Your Ideas Aren’t That Interesting


I know. I know. Already I feel you pulling away. I sense you tensing up, like a flicked sphincter. You’re mad. I can see you’re mad. I get it, you have ideas, and ideas are the backbone of fiction, and dangit, you tell yourself, my ideas are very interesting, that guy doesn’t know. Except, I do know. Your ideas aren’t that interesting.

And here’s the trick:

That’s a good thing.

I don’t intend for this to be a long post, but I see writers lamenting sometimes their lack of ideas, or their inability to fulfill the promise of a premise, or worst of all, I see them hoarding their ideas — as if they shouldn’t even write them into a story lest they screw it up, somehow. This is a piece of advice given to young writers sometimes, right? “Oh, don’t give away your best ideas on your early work.” Which is so fucking strange to me, it’s like, “Don’t start off on a strong foot, instead, snap your ankle and run on that, instead.”

Listen, in this house, we recognize that ideas are not gemstones.

They are costume jewelry. Trinkets, at best.

We do a lot of work as writers forcibly filling parts of our job with a kind of mythic importance, a bold magic that feels hard to deny — THE MUSE and MY IDEAS and THE PROSE said with a rolled ‘r’ — and mostly, that’s a huge disservice. It doesn’t seem like it is, it seems like we’re just trying to recognize the majesty of what we do, but in the day-to-day, that makes it very hard to just get stuff done. It’s so much harder when you imagine that you’re performing surgery on a snowflake than if you’re just digging a latrine, you know? And it’s not that I want to say that writing your book is just like digging out some kind of caveman toilet — it’s not. It’s more important than that. It’s more mysterious and more magical than that. But it’s important not to give it too much power, you feel me? If you are overwhelmed by that magic, that mystery…

….you’ll find yourself paralyzed by the haughty significance of it all.

Which can happen with how you regard your ideas, as well.

We like to believe that ideas are the most interesting thing about our work.

And, by proxy, that they are the most interesting thing about us, the author.

They ain’t.

The idea is valuable as a stepping stone. It’s useful as a springboard. Sometimes a really interesting idea is the first strong rung in the ladder, sure. But that is all that it is. It’s a hook. It’s a twist. It’s a notion. It is not the backbone of the work. It is not the blood and heart of the thing. It’s not what makes your story interesting. Sure, a good idea might nudge people to check out your story, if the idea is easily encapsulated in a sentence or two, but it’s not what keeps us there. What keeps us there are characters with problems, what keeps us there are not simply core hooks but things that go deeper than mere ideas: hopes, dreams, wishes, fears, arguments, and the unruly thoughts you wrestle with at 3AM. What keeps us there is an interesting journey, a compelling problem, a fascinating escalation of conflict and question, and pages that have more to say than the plot that falls upon them.

Story is so much more than an idea.

An idea is the door to the house, not the house. In some cases it’s not even the door, it’s the fucking doorknob. It might be pretty. It might not. But it’s just there to get you inside, okay?

Expect less from your ideas, and less from yourself when it comes to those ideas — and again we’re speaking about inciting ideas, core ideas, not larger and unrulier ideas like theme and argument. I hear writers lamenting that they don’t have any good ideas? Fuck that. Just think of a character. Think of a character that interests you. A character that has a problem you find compelling and, in some ways, upsetting. That’s a way to begin. If you’re afraid to “give away” your ideas into a story on the chance you don’t do it justice? Hell with that. The idea is there to do you justice, not the other way around. Lead the idea, don’t let it lead you.

All right, carry on.

*shoos you out of the house*

* * *

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19 responses to “Your Ideas Aren’t That Interesting”

  1. The book IDEA (Long subtitle I can’t recall) by Erik Bork discusses ideas and how to work them to see if it’s worth pursuing. Backs up some points here.

  2. Perfect timing! I’ve been struggling with the writing of a short story for the last few days and I couldn’t figure out why it just wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. Then I got up this morning and read your post and had experienced a head-slapping “Aha” moment. I was writing about the IDEA for the story – not about the characters, their problem and the conflict inherent in their journey. So – thank you a hundred times over. Now I can back on track!

