don’t just sit down at your laptop and write a science fiction epic. Think of something new and exciting about your science fiction story. What could you mix in that would make it different from everything else, that would make it truly soar?
At the end of the day, you want to bring something original to your work. Even if you write in a specific genre like romance, mystery, horror. You want to bring your own personality to your writing at the same time that you blend together at minimum two completely unrelated ideas.
Your readers will thank you for it!