Wed
Apr 29 2009 2:46pm

“Where do you get your ideas?”

(The death march is over: the manuscript will be in my editor’s inbox on Monday morning. So I’ve got time to blog again ...)

One of the questions that every SF author gets asked sooner or later is “where do you get your ideas?” For better or worse, I seem to get a double dose of it; ideas are my particular speciality, or so it said in the last fortune cookie I opened. So I thought I’d give the game away by explaining just where they come from.

Unlike Roger Zelazny I don’t leave a glass of milk and a plate of cookies out by the door; unlike Harlan Ellison I don’t use a mail order supplier in Poughkeepsie. (Or is it the other way around?) I don’t invent invent neat new ideas at all. Instead, I trip over them—because they’re lying around in heaps. The trick is to pick several up at the same time and smush them together until some of them stick to each other—creating something new and interesting.

Generating ideas isn’t some mystical talent that you have to be born with: it’s a skill you can develop. The first step is to throw your net far and wide, and see what comes back to you. I spend a couple of hours every day skimming news sources (most of them on the web, this century): everything from the daily newspapers and New Scientist to The Register by way of places like Hacker News and Slashdot and BoingBoing and then to more recondite islands in the sea of blogspace.

But grabbing tidbits from the zeitgeist is only the first step. The second step is to try to fit them together in new and interesting patterns. This is free-form brainstorming, and it’s something I tend to do at the pub, when I’m not busy drinking beer. Pubs are, disturbingly, where I hatch most of my best idea-sculptures: possibly it’s something to do with the disinhibiting effects of alcohol, or maybe it’s just having company to yack at.

Here’s a random idea for a novel that occurred to me last Wednesday at 10pm. (I’m not going to use it; feel free to borrow it!) We have, over the past couple of decades, seen something of a boom in computer-generated imagery in film. CGI has made a vast difference to special effects in recent movies and TV shows; it’s now good enough that it is in principle possible to use CGI-animated characters as protagonists. Back a few years ago, it’s what made the armies of Orcs possible in the Lord of the Rings movies. Today, it’s good enough that Arnold Schwartzenegger is going to be starring in more Terminator movies—without leaving the governor’s office. Video motion capture (in which a computer image recognition system captures and digitizes the body movements of a living model) and re-skinning of a CGI rendered avatar make it possible to map the likeness of an actor onto the motions of a nobody. You don’t even have to be alive to star in a film these days, as Richard Burton knows.

Now, let’s consider the economics of movie-making. In a front-line Hollywood blockbuster today, the fees commanded by the stars can easily be the biggest single line item in the budget, eating up 30-50% of the cost of the movie. Special effects are relatively cheap, at 20-30%. Wouldn’t it be nice to roll up the cost of the stars into a line item under CGI? Not so fast: these days, most stars (or their agents) take a lively interest in the intellectual property implications of their likeness. But dead stars ... must compete against other dead stars. Not only is it possible to take a long-dead actor like Richard Burton and re-animate him: this is going to have implications for what the living can charge.

Where’s the novel in this mish-mash of ideas about movie-making and the economics of technology?

Well, there are several angles you can play. For example:

  1. The classic whodunnit: A star has died under suspicious circumstances. The detective must investigate—[insert your chosen protagonist here]—and discovers the truth: they were murdered by a studio exec because—[insert your motive relating to the cost of using a CGI body double here].

  2. The Sterlingesque near-future cautionary tale: The tech to animate dead skins has run to completion. The studio/star system has broken, because it’s possible to have Lillian Gish, Bruce Lee, and Harrison Ford all starring in your rock-bottom Machinima production (clapped together in eight methamphetamine-fuelled weeks by a crew of punks using Playstation 4s running the bastard offspring of MovieStorm). Our protag is confused and goes on a bildungsroman through the sour underbelly of post-copyright-collapse Bollywood.

  3. The creepy literary romance: in which our protagonist, whose life bears unhealthy parallels to a postmodernist amped-up 21st century of H. P. Lovecraft, falls in loves with a dead 1980s film star and starts making movies in which a Mabuse-like villain with his own face kills her time after time. (The whackiness? Oh, that’s just what ensues when some young punk steals his mobile phone, which is recovered by the police, who assume they’ve got a killer on their hands.)

Ideas! Ten a penny! New ideas, one slightly careless owner, get ’em cheap while they’re fresh!

