If you spend enough time around writers, or talking to writers, or reading forums where writers can congregate, you will eventually hear someone say something along the lines of “I want to write, but I don’t have any good ideas,” or, alternatively, “I’m working on this right now, but I’m not sure that the idea is any good”.
A “good idea” is, for writing, like having a fancy pen or using a top of the line word processor or having an outline – it’s nice to have, but if you don’t have it you can still write just fine. So many authors are held back by the waiting for the perfect idea, without realizing that any idea can develop into a great story. So here are three reasons that you shouldn’t obsess over the quality of the core idea.
1) You Have More Ideas Than You Know
There are a lot of assumptions people make about what constitutes an idea. For realistic fiction, ideas are often associated with plot – if someone says they don’t have a good idea, that means they don’t think they have a good plot. In genre fiction, idea is often instead used to mean both setting and plot. The thing is, sitting down to write a novel and expecting to have a full plot worked out – or an entire world and plot – is a near impossible task. Working on those parts of the story are the things you can do once you’ve started writing.
Now, that’s not to say you can’t have a world or plot serve as an idea, in their simplest form. A one sentence summary of the core plot or the most interesting world element? Those are absolutely ideas. Some writers do have most of the their plot and/or world figured out before they really start writing…but we don’t all work that way. The danger is in assuming that if you don’t have those things figured out, you don’t have an idea that can start a story. An idea is any element you can base a story around. Now, that can be a plot, it could be setting, but it could also be literally anything else.
Do you have a character you want to write about? Good news, you have an idea. Do you want to write a story to explore a specific theme? That’s also a great idea! How about wanting to adapt something from history into a story? That’s such a good idea, Isaac Asimov did that when writing the Foundation series – he wanted to write the Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic, but with fewer men in togas and more spaceships. Did you have a dream that had a cool image or moment? Author’s dreams brought us Frankenstein, Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the original Terminator. Do you want to write a story for a specific person? Stephen King wrote Eyes of the Dragon because he wanted to write something his daughter would read, since she didn’t like his other stories.
And if you don’t have ideas, there are ideas all around you.
What do the Star Wars movies and the Warcraft video games have in common? (Besides being massively popular, that is.) Every single one of those works started out as being, essentially, an attempt to adapt something else. George Lucas has said on numerous occasions that the original plan for Star Wars was to remake the Flash Gordon television shows. Blizzard Entertainment was originally in talks with Games Workshop to create a Warhammer real time strategy game. When those talks fell apart, they made Warcraft instead. When both creators couldn’t work in the franchise they wanted, they put their own spin on it. Blizzard cut out every race (originally) besides the titular Orcs and Humans and made the Orcs extradimensional invaders. George Lucas cut out some of the camp and 1930’s attitudes from Flash Gordon and added in laser swords.
These creators started with something that existed, realized the story they wanted to tell, and made it uniquely theirs. I’m not saying you should copy someone else’s story, but you can absolutely draw inspiration from them!
So yeah, don’t worry that you “don’t have an idea”. You absolutely do; you just may not realize it.
2) Execution is Everything
Image for a minute it’s the year 2000. The hottest thing in science fiction is the Matrix series, the superhero movie craze was just beginning, and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace had just come out to a resounding “meh”. Now imagine I told you that by 2017 one of the biggest movie franchises in science fiction would be a movie about a rag-tag group of misfits that include a human manchild, a stereotypical action girl with green skin, an alien that couldn’t understand metaphors, a talking racoon, and a talking tree with a limited vocabulary. Oh, and the movie would be based on a comic book series most people had never read, and set to a soundtrack of the 80’s greatest hits.
You’d think I was crazy.
I remember, right up until the movie came out, thinking that Marvel had lost their minds. An ongoing joke between me and a friend of mine was that there was someone in Marvel’s planning sessions, just constantly checking to make sure that everyone remembered they were making a space opera with a talking racoon. (My friend and I both love the Guardians comics,and even we were skeptical.) Yet Guardians of the Galaxy has become one of the runaway hits to emerge from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it was because they executed it so well.
The myth of a “good idea” is the snake oil of the writing world. You can make something amazing out of what seems to be a stupid idea. You just have to do it well.
Drew Hayes, author of Super Powereds, wrote a great post about the nature of ideas. He said, “My real target for this one is all the writers out there struggling because they’ve got it in their head that there will be some huge ‘Idea’ that comes down from the mountain and be unmistakable for anything but solid gold.” He makes that point that ideas don’t always start off sounding good.
In fact, almost any story sounds stupid if you get reductionist enough. “Group of badasses fight each other and then fight aliens and learn about friendship” doesn’t sound like an amazing idea, but Avengers is one of my favorite movies. “Tiny man with hairy feet must throw evil jewelry into a volcano to save the world” sounds like a terrible idea, but Lord of the Rings is one of the most enduring works of fiction in existence.
Your ideas won’t always start off amazing. You have to nurture and grow them as you write them, and by the end of it you will have something incredible.
3) Ideas Grow Out of Writing
On this one, I speak from experience.
When I started writing Weird Theology, I had no clear outline and wasn’t sure when it was going. The story started as a response to an online writing prompt. I had an image in mind of “Orion’s Belt’ from Men in Black and wanted to do something with that image. The series that came from this, is modern mythology, but I didn’t decide to write about gods until I need to name the villain and thought it would be fun to name this brute after the Babylonian god of intelligence and craft. That thought exploded into a central concept for everything that came after, but I had been writing for a while before that. My point is that I didn’t have a “good idea” to start. I didn’t know what I was doing at first.
I didn’t have ideas until I started writing, but once they started coming they didn’t stop. Some I didn’t come up with until the end of the first draft and had to go back and edit into the story. Some of them I had to put aside for later because they didn’t fit the novel. Those ideas started to pinball and spun off into seeds for other stories, other worlds. So if you’re worried you don’t have any “good ideas,” here’s my number one piece of advice:
Pick something, anything, and write about it. It could be about an experience you had that day. It could be fanfic. It could be an utterly generic sword and sorcery fantasy or coming of age in rural America. It could be from a prompt. Don’t worry about how good the idea is. Write it, refine it, make it yours, and I promise you the ideas will come. By the time you’re done you’ll have made something that is uniquely yours, and you’ll be bursting to the brim with ideas you couldn’t fit into that story but you want to put into future works.
And if you think an idea is stupid, remember that the Sharknado franchise exists. Someone sat down with the idea of “sharks in a tornado” and has made six movies.
I think your idea will do fine.
Do you have any ideas you’re toying with? Or maybe you have other examples of crazy ideas that worked? Let me know in the comments!
4 thoughts on “3 Reasons A Good Idea Is Optional”
As someone who always get the craziest story and art ideas out of nowhere and dismiss it like, “Eh, that’s not good,” this post is incredibly reassuring. I love that you pointed out examples of what most people see as successful franchises. Something I’m trying to do more is idea capturing, where I either sketch or write what comes to mind and, when I feel the “dead end of the idea, simply save it to reread or fully sketch in another day. Awesome post, Alex!
Thanks a ton! I think the idea of idea capturing is a great one – I have a google doc I use for the same purpose, although I just call it “the bucket.” I like your name a lot better! It’s a great way to hold on to those flashes of inspiration.
Oh but “the bucket” sounds casual though! Like, “Alright, I’m chucking this into the bucket.” 😄 And it is! It’s just sometimes, I forget about chucking it into my bucket and rely more on my unreliable mind to keep a mental note.
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