voldeySo I’ve been doing a lot of school talks and lectures lately on the subject of writing, and yesterday was the start of National Novel Writing Month, which technically as it’s now a global phenomena should be called International Novel Writing Month or InNoWriMo. And one of the questions I get asked most (even above ‘how much do you make’ and ‘are you Stan lee’s son’) is ‘where do you get your ideas from’. Now, I do have a stock answer to this, I usually explain that I have a child chained up in my cellar and, whenever I need a new idea I open the door, yell ‘Tell me a story!‘ and get instant inspiration.

This of course is a lie.

But the truth of the matter is that I create my ideas in much the same way as everyone else – by utilising the Coulda Shoulda Wouldas.

Yes, I know that Tony Lee and the Coulda Shoulda Wouldas sounds like a fifties pop act, but it’s how I, and in fact many creators come up with ideas. It’s not the only way to come up with ideas, not by a long shot – but, when you’re watching a TV show, a film, reading a book or comics, these are the times when the Coulda Shoulda Wouldas help you. The moments in a tale where you consider things that could have happened, should have happened, and if you were writing it? Sure as hell would have happened.

We’ve all done it – watched a film, read a book and at the end gone ‘that was great – but the ending sucked.’ Or ‘it was okay, but I loved the scene in the [insert location here]!’ These are the ideas that a writer takes, moulds, crafts. The simple fact that you’ve highlighted a moment means that you’ve considered alternative scenarios. And more importantly, that these alternative scenarios could become something unique and brilliant in their own right.

‘Harry Potter was brilliant, but I hated him at the end, so whiny and rubbish. I wish Voldemort won instead.’

Coulda Shoulda Woulda: The boy wizard failed in his destiny. The world is in perpetual darkness, death eaters rule the cities. Who will step up and take on the challenge of ending Voldemort’s reign? It’s fan fiction, but if you change the names, change the locations, take the base idea and mould it, it suddenly isn’t. When stripped to it’s core, Alien is a monster in a haunted house story. What could this become?

‘I Liked Twilight, but I really hated Bella. I wish Edward had run off with Jacob.’

Coulda Shoulda Woulda: Two men travel the world, a love that dare not speak it’s name on so many levels. Can a Vampire truly love a Werewolf? And can Jacob truly be more than Man’s Best Friend? Change the names. Take the scenario. It’s a same-sex Romeo and Juliet for the Urban Fantasy / Horror generation.

‘I liked Twilight, but I hated Bella and Edward. I wish they weren’t in it.’

Coulda Shoulda Woulda: Now it’s the story of the wacky Cullen family, and their friends the Native American Werewolves. They play baseball. A lot.

You get my point.

Fifty Shades of Grey was a Twilight Coulda Shoulda Woulda and had no issues with stating this to the world to gain the Twi-Hard market on their side – but most of the time when something is inspired in such a way the label’s completely removed off the tin, and you can only just work out where it’s from.

But creating an idea doesn’t mean ‘take a story, change the ending and make it your own’, because that’s lazy storytelling. Find the moment, the scene that really calls to you and work from that. I loved Heat, the movie with Pacino and De Niro, but the scene that blew me away was the diner scene, where they finally sit and talk, each a professional, each knowing that down the line? It’s going to get bad. That scene was golden. And, watching it, I knew that it could be used for so many other things, that over the years it had been used for so many other things.

The Superhero and his Nemesis, in a calm before the storm.

The enemy soldiers, in the calm before the dawn.

By having that ‘wow, I really want to do something like that’ moment, you then start working around that moment. The ‘What if’ comes to light. What if the character had chosen a different route? What if they hadn’t been killed in Act Two? What if they had?

Take a film. Any film. Change one moment of one scene for better or worse and see what happens. What would have happened if Ben Kenobi had lived in Star Wars? How would that have affected Luke? Would it have stunted or enhanced his skills? What if Han Solo did leave, and the Death Star blew up Yavin? What if Luke had died with his Uncle and Aunt? How would those worlds have altered?

These are the Coulda Shoulda Wouldas. And within these insane, mad ‘what if’ stories, that’s where you’ll find the nugget of your idea. Watching Torchwood, and wondering how they’d be able to do the things they did if they had a typical Government budget led me to create The Ministry of Unnatural Things. Wondering how the legend of Robin Hood would have changed if Robin died in Jerusalem, led to the YA novel pitch Rahbin Hood. An annoyance at Dracula’s cack-handed slaying at the end of the novel started me thinking – and after re-reading Dracula’s Guest with this in mind, I wrote From the Pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Harker. A ‘what if’ about Oliver Twist meeting Dodger years later led to Dodge & Twist.

Coulda. Shoulda. Woulda. We all have them, nestling deep in our subconsciousness. The trick is to gather them up, to coax them into the light.

And that’s where the true skill of the writer begins…