Wasted Potential - Making the Most of a Workable Idea

>> Friday, May 27, 2011

Even the best and/or most original idea isn't enough to make a story great. There are many ingredients to cooking up a great story, but before we start sautéing characters, seasoning up the story with settings and details and scheduling plot elements, you need to know if you've completed the work on the idea itself.

Say what?

Like the caliber and cut of meat makes a difference in how it's prepared and what you can do with it, an idea needs to be fully understood and conceptualized to get the most of it. Before you take an idea and start scribbling, you might want to ask yourself what you want to say with this idea, where you want it to go and what the appropriate scope is for the story that comes out of it. Maybe not in that order. Or maybe.

What do you want to say? I've mentioned before that I think a story, of any length, should have something to say. Not necessarily a moral, but, in my opinion, messages are brought forward as part and parcel of a story where characters grow and events take place. I've talked about this before and I maintain that a story with nothing to say is probably not worth the time to read it. I'm not pro-sermon; I just don't even know how you tell a story without imparting some sort of message. I think it happens whether you intend it to or not, with how your characters grow and what happens to them In my opinion, you should be aware of this, cognizant, so you're imparting the messages you want.

What kind of messages? Anything can be a message and a message don't have to be "good." Your message might be "Life isn't fair," or "No one can be trusted," or "Everyone has a price." Many books that touch on murder or war have those kind of lessons as part of messages that come with it. It might be "Love stinks." It might be that being happy is worthwhile for itself ("Entertainment for its own sake"). An idea can lend itself to social commentary like gender/racial/religious/philosophical differences and/or tolerance. Done with care, you might be able to illuminate both sides of the issue (since many issues are not black and white). It might be half a dozen related things. But you should know what concepts you want to pursue and promote that fall out of that original idea. I like to, anyway.

Where does the idea lead? Many a great idea has been murdered ignominiously by a poor understanding of realistic implications. Events and repercussions what followed from the original premise were either so unnatural or nonsensical that the useful cleverness of the original idea was lost in the stupidity. If what you want to say and the idea and its realistic consequences are at odds, you the writer either need to change what you want to say, change your idea or you're going to have a mess. That doesn't mean that there is only one path for the idea to progress, or that one set of realistic consequences exist per idea, but what falls out of the original idea has to makes sense, has to follow along lines that seem reasonable, even if the original idea is fantastic.

Understanding the implications of your idea from the get go can also do a great deal to help determine what kind of characters you need, where they'll be going and who they'll be facing. It's a little extra effort up front but far better than trying to force a story in the wrong direction later on or finding oneself on a path that leads...nowhere.

What is the scope of the idea? Some ideas are big and sweeping, so big with so many opportunities that a single book can't even do it justice. Even an in-depth character study and growth of a primary character can drive a series of books. Sometimes, though, the idea is more an single event or image, a circumstance that make one go, "What if XXX happened?" The magnitude and impact of such ideas might expand to fill a book (okay, or more than one book) or might be fully explored in the course of a short story or play.

So, how do you know? Well, I don't think there's one rule. Everyone doesn't work the same way. However, there are some things I ask myself. First of all, it makes a difference if this is a story that involves a large group of people rather than being tightly focuses on one or two. What I mean is that, if the story is completely centered on two people with other characters being minor to the central story, I'm not planning a series of books. If I'm focused on just a couple (since romance is frequently an element), chances are I'm thinking of a stand alone book or a short story. Ensemble casts, however, especially with multiple key characters, lend themselves to sagas. Similarly, if what I'm trying to say is complex and sweeping and has many contradictory facets, chances are it's more than I can manage in a short story and may drive more than one book.

Despite my not being a planner, I usually take a bit up front to understand an idea when I get it, where it's going, what it tells me (that I might impart to the reader) and how big an idea it really is. Sometimes, I get surprised, but mostly it lets me start out on the right foot toward telling the story I think the idea merits.

3 comments:

  • jeff king
     

    Great read… really it was. You made me think a lot about what I am trying to say, your information was, and is, integral to my development as a writer.

    I appreciate your time and effort that you put into these “lessons” for lack of a better word; they do speak of issue all writers need to know.

    thx

  • Shakespeare
     

    I think of it as a theme, not really a statement as much as a question. With my first novel--and with the novels which will be sequels to it, since I have a six-book series planned--I'm dealing with the ideas of destiny, belief, and knowledge. How can we know what we know? How can we be certain? Do we wait for absolute knowledge (if it even exists), or do we act even while we know we could be making a mistake?

    My current novel (#4) deals with speaking--is it a risk to speak, when even the act of speaking can do damage, or do we have to speak to truly live, even when what we communicate has the power to destroy?

    I find that my characters fall all along the spectrum of the question. And readers (and even I) do not have to agree with any of the characters, in the same way that very few readers would agree with Gulliver's behavior at the end of Gulliver's Travels. They might recognize their own tendencies, though, in the actions or words of a character or two.

    Fascinating post. Really got me thinking about my words and what I've been reading lately.

  • Stephanie Barr
     

    You know, I think this is important enough I might just write a side post about examples. I know a common theme that runs through all my novels is that who you are is much more important that what you are. But I have little things along the way, too. Tander learns things about responsibility along his way, including having something precious means you have something to lose. And turning your back on skills that can help you for pride is stupid. Layla learns sometimes she has to ask for help, etc.

    Every character that grows during the course of a novel has a story to tell and something to impart. Every relationship involves people who teach each other things (or the relationship isn't important and stagnates).

    An idea or premise of a story can set up a big thematic lesson, emphasize it or it can merely be a forum for messages to be built. I just think it helps to understand what the premise itself might suggest before you get started.

    And I also want to caution people. Sometimes, I think writers don't really appreciate the lessons they've unconsciously imparted with their work. If a writer wants to impart an intolerant or cynical message, there's nothing inherently wrong with that; I'm not sure that writers who do that even know they are. Like the rapist-embracing romance novelists, for instance.

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