Review: Developing Story Ideas

Developing Story Ideas, by Michael Rabiger, tackles the question that plagues most writers today: where do you get your ideas. This book is his valiant attempt at an answer. It's also a textbook, aimed for use in screenwriting classrooms. I saw it on the textbook shelves for the Art Institute of Portland while perusing books at Powell's. The title was enough to intrigue me and I knew that I needed a copy. Despite the book's goal to provide exercises and structure to fit a classroom setting, Rabiger recognizes that the work could be read and used by the solo writer. He also recognizes that the text can be used to apply to all sorts of storytelling formats: screenplays, novels, short stories, memoirs.

Rabiger's premise is that you can use your life, the situations you've been in, the people that have come into contact with you, your dreams (both goal based and night time meanderings), and your imagination to create amazing stories. The chapters are structured similarly: introducing a topic and then diving straight into three or four exercises (that you can do on your own or in a classroom setting) that show you how to use or develop the concept being discussed. Concepts in later chapters build off and use elements of earlier ones. Developing Story Ideas also includes chapters dedicated to the tools of the trade, reviewing current/past works of others, and revising your works into standard formats.

What I liked
The biggest benefit this book has to offer, to me, was the CLOSAT game. The game is a two step process. First, you keep track of 6 different subjects in your writer's notebook. These are Character, Location, Objects, Situations, and Actions. Each type gets labeled accordingly (Rabiger explains how to do this extensively in the book). Each subject gets transferred down to an index card which is then used in the game. The game is played by shuffling all the same card types together and then drawing a mix of cards to create a scene. For example, you draw two Character cards, a Location card, and a Situation card. You are then given a few minutes to craft a story together using these elements before you present the premise to others (or, I suppose if you're working alone, writing it down in your writer's notebook).

I also liked how Rabiger brings the idea mining process to a personal level by suggesting that everyone's life histories can provide fertile ground for great stories. There are many questions and exercises in this book that are geared towards capturing details and past memories, that can then be used as central pieces in your own works. He invites the reader to create a list of important themes in their life and then use them to develop stories that help cater to the themes.

Developing Story Ideas gives plentiful exercises to explore all the concepts presented within its covers. Long-time readers on this site know that I love books with exercises. Yes, it's fun to read and learn more about the theory and various aspects of my writing craft, but when it comes right down to it, give me exercises. They help reinforce the theory and give me a chance to work out the techniques. And this book definitely delivers on the exercises, over 50 of them.

What I didn't like
On the other hand, I found the text very clinical, and a bit hard to read. I recognize and understand that the book's primary audience are film school students. But as a textbook its written a bit matter-of-fact-like where he says things and does not expand upon them as much as I would like. Sometimes the text makes assumptions and conclusions that the reader is supposed to understand. Maybe I'd have no problem understanding where Rabiger is coming from, if I were a screenplay writer. But, as a fiction writer, I felt lost in trying to understand why he put some items in the book.

The book's structure varies a bit for my tastes. Rabiger begins the book strongly in showing you how to develop ideas from your past and then using the CLOSAT game. It then deviates to delve into the benefits of reviewing and disseminating previous works. He writes a few chapters that relate to the fine art of dissecting scenes and stories to see how it was all put together. I can see the benefits from including such examinations but I also did not expect to find in a book on story idea mining. If Rabiger had used the reviewing of movies and other stories as a means to backup his own ideas, I'd have understood how this fit in, but on its own, it left me puzzled. Thankfully, he returns back to the quick-fire mode of showing you how to mine stories from your past, news, dreams, and myths for more ways to come up with story ideas.

With the core book telling the reader how to use the tools of a dramatist and reviewer before they get into writing their own stories, I felt that the book tended to jump away from providing solid ways to develop one's own story ideas. Even though Rabiger explains it in his overview and introduction, I had a problem just seeing why we needed to delve into scene breakdown in a book that is supposed to help students generate story ideas.

Bottom Line
Overall, I liked Developing Story Ideas. There's a lot of good exercises and suggestions in this book. However, I'm not convinced that it provides the definite answer to the age old question of where writers get their ideas. Instead, it provides a dialogue between the various ways of idea generation and how to present them to a modern audience. I'm sure that if used in a college setting, this book and its theories and group exercises would provide a wonderful syllabus. Developing Story Ideas contains good suggestions and exercises in this book to appease any writer.

Verdict: I give Developing Story Ideas an 8 of 10. (The two-point loss is due mostly to my own niggling nit-pickyness.) Developing Story Ideas costs $24.95 and is published by Elsevier/Focal Point Press.

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