Robert A. Heinlein’s second rule of is writing: You must finish what you start.
Neil Gaiman would add: Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
This article is about doing whatever you have to do, even when the spark from your first light bulb moment has gone dim.
What I do When My Inspiration is Incomplete
Ding. A light bulb appears over my head. It’s faint and it’s flickering, but I get the sense it’s one of many lamps leading down a larger path.
Most of my stories come to me like this.
“What if depression acted like a movie producer invading the set of a man’s life and it gave him all these ‘notes’ that ruined his day?”
“What if the corporation that runs reality starts putting features, like gravity, behind a paywall?”
“What if a guy has a different personality disorder for every day of the week?”
These blinking bulbs line the entrance of a conceivable composition. These lamps rarely cast enough light to show a story’s structure. I can’t see the exit from the entrance, but I have a vague sense where the front door is leading. I see movement in the windows, but only catch silhouettes of the characters.
A lot of writers need to see the floor plan before venturing into the building. I’ve found if I keep pacing the block looking for the brightest concept I never go inside. I’m the kind that goes in blind and screws the bulbs in along the way in.
Those first few dings of inspiration might lead me to believe I’m walking into a plot driven mystery, but with a little more light I realize it’s an intimate character study. My skill for lighting depends on my ability to adjust my expectations of the building I’m working on.
When a Bulb goes Dim Replace It
The light bulb of an idea always appears to me as a “What if” question.
“What if a hypochondriac got cursed with the condition he pretended to be suffering from? What would happen?”
I tried to write that one and the answered turned out to be “Not that much.”
The protagonist faked pre-traumatic stress disorder only to end his journey afraid of everything. That twist didn’t really wow me.
So how did I fix the dimming bulb of that fist “What if” statement? I asked another one.
“What if a hypochondriac tells a group of other hypochondriacs that he’s been cursed with his alleged affliction? Could he convince them they’re under similar spells themselves? Could he undo 150 years of psychological theory? What does this urge to lie to other liars say about the hero?”
These questions seemed a little more interesting.
Your stories will transform in the telling, often in ways that betray your original vision. The sooner you accept this possibility the sooner you’ll see ideas through to completion. Sometimes you have to repurpose the material you’ve been developing to support a new premise.
How a Story about Demons became a Story About Tooth Fairies
One night I came out of a movie theater at 2AM. The theater was a few blocks from my apartment. Along the way was a row of bars. The sidewalks were congested with bow-legged boozers drifting diagonally, a cacophony of cat-callers and helium huffing up-speakers, and chest thumping, threat barking, wannabe boxers.
I passed a man shouting, “You don’t even know why that’s not funny. You don’t know where I come from. You don’t even know why that’s so offensive.”
He kept pivoting from his heel to his toe, waving his hand, hurling his words. There was a bearded guy with his hands up in a passive stance trying to prevent this shouter from stepping any further. He was running interference on behalf of his bald friend leaning on the wall behind him, this was the guy who’d hurled the insult without the foreknowledge of his target’s background and deeply held personal beliefs.
The bald man yawned as I passed. That’s when I tasted, not simply smelt, but tasted the whiskey on his breath. It was so thick he might has well have given me mouth to mouth, because I felt that liquor in my lungs.
I passed 3 more fledgling fights on the way home.
This gave me an early ding of inspiration, “What if there were demons whose job it was to start bar fights happen as harbingers of hell’s influence over humankind?”
I liked the idea of a supernatural entity having a stake in something as ludicrous bar fighting, but demons just seemed a little too on the nose.
I started writing from the middle of the story, making observations on the absurd nature of bar fight culture and how easy fights were to trigger, but whenever I tried to insert commentary from the demon’s point of view it felt boring.
The demon made a lousy narrator. He was in his element everything he was observing was old hat to him. I decided the story needed a different supernatural entity.
This is when I settled on the Toothy Fairy. The idea was that Tooth Fairies came from a civilization that depended on human teeth to fortify their buildings. Brick and mortar wouldn’t do, fairies needed magic materials, like the bones of people. When children demanded higher payouts per tooth the Fairies were forced to use their magic to start bar fights.
This scenario had something the one with the demons lacked: comedic contrast. A fairy attempting to understand bar fighters was far more interesting than a demon rolling his cat-eyes at them. Even though the demon came with that first ding of inspiration he was the bulb I needed to replace to get the story working.
By the way, that story is up on the site. It’s called Tooth Fury.
Your first idea might seem like the heart of your story, but sometimes your story needs a heart transplant to stay alive. Your premise and your theme might end up tugging each other in different directions. The situation may be too round a peg to hammer a square message through. What you’d conceived as a deep cerebral piece might read better as a shallow dirty joke.
Never mind your original intention. Your story is a living document.
Use that first light bulb of inspiration to get your story going, but if you realize something isn’t working don’t be afraid to replace it with a new one.
After getting a lot requests for prints of my art I decided to open a store on REDBUBBLE where you can find prints and a whole lot more.
4 thoughts on “How to Swap the Light Bulbs of Inspiration”
This was a great post. I feel like I need to replace bulbs with some of my story ideas. Recently, a few of my stories haven’t taken off the way I wanted or expected, so I abandoned them, not really thinking they needed something different. Maybe a different point of view, or a new character altogether. Thanks for the post.
Thanks so much for sharing!
This post is brilliant, not just for its content but for the way you wrote it! As a writer and fan of figurative language and imagery, this post was like an enjoyable romp through a big, colorful candy store for me. And although I’m writing a memoir as opposed to fiction, I believe your reference to changing the lightbulb when you’re stuck still works regardless of genre!