Today marks the 30th Anniversary of Jurassic Park's theatrical release. I was almost six, and my childhood 'dinosaur phase' was in full-swing thanks to a trip to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. While the film - along with its merchandizing campaign - won my instant [lifelong] affection, it would be another two years before I learned about the brain behind Jurassic Park. No, I'm not talking about Steven Spielberg. I'm talking about the man who dreamed it all up: the incomparable Michael Crichton. While most of the celebrating this 'Jurassic June' will be focused on the dinosaur-sized pop culture repercussions of the 1993 film, it's Crichton's memory I'd like to honor. Without Crichton's story, I would not have taken an interest in writing. The very words on this web page would, in all probability, cease to exist. A man who will forever remain a complete stranger to me provided that spark of inspiration through his words. He ended up on my 'hero board' in second grade while other kids were building shrines to Wolverine and Tommy the green Power Ranger. If I had to make a hero board today, Crichton would still be seated front and center. From the very day I pulled an article about him for that board, his philosophies have been a guiding force in my life. Rather than offer my own writing thoughts, I've curated a short list of Crichtonian wisdom to honor the adventure that was 65 million years in the making.
Seek Direct Experience
"I eventually realized that direct experience is the most valuable experience I can have. Western man is so surrounded by ideas, so bombarded with opinions, concepts, and information structures of all sorts, that it becomes difficult to experience anything without the intervening filter of these structures. And the natural world — our traditional source of direct insights — is rapidly disappearing." –Michael Crichton
Roughly sixteen years ago, there was a story on Crichton's website that exemplified how direct experience helped his idea for Jurassic Park along. In the 1993 documentary The Real Jurassic Park, Crichton explains how he initially had the 'dinosaur resurrection' portion of his idea as far back as 1981. His original concept: a graduate student manages to clone a pterodactyl with DNA retrieved from insects in amber. The continuity issue? Money. It would have taken billions of dollars in technology and equipment to accomplish such a feat in the early 1980s. So, he sat on the idea - put it on the back-burner and let it simmer.
In a quote published for his website in 2006, Crichton recalled how, a few years after having the pterodactyl idea, he and his daughter were on their way to the zoo. It was his daughter's first trip, and they'd last visited the museum. According to Crichton, she asked him if they were going to see any dinosaurs at the zoo. And so, the amusement park concept landed, solving the story's funding problem. It's also a perfect example of his advice at work. Crichton wasn't locked in a dark room typing when he solved that problem... he was out seeking direct experiences.
Let Your Characters Talk
"...my stories are not character driven. Usually I have the story first, and make the characters follow the story I have prepared for them. Sometimes the characters refuse. They can be troublesome. For example, in Jurassic Park Ian Malcolm wouldn’t shut up. I wanted him to say a paragraph or two, but instead he rambled on for 4 or 5 pages! And I would look at this stuff and think, it’s pretty good, but I don’t really need all this."
Even if you only use half of what a character spews in a first draft, don't muzzle them. Listen to your characters and let them talk. They can be polished or reigned in for subsequent drafts, but it's important to let them breathe. If Crichton hadn't let Dr. Malcolm ramble, the world might have missed out on its most beloved fictional chaotician!
It is also important to note that Crichton is specifically talking about how he gets his ideas. So, when he says his stories are not character driven, he's not suggesting that his characters are two-dimensional. He is merely discussing how story ideas develop in his writing process.
Know Your History
"If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree."
This one speaks for itself.
Let It Simmer
"I first started writing [Jurassic Park] in 1981, and I put the project aside because at that time, there seemed to be an enormous mania about dinosaurs in America, and I did not want the book to appear to ride a current fashion. But the fashion never went away. Finally I realized that the fascination with dinosaurs was permanent. It is always there."
Crichton didn't believe in forcing a story. He allowed each project to gestate in the lab for as long as it needed, even disregarding his normal writing habits with some projects, such as Timeline. Sometimes the best version of your story is the one you aren't quite ready to tell yet. If the idea is good, and it sticks with you, then eventually things will fall into place. Don't force it.
For more brief insights into Michael Crichton's writing process, we highly recommend the FAQ on his website: https://www.michaelcrichton.com/faq/