A few years ago, I found my oldest daughter’s acoustic guitar in the secret attic room and after restringing it and tuning it, I decided to teach myself how to play it. I didn’t make it very far (I really don’t have time to properly teach myself how to play a guitar. After all, if I have any time, I need to be writing), but I made it far enough to learn a few chords and understand the concept that you can take a simple song—“Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” for example—and then, if you feel so inclined and have the ability, you can add different strum patterns and other dimensions, all based on that same basic song. You can take the skeleton tune and turn it into something entirely new.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure this out. After all, almost everything we learn to do is based on this idea of what I call “riffing”—starting with a simple structure and then adding complexity and other dimensions to make it our own.
For example, we do this with cooking. When we first want to make a new dish, we probably hunt down a recipe to figure out where to begin. Then, generally, we follow the recipe pretty closely that first time, just because we don’t necessarily trust ourselves not to mess it up (depending on what we are making). Once we have made it a few times, however, we decide to use different noodles, perhaps, or add some jalapeños. Oh, and red onion would be another good addition. Maybe some cilantro. Soon, the new recipe is perhaps but a shadow of the original one, with our own flare and probably even more delicious. It doesn’t always work out, but this experimenting with recipes is half the fun of cooking.
We do this with everything, actually. We start with something basic and then make it our own. And so it goes with fiction writing: if you are stuck for an idea, you can hardly go wrong with riffing an urban legend or a fairy tale.
You will start with a basic tale—take the “Three Little Pigs” for example. With this tale, we have three pigs, one of them a bit lazy, one a bit middle-of-the-road, and one who gets shit done. We then have a wolf who, of course, wants to eat them because they are juicy and that’s what wolves do. Then you have some bit about a fair and rolling down the hill with a butter churn and the wolf meeting his demise by falling through a chimney into a pot of boiling water. All that, however, is old detail for the basic upshot of the tale, which is that the two pigs run to the house of the pig who gets shit done and they work together to foil the wolf. That’s the bones of the story, but you can take this story so many different ways.
In your story, perhaps, the pigs become human brothers (or sisters), who probably all have a bit of emotional baggage about their perfect brother who builds sturdy houses out of brick. The middle brother just wants to be left alone to publish articles on sub-tropical islands he can never visit since the mortgage to his ranch house in the suburbs takes all his cash. The younger brother, who built his house out of hay, lives in his girlfriend’s condo in LoDo because he’s charming and attractive, but doesn’t have a dime to his name and he is resentful of the other two. At some point, he wants to impress his girlfriend (so she won’t kick him out) and he starts a business by borrowing from a loan shark (enter Wolf)….
And, we’re off to the races. Now we have an idea! The point here is not that this would be an excellent story or not—we have no idea because a story like that is in the telling and the details. In fact, we could all write this exact same story and none would be the same, which is the great thing about writing. The point here is that if you ever get stuck finding a writing idea, you can always start with a basic skeleton of a well-known tale and, with a little riff session, make it your own.