Ideas, hah. The real challenge in this line of work is being able to weed the productive ones from the chaff, to decide which you’re going to spend the next six to nine months turning into something that people will pay for.

Remember: ideas are the easy bit. The rest, as the man said, is perspiration.

34 comments
OtterB
1. OtterB
A colleague used to say something very similar about scientific research. He said ideas were easy, he had hundreds of them every day. Good ideas, those were much rarer.
OtterB
2. joelfinkle
The remapped actor's likeness was mined 13 years ago in Connie Willis' "Remake". Now, her tech essentially rotoscoped over a live actor instead of a complete CGI render (one way to help skip over the uncanny valley), but nevertheless, it has been done.

Note: her plot does not approach any of yours above, and is quite readable if only for the section on the poor sap working on behalf of the studios to censor undesirable behavior (drinking, smoking) out of old movies.
OtterB
3. Mark D. Simmonds
If you'd like, ask me to look into an old anthology edited by Alan Dean Foster and Martin Greenberg titled, "Smart Dragons, Foolish Elves." I recall a story quite similar to option #1 except that an actress' husband learns of her murder to be committed (for reasons of using tech instead of her live body) and saves her by changing into an elephant and thwarting the movie producer's plan. Currently, the title of the story and the name of its author eludes me.
OtterB
4. Michael Habif
This plot seems like an updated version of Walter Miller's 'The Darfsteller'except the actors are dead instead of giving consent to use their likeness.
Richard Fife
5. R.Fife
Wow, three posts on "been done". I think that was kinda the point he was making, though, wasn't it? But, you must remember, two people can write the two same "concepts" and get two completely different (and almost unrecognizable) novels, especially depending on what themes and messages and plot-angles they decide to use. Thus why we have yet to run out of things to write about, even with 5000 years of written history.
Sandi Kallas
6. Sandikal
Joel Finkle posted about the same book that came to my mind when I saw the idea. That's exactly what "Remake" was about.
OtterB
7. Kevin Marks
Willis's Remake is partly #2, except that copyright is still alive and constantly litigating over the stars' likenesses, and there are extra plot twists too.
OtterB
8. Ross Smith
(My earlier attempt to post this seems to have disappeared into the abyss.)

Your third scenario is an almost exact match for the plot of an episode of _Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex_. (Except that the duplicates were androids instead of CGI.)
OtterB
9. zornhau
Variation on #3 - the actress - now a granny - isn't actually dead. She starts ringing him up for very odd phone sex.
OtterB
10. Max Battcher
Adding to the pile of things that have had a plot in that direction is the possibly underrated Al Pacino film S1m0ne (written and directed by Andrew Niccol of Gattaca and The Truman Show).
OtterB
11. ValSaul
Viktor Pelevin's Generation P explores CGI issue in politics.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Pelevin

If one can grok Russian, Pelevin's works are highly recommended.
I do hear that the English translation of Generation P is abysmal.
Ingvar Mattsson
12. ingvar
William C. Dietz' The Matrix Man also features CGI-generated likenesses of living and dead people, for an assortment of purposes.
OtterB
13. Nancy Lebovitz
The third (and for many people the hardest) factor is that once you have an idea and a story notion, you still have to write the story.

I can imagine that tech being used, but I wonder if it will lead to no new stars-- I hope there's more to catching people's attention than a celebrity face. Acting involves the whole body.

Another possibility is that you'll need a team to make a star-- one person for the appearance (who might only be recorded once), one (or several) for the visible acting, one for the voice, and specific programmers to tie together and amplify the visible team.
Lannis .
14. Lannis
Re: recycling ideas...

I was once told (in Creative Writing class, no less) that all writers are thieves... kleptomaniacs, really... and that the real trick is to take these ideas and mold them so your readers don't recognize them... make them fresh, make them your own.

So true. :)
OtterB
15. Reay
I agree completely: I'm flooded with new ideas all the time for stories, characters, scenes, and settings. I wrote a screenplay based on three words that I'd read, which triggered an entire, pre-made story idea for me. I wrote another based on a scene that a song inspired.

Reading, listening to music and conversation, and just looking around or thinking generate ideas constantly. They come from anywhere, any time. The hard part is deciding on what to roll with. The harder part? Sticking with just one idea long enough to see a project through to completion.
OtterB
16. David Purnell
The 1981 Albert Finney, Susan Dey movie "Looker" uses plot idea #1.

Actresses are digitally scanned then sign contracts guaranteeing them paychecks for life while their CG doubles do the actual acting.

