Six impossible things

Ideas, and…

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:

  1. Ideas are the easy part.
  2. An idea alone is not a story.
  3. A great idea does not automatically provide all the other things a story needs to have.
  4. 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.”

14 Comments
  1. I’m *already* tired of people who seem to think that all there is to writing a book is getting a good idea, and I’m not even published yet. (I’m sure this bodes well for how I will react to those sorts of questions in the future).

  2. I’ve often used the jewelry analogy when talking about ideas versus stories. Here’s my Frequently Asked Questions from a little brochure I wrote back in 2010:

    A Writer’s FAQ

    Where do you get your ideas?
    I make them up, out of my head.

    How long did it take you to write xxxx?
    All my life prior to it.

    Why did character X do action Y?
    You’ll have to ask X, because I honestly don’t know. And if I did know why my characters do certain things, I would likely be manipulating them for the sake of the plot, and that never works.

    Will you/Did you put me in your story?
    No. If you think the capable hero is based on you, you’re being narcissistic. If you think the sappy victim is based on you, you’re just feeling sorry for yourself.
    Oh, wait, yes, I did put you in my story. You’re the fellow in the background in scene 53 who has no lines and contributes nothing to the plot. You are killed off camera by a runaway watermelon cart.

    You stole my idea.
    No, I didn’t. But even if I did, you wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Ideas are a dime a dozen and as such cannot be copyrighted. Only copying the specific rendering of an idea is considered plagiarism.

    Why don’t you write stories I like?
    Why don’t you read authors you like?

    I’ve got a great idea for a story. I’ll tell you my idea, and you write it. We’ll split the proceeds fifty-fifty.
    As mentioned above, ideas are a dime a dozen. That makes your idea worth about eight-tenths of one cent. An idea is no more a story than a lump of carbon is a diamond necklace.
    Alternative answer:
    Why don’t I think about a swimming pool, and you dig it for me?

    I’m a writer, too. Will you look at my novel and tell me what you think?
    Yes, but only if the writing isn’t so awful that it makes my eyes bleed. My rate is $60 per hour.
    And I’m a slow reader.

    I sent you a fan letter, but you never responded.
    Sorry, I’ve been kind of busy. Have your people contact my people. They’ll do lunch.

    If I send you a story, will you forward it to your editor?
    I am not an agent, and he is not my editor; if you send him something directly, he’ll be your editor too. Associating my name with your manuscript is in no way going to make him better appreciate your writing.

    But won’t your name on it at least get him to read it?
    No. What will get your manuscript into the hands of an editor is writing good enough to have it passed on by a first reader. Nothing else will suffice.

    Why are all your answers so unhelpful?
    My answers are no less helpful than anything you’ll find in Writer’s Digest. Theirs just sound more helpful.

  3. “Ideas are everywhere. They chase you down the sidewalk. They gank you from dark alleys; they pursue you with forks and with hope. They pounce upon you in the bathtub. I take a sleeping pill every night so the ideas will shut up long enough for me to get to sleep.” [True.] “Occasionally enough ideas land on me at once that I can turn them into a story. One idea, as Heinlein might have put it, if he wasn’t talking about something else, has the approximate value of one more kitten on a Missouri farm.”

    • Who are you quoting? He/she sounds interesting.

      (Heinlein was talking about Martian flat cats in _the Rolling Stones_. That was a fun story.)

      • I’m quoting me, actually. It’s what I would say if somebody asked me where I get ideas. But I’ve said it in the past on USENET.

  4. I’m having a heck of a time trying to turn my idea into a story. Since the idea is a whole economic system for a utopia, I have the setting. I’m just having trouble figuring out the conflict. Does my idea have to be the driver of my conflict, or is it okay to be more of passenger?

  5. I’ve run across quite a few SF writers, who ought to know better, who’ve fallen into this trap of idea-is-all. They talk about trawling news reports as if an odd coincidence of headlines is all you need for a short story to magically appear, or querying a novel as if describing the initial “ooh” of idea that made you want to write it is all you need to sell it. If your particular “ooh” was some nebulous character thing, this doesn’t work so well. 😉

    I have plenty of ideas of the “what if” sort, but for me they’re usually sterile unless they come with a character attached. And even then, if that’s all it took, I’d be knee-deep in completed stories. Unfortunately, there’s that “writing it down” part….

  6. The closest I ever got to writing a one-idea story was when someone on rasf-c challenged us to write a story that took less than 500 words and less than five minutes. It had a countdown to *prove* it took less than five minutes.

    • Five minutes to write, or five minutes to read? Or five minutes internal chronology?

      • Five minutes internal chronology. Probably faster to read. Took a bit longer to write.
        (I can post it, if anybody wants.)

        • I’d be tempted, given that limitation, to write a time-travel story in which the character’s subjective time was longer, but they returned less than five minutes from when they started. But I’m snarky like that.

          (I’d be curious to see it!)

          • Okay.

            The hull was breached, the Ioroni somewhere on board, the klaxon sounding. “There are now five minutes till lifeboat separation. There are now four minutes and fifty seconds till lifeboat separation.” Feet pounding in the corridors, noses counted in the airlock, and nobody could find Pyewacket.

            I didn’t even bother to meet the eye of someone who would have told me ‘No.’ I turned around and ran.

            She wasn’t in the galley. She wasn’t in the lounge. She might be in Hydroponics basking under a sun lamp. All the time my mind kept chanting *This is what makes stupid movies stupid, that with certain alien death stalking the corridors, somebody runs off to find the cat.* She wasn’t in Hydroponics, but a trail of wet
            pawprints led outboard and spinward. Now I could hear other feet pounding in the corridors, heavy feet in chitin plate. “There are now two minutes and thirty seconds till lifeboat separation.” A grey shape just in view, calmly turning the corner. I ran, I bent,
            I snatched her out from under the chelicerae of a startled Ioron and backpedaled. *No one has ever seen them run. Maybe they can’t run fast.*

            But they ran like the wind. One of them came up even with me, ahead of me, raised a mallet claw to crush me: and another came up even faster and brushed its fellow aside with a careless gesture that sent it ringing like a gong against the bulkhead. The mechanism glued to its thorax sputtered. It moaned like a whale song, sputtered again, chirped. It cleared its throat, or whatever it used for a throat, and said, “You gave–” Sputter. “You willed to give–” Chirp. “You risked your life to save a cat.
            Good heavens. You might be human after all.”

            I backed up against the wall, slapped the comm-panel open. “Hold the last lifeboat. They’re talking.” I sagged against it, breathing, while Pyewacket purred and the Ioron raised one delicate feathery palp, cautiously, to rub her ears.

          • Dorothy – *grin* Love it! Because all truly intelligent life forms recognize that their proper place is in service to cats.

  7. Does my idea have to be the driver of my conflict, or is it okay to be more of passenger?

    I’ve seen both done. Hugh Howey (Wool) says to take your shiny idea for the future and then figure out why it doesn’t work, or what circumstances might “break” it. In that sort of a story, the idea and how it breaks down drive the story.

    But it is perfectly possible for your idea to create a nifty setting, and then have your story play out – and be shaped by – the setting, while the heart of the story has its own theme. MHO. 😉

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