Wasted Potential - Sifting Out Good Ideas

>> Monday, May 23, 2011

When one talks about the potential of a project, people, writers and readers, often assume it's all about the original idea, the premise behind the story. That's only part of the story and it's a big part, but, the premise that gets the story started is only part of it because it's not just the idea, but what you want to do with it that's important. That's key to everything else in your story.

I've never spent much time talking about generating ideas because (a) writer how-to books frequently devote tons and tons of time and effort into how to get ideas and (b) generating ideas is not and never has been my problem. If I wrote to fruition every workable idea I've come up with to date, I'd be busy, 24/7, for three or four lifetimes at least. And I expect to come up with more ideas. However, the devotion to coming up with ideas makes it pretty clear that it's not that easy for everyone. Moreover, getting an idea doesn't equate with success; you have to know how to tell a good idea from one that stinks and you need to understand how an idea must be filled in and completed to make the story work.

I joke, since I'm a character driven author, that I often start with a premise and throw my characters into it, while I sit back and take notes. I do that but it's also an oversimplification partially because that's funnier and partially because my subconscious does most of the real work. It only works if you know what you're trying to say with your idea, and if you've worked the idea to effectively say what you want it to say. Your characters have to align with this, too, but I'll touch on them a different post.

The idea has to be plausible. Not real-world plausible, but fiction world plausible. So, since it's fiction, anything's plausible, right? No. There's physical world plausible (and that can be twisted and skewed in fantasy and paranormal work fairly easily) and, more importantly, societal plausibility. You can start from almost any point in the world, any realm, but the idea and premise have to make sense within that framework. The weirder the starting point, the more assiduous you must be in making the rest of it make sense within that realm (unless you're writing strictly broad comedy). I've touched on this notion before here, here and here. Well, it still holds.

Every world, every place in the time/space continuum has rules, whether or not they resemble the ones here or not. The fewer here-and-now real world rules you use, the more you have to make up and follow. If you write historical fiction, you are even more constrained (or one of those hacks that make me hate to read much of today's historical fiction). So the idea has to be plausible within the paradigm you're writing. Note that "real world" doesn't have to be limited to "American." Just sayin'.

An easy way to test a notion (even a wild fantasy notion, since we're talking societal plausibility at least) is to look at history. Has what you're envisioning or an analog ever occurred? Did it ever go the way you'd envisioned? If yes, you can safely say your idea is plausible (though you need to be aware of the circumstances that made it so - more on this later). If not, you've got to sit down with yourself and make sure you understand the reasoning on why it's plausible in your case. If you think it would be "cool," "should" have happened that way but didn't or is just necessary to further your plot, history and logic bedamned, you might want to rewind or reboot. You've failed the plausibility test.

But, even if history shows examples of the same sort of idea leading in the direction you're going, beware. If you have a fairly agnostic society, for instance, don't set up a Spanish Inquisition type scenario unless you have an equally mind-numbing conscience-soothing philosophy with a similar amount of power to religion. Patriotism can work (think Nazis), but you need to understand what's been done to use it. Fortunately, history has many examples. It's your responsibility to ensure that your idea, your notion, your paradigm makes sense in its own context. Don't cheat on this. Don't skimp. Don't shrug this off. Start a story have a crappy idiotic premise (and, yes, it can be done), you'll have to work extra hard to get anything worthwhile out of it. On the other hand, frequently, the germ of a notion, with a little research and thought, can be made into a very workable believable premise. Ideally, you want to start with something like that, something that makes sense without you, the writer, having to expend tons of extra time justifying it.

Bottom line, if you have to spend more time explaining why your premise works than describing the premise, start over.

"Never before seen." Many people get excited over a unique idea because "no one's ever done it before." Well, rein in a second there. First, don't count on it never having been done before. Chances are, someone somewhere has done something like whatever you're thinking about. I mean, there have been a lot of people born and dreaming in this world. But, whether it's truly original or just so rare it feels unique, that doesn't make it a good idea.

One reason you might not have heard about it (if someone else has also thought of it) is that it was just a bad idea. Yes, that happens. If you've no indication that anyone has ever done anything like that, make sure you think long and hard about whether or not that means the idea is a real stinker.

But it might also be a great idea that's challenging to pull off, either because it's complex or confusing or requires extensive know-how or any of a dozen other reasons. If a great idea gets butchered by well-meaning hacks enough times, it can be hard for anyone to take it seriously. If you have an idea you think is fantastic and unique, sit down and think it through, make sure you have the knowledge and tools you need to do it justice. More on that in later posts.

Old standby ideas. So, let's say the idea you want to pursue isn't that unique or original. Let's say, in fact, it's been done to death. Should you stop? Not necessarily. Pretty much 99% of the most successful works done this past century are based on tried and true ideas, things that have been done before. But (and it's a big but), the authors/directors/producers put their own unique spin on those old ideas and made them fresh and approachable.

Classic concepts and ideas are that way because they have broad if not universal appeal, because they build on universal truths and human nature. But, if you don't have a unique take on it, a unique twist, a clever variation, you'll just be telling a story that someone's already told. Seriously. And that's not good.

The more classic and timeless your notion, the more effort it is to make it special, unique and interesting. Making it entertaining is always good, but, if you want to make it something special, you're going to have to add something new or give it a serious makeover. You'd best do your research to make sure your clever and unique twist isn't a rehash of someone else's.

Make sure the idea appeals. Having a cool unique idea or a clever take on a classic idea, however plausible, isn't enough, though. It needs to have appeal, speak to someone (at least you). As a writer, you're going to be spending a great deal of time with the idea and characters supporting this idea - it better be something you like or you're not going to enjoy yourself. But, even if it's entirely your kind of thing, if you're hoping to get someone to read it, you need to think about what will appeal to others as well. Who is your target audience? What about your idea do you think will appeal to them? What will the reader identify with or find compelling? If you don't know, you ought to. At least know what makes it appeal to you.

But the getting the germ of the idea, the premise, isn't enough. You've got to make that idea into something and figure out what you're trying to say with it. More on that next post.


  • Shakespeare

    I don't mean to sound bitter, but so many films that rehash old plots and ideas don't do it very well. The patterns are predictable--and often not at all plausible--and all in all neither the journey nor the ending are satisfying. I'd prefer quirky to the same ol' same ol'.

  • Stephanie Barr

    That's part of the impetus. Lee and I saw two movies yesterday. One was a pretty original storyline, but the other took an old idea and old concept and didn't even make it entertaining (Movie: Thor). Lee and I sat in the car and thought of half a dozen ways the concept could have been done and been entertaining or original or clever or meaningful. While the movie itself was none of those things.

    Wasted potential.

  • Stephanie Barr

    And I don't disagree with you that a bad rehashing is a complete waste. But a good rehashing is charming. Front Page was a great movie. His Girl Friday (Cary Grant is always a winner) where Lindy turned female, great twist on the original. Switching Channels, moving it into the world of modern day media (and bringing in a charming and beautiful rival) worked, too.

    What's less effective is the old "Boy meets girl, they go through tribulations and end up together" storylines. Can it still work? Yes, but you have to clever. Instead, Hollywood just shuffles in different stars to the same story and wonders why romantic comedies are never big hits.

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