Then, of course, the actresses start mysteriously dying...

Don't worry, Albert Finney will get to the bottom of it.
OtterB
17. Ryan Harris
What the people posting "been done" comments may be missing, is that an elevator pitch isn't a story. Two writers could write from an identical idea, and you would have two different stories.

I hear that the idea is the easy part. The hard part is the writing.
OtterB
18. Malethos
I find the "Where do you get your ideas?" question to be a weirdly pointless one. You get your ideas the same place everyone else does by observing the world around you and finding interesting stuff that you think would make a cool story -- just like everyone else does. The really interesting questions to me are "How do you tell the difference between a good idea and a bad one and more importantly separate a great one from the surrounding good ideas?" and "How do you tell when the supposedly good idea you have found and played with for a while just isn't going to work?-- and its extension "What process do you use when your ideas aren't working to get around the block?"

Mind
OtterB
19. Cat Vincent
And for completeness, consider Michael Crichton's film 'Looker' - where model-actress-whatevers were murdered so their motion-captures could be used without residual payments - which was made in 1981. (Though something of a curiosity now, it sucked less than 'S1m0ne'...)
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082677/
OtterB
20. StCredZero
Eliezer Yudkowsky made a quip recently: "Nothing made of quarks can be Bayesian."

This could be the premise for a wicked good hard sci-fi whodunnit!

(The mystery would be revealed by deducing that the murderer would have to have been capable of perfect Bayesian reasoning, thus revealing the one suspect who is not made up of quarks to be guilty.)

Now if I could only figure out what he meant by that quip.
Nelson Cunnington
21. NelC
Yeah, I get ideas, some of them might even be good ones, but I can't write them up into good stories. The sitting down and writing part is what a writer gets paid for more than anything else, because it's hard work trying to deconstruct your big idea into hundreds or thousands of micro-ideas and getting them down on paper in a way that will get people to want to read them and re-assemble them into the macro-idea.
Soon Lee
22. SoonLee
There was a recent article here about plot summaries and the same line, "unplanned pregnancy, leads to complications" was used for three movies: "Aliens", "Terminator" & "Rosemary's Baby".
OtterB
23. Nile_H
Ideas... I've started carrying round a notebook: I get a few every day or so and that'd be enough if I kept track of the damn' things.

The ones I remember (and blog) are either ridiculous or reprehensible: like rebranding the London Fire Brigade or kissing pigs to save Mankind from the aporkalypse. Fun, but it'll never pay any bills.

As for your idea about CGI'd actors... What about facial expression, body language, intonation? All the things that generate empathy and project emotion? It could be a while before good actors are replaced.

A while, but not forever: and it is clear that the technology has already surpassed Arnold Schwarzenegger's expressive repertoire.

Stunt doubles are toast.

Porn might be the first entire genre to get hit - there's only a limited number of emotions to portray and the dialogue never really mattered.

So here's an idea, a straight trade back to the author of Saturn's Children: consider the possibility that we decode body language *totally*. Imagine the CGI porn starlet whose subliminal signalling has been maxed-out to the carefully-plotted edge of 'creepy valley' so that it (she!) is still credibly human but far, far more of a turn-on and a visual viagra than any real-life human woman ever could be... And it's all below the conscious levels of the viewer's mind, far more subtle than improbable silicon boobs, and cheaper than the fluffers on a 'live' porn shoot.

It's be fun to write, although you might go through a lot of Kleenex. For the weepy bits, tragedy and character-development.
mm Season
24. mmSeason
Wise words.

Congrats on getting through your slog.

Btw if someone does borrow that novel idea, when will you want it back?
OtterB
25. TomC
Take the CGI further. Full body "display masks" - morphing, guiding the body actor's movements with hints or actual muscle stimulus so they behave like the original, even helping them dance gracefully or do stunts.

Director has a brainstorm - continuously track the glamorous life of a star. But live stars want some private time, and don't want someone else living their life. So he uses dead actors and doubles - decides to do it with one of the famous dead James Bond actors. Hit show. But he has to keep pushing the envelope - adding dramatic situations - people want to see Bond doing Bond things, fighting bad guys.

What could go wrong does - one of the body actors becomes convinced he IS Bond, starting to see villains and plots where the director hasn't set them up. He's canned - but soon his replacement develops the same problem. Crisis! Until the 3rd replacement, just starting to go over the edge, thwarts a real life mugger. Brainstorm #2 - the director will pit his Bond against real world villains - it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you. But what if his Bond gets killed? Soon he's got a stable of "Bonds" warming up, "getting in character", ready to slide in to replace The Bond. The production becomes a smash success - and the CIA takes notice. CIA-Hollywood merger follows.