  3. Chuck, can I call you Chuck? Chuck, after unflicking my sphincter I finished reading this post and I hated it. Not, probably, for the reason you think. Or maybe it is, I dunno, you seem to be a wee, tiny bit prescient sometimes. What really hit home were those three words, “characters with problems”. You see, I have this problem where I tend to, I guess, always take the shortest path between two points. Usually, in life, that’s NOT a problem. I’ve worked in I.T. for a looong time, and this serves me well. Things are broken in technology, finding that shortest path usually means finding the quickest fix to getting stuff working again. Or maybe architecting an environment specifically designed to NOT fail. Either way, quickest path, least distractions, minimal B.S. Writing? Oh, writing. Writing should be right in line with this, except, it’s not. It is, but it’s not. I need my characters to sometimes make that bad decision, to choose the path of most resistance, to pick the fight, walk in to the dark room, pick that dirty quarter up off the ground and stick it in your mouth goddammit!

    I read another of your posts recently about some of your past work, and you nonchalantly threw “I.T. Manager” in to the list. It’s been itching at the inside of my skull ever since. I keep thinking, “wait, wait, wait, maybe Chuck has worked through this same issue”. So I would like to ask, is this something you’ve struggled with? If so, do you have any advice for getting your characters to get themselves in to those problematic situations in a believable way?

    Like Miriam (I just finished Vultures, btw, and it was AWESOME!!) at least, I think I get her deal, she’s got her personality quirks. Hell, she KNOWS what her quirks are. She runs at the mouth when she’s nervous and swears like a sailor wishes they could swear. She backs out of structured situations. She tries to push good people away if they get too close. All those are rife with conflict opportunities. Did you start out with painting her this way and wrap the story around her? Was it the other way around? Or option 3 that I don’t know about?

    • Not really a problem I dealt with just because I’m a bad person who enjoys tormenting his characters. 🙂

      Problems and conflicts drive fiction, and it’s what makes it interesting to us — because we as people are ultimately flawed, too. And flaws build that empathic bridge better than merits, because we don’t always see the merits in ourselves.

      • I see what you’re saying, I get what you’re laying down. The bad stuff? It’s the good stuff. I’ve got a companion to the main character in my story. They’ve got problems out the wazoo; issues, desires, personality flaws, AN AGENDA. I’ve been thinking about them a lot in light of your advice, and right now they would probably be a better protagonist than my protagonist! My protagonist is a cardboard cutout compared to this other person. Damn. Damndamndamn.

        Thank you, sir.

    • I’ve never been an I.T. person, but I still had/have this problem.
      You know how they say you should get your character up a tree and throw rocks at them? Well, it helps to pile up a nice heap of rocks before you start, instead of wandering round going “is this a rock? No, looks like a turnip…” and so on, while your character reclines at their ease in the tree, munching apples. Bonus points if you find a rock that fits perfectly into the topography of your character’s skull.

  4. Amen. I always think that the freer you are with your ideas the more pop up. The best attitude is surely summed up in the pus phrase, there are plenty more where that came from.

    Cheers

    MTM

      • LOL I was wondering about that. I was like, is this some new social-media code word that I’ve overlooked? 🙂

        Not too long ago I wrote a novella in which a character thanked another character for taking his work seriously. She responded (in effect) anybody can have an idea. The idea isn’t what’s important. It’s the EXECUTION.

        Or to paraphrase Werner Herzog, grab your stuff and go make the movie.

  5. Thank you for this! I’ve been stalled for a while, and this has been one of my hangups. I’ve been needing to hear this for a while.

  6. It’s always a great reminder when you hear that you and your ideas really aren’t that great. As noted, ideas are just the beginning. They need to be polished, nurtured, and…well, you know the drill. Keep writing.

  7. Thanks for this Chaz. I’ve been perching on a brilliant idea for three goddamn years, wringing my hands over how to make my idea the story. I dig into my old writing bookmarks, find the Wendig, peep an article and you’ve helped. Just like always. Forrills. Thanks Chaz.

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