Science fiction is often described as “the literature of ideas,” as if no other kind of writing includes any, this in spite of the fact that the first question every professional writer, regardless of genre, gets thoroughly sick of is “Where do you get your ideas?” The claim is made proudly and repeatedly, without stopping to consider the inherent implications and assumptions behind it, or the consequences of taking it too literally.
For instance, one writing-advice website quoted that definition, then proceeded to give a three-step approach to writing a speculative fiction story: 1. Get an idea; 2. Do some research, 3. Decide where to submit your story. The entire article includes a passing reference to science fiction needing to be about people in some way, but not one word about plot, dialog, or, indeed, actually writing the story. Most of the article is devoted to where you should get your ideas and how to use the Internet for all that research. Because if science fiction is the Literature of Ideas, then the idea is obviously the most important thing in the story.
There are a number of problems with this:
- Ideas are the easy part.
- An idea alone is not a story.
- A great idea does not automatically provide all the other things a story needs to have.
- Overall execution has far more to do with a story’s success than the coolness or originality or importance of the basic idea.
Let’s start with point #1: Ideas are the easy part. They’re all over. Where some would-be writers trip up on this is that they don’t realize that there’s more than one kind of idea – one can have an idea for a puzzle, for a character, for a situation, for a plot, for a structure…for pretty much any of the various aspects of a story. If you limit yourself to one kind of idea – if you think that “getting an idea” only counts if it’s a “What if X happens…” or “If this goes on…” type of idea – then you may not notice that you have ideas for six interesting characters and for three completely different and really fascinating settings. Which brings me to point number two.
It doesn’t actually matter whether you have a “What if…” idea or a character idea or a situation idea. Whatever you have, it’s bound to be missing some pieces. Your characters need a plot and a setting; your “What if…” undoubtedly needs one or more of characters, plot, setting; your situation needs characters and a plot. All of them need scenes and style, tension and pacing, a beginning, middle, and ending. Most will need dialog and narrative and structure. They need, in short, all of the things that go into a story, only one of which is the idea.
Point three is that none of the things that your idea still needs came along automatically with the initial idea. If they did, you wouldn’t still need them. The writer has to develop them somehow – whether by plunging in and making it up as they go, or by painstakingly working everything out in advance before sitting down to write – and then the writer has to actually write the story. Somewhere in here is where the hard part comes in for the vast majority of writers. For some, it’s in the “making the rest of it up” part; for others, it’s in the “writing it down” part, but either way, the hard part is the stuff that didn’t come along with The Idea.
Point four is one that ought to be evident to anyone who’s done a lot of reading, especially in SF. A brilliant idea, surrounded by boring narrative, uninteresting characters, flat dialog, and a plot full of holes is not a brilliant story. It’s a diamond in the rough that’s been baked into a clay brick, and even those readers who realize there’s a diamond in there somewhere are not going to be drawn to the story or recommend it to their friends. Not when there are plenty of diamonds that have been cut so that they gleam, set in gold or silver or platinum that displays them perfectly to their best advantage.
Taken together, what all this means is that a science fiction writer – like every other kind of writer – has to pay attention to all the parts of each story: plot, theme, characters, setting, situation, dialog, structure, narrative, flow, pacing, tension, style, etc. A writer who does a fabulous job on all the parts of the story except the idea has a high probability of producing something that will not only sell, but will also be recognized as high quality. A story that has nothing going for it but a cool idea is unlikely to sell at all; if it does, the best comment it’s likely to garner is “Boy, that could have been a cool story if that writer had known what he/she was doing.”