Which is all just background for a slice of the real story...
OtterB
26. TomC
Hmm - maybe the real story tracks that first deluded actor - sued for copyright infringement after he continued to try "Being Bonded" (there's a nice title in there somewhere) he's ruined as an actor of course - unable to get work since he keeps "going Bond". Unable to afford a Mask, no one takes him seriously of course. What is he to do? Steal a Mask? Try to go it alone and become The New Bond? Go after The Bond, becoming his arch-nemesis, killing Bond after Bond?
OtterB
27. Jonathan Vos Post
I got the structure of my talk "The Physics of the Impossible" last night at Cal State Los Angeles from Michio Kaku's book of the same title. But neither he, not his editor, nor the dozens of science celebrities with whom he conversed pointed out that he hadn't bothered to research the Science Fiction literature -- on those same themes of Antigravity, Time Travel, Invisibility, Starships, and the like.. So, brilliant man, he contents himself with references to Sra Trek and Star Wars, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before him. But I gave plenty of references to fiction by author, title, and date.
OtterB
28. truth is life
As you and others have noted, coming up with ideas is *easy*; it's putting them down on paper or even harder forming them into a coherent narrative with lots of little ideas to tie everything together that's really, really hard.
OtterB
29. Till Westermayer random numer code following 0123458715
My first thought was Gibsons Idoru-stories. And my second McDonalds River of Gods, incl. full-AI soap.
OtterB
30. LexBerman
For those curious about Charlie's creepy scenario # 3, it reminded me of David J. Skal's "Scavengers" which came out as a Timescape original in 1980. In Scavengers the black-market drug Synthadream makes it possible to "package" the mind of a human being, and then shoot it up into another person, who then experiences the mental state of the synthetic mind. The catch is that in order to make the drug, the subject must have recently died. Which results in, you guessed it, famous people getting killed in order to "package" their consciousness into Synthadream doses. Anyway, the story involves a man (with some serious mental problems) who is trying to bring his girlfriend back to life by kidnapping a proxy who resembles her and then giving the prisoner repeated doses of his girlfriend's synthetic consciousness. It's a weird creepy read...way ahead of it's time. Well, only a year ahead of "Looker," which is an interesting flick, too. James Coburn plays a great villain, and it is full of caustic anti-corporate satire, in the vein of "Space Merchants."
Ethan Glasser-Camp
31. glasserc
I'd just like to point out, in case it wasn't already obvious to everyone, that although "ideas are easy", Charles Strossian "what just happened to my brain?" ideas are not as easy. The reason people keep asking Charles Stross this question is because although people can imagine themselves coming up with ideas, nobody can imagine writing a book (spoiler warning!) where lobsters commandeer Russian software to escape the 'net! There are ideas, and then there are epiphanies -- and I owe a lot of the latter to Accelerando, so thanks!

Ethan
OtterB
32. mack_sim
Here's my $0.02 worth of 'been done':

Norman Spinrad, "Little Heroes" for scenario #2.
OtterB
33. C12VT
It would be interesting to see the effects if the character's appearance was totally computer derived - then casting could actually be based on talent and appropriateness for the role instead of so much of it centering around appearance. Their would be a lot more ugly celebrities. Do you think they would still be celebrities in the same way? If so, that could have an interesting effect on how people view appearance - instead of comparing ourselves to ridiculously gorgeous stars and feeling we come up short, we might feel that the stars look about like us, and we're all fine.

I think what might really destroy movie-stardom would be if, as Nancy @13 said, you needed a team to produce a starring role. Then you'd end up just dividing the stardom too many ways.

But maybe you would end up having acting specialists - different actors could do each scene, a romance specialist for the romantic ones, etc. Imagine being the person who specialized in angry roles, doing nothing but angry scenes day after day, role after role.

Nile H @23, your comment reminds me a bit of the Ted Chiang story "Liking What You See".
John Armstrong
34. JohnnyYen
Every new tech from still cameras to video to the internet seems to have been used almost immediately to produce porn. I have no doubt that this kind of CGI would result in Heath Ledger and Marilyn Monroe and James Dean going down on Marlon Brando
Or David Carradine starring in his own snuff film, posthumously.

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