“I’ve got a great idea for you,” someone inevitably says to you when they find out you’re a writer. Their eyes gleaming with mischievous pride as they fight to contain their smile, they slowly spell out either a painfully clichéd idea that you’ve seen listed on Hackneyed Premises to Avoid At All Costs or else is something so far-fetched and desperately “original” that you have no idea how to begin telling them why it would never work. Of course, they couldn’t be bothered to take this brilliant idea and do anything with it, but they’re positive that they’ve just given you the answer to all your prayers. Because, naturally, being a writer is all about taking other peoples’ ideas and spinning that straw into gold, right?
What makes me laugh/cry about this kind of situation is what a profound lack of understanding it shows about what writing is and what writers do. It assumes that I, the writer, am nothing more than a clever typing monkey who has been waiting his whole life to hear the right idea. Because that’s what it’s all about, right? Once you’ve got that great idea, your book will just about write itself! These are the people who probably don’t even want to be writers and will likely never be writers. They got that one stupendous idea in their heads and figured they’d peddle it around to someone who could use it. The problem is that it’s their idea and I don’t care about their idea. I care about my ideas! Trust me, I have more than enough ideas to keep me busy for the rest of my life, so either take that idea of yours and write it yourself or let it go.
What about all you aspiring writers out there? Do you have that big idea that you jealously guard and only tell other writers after they’ve sworn a blood oath upon the soul of their first-born not to steal or repeat it? I’ve got some news for you:
Nobody wants your damn idea, either.
Ideas are rampant in the writing business and concepts come free in cereal boxes. Literally everyone on this Earth has probably had at least one idea for what would make a good book and no one else cares until someone puts it down on paper. That’s what matters, friends. Until it’s on the page in your own words, that story is nothing but a daydream.
There is a crucial difference between a concept and a story, one which a surprising number of aspiring writers don’t recognize. A concept is a pitch, a premise, a logline, a marketing device. A character wakes to find himself on a strange alien planet. At the end, however, we realize that he’s actually a dog living in the suburbs!! This is what passes for a story idea to many would-be writers, but it’s a concept. A concept is the seed from which a story grows. This only happens when you begin to examine a concept closely and ask questions: who is the main character? What does he want? Who or what is keeping him from what he wants? What obstacles does he have to overcome? Why should the reader give a shit?
That last one is an especially important question. If the whole point of your “story” is to set up some lame gag or clever twist, then just don’t. It’s probably been done before and done better. A real concept is a starting point: What if? What if cancer was actually an alien life-form? What if a boy and a girl from rival families fell in love? What if dinosaurs never died off? What if a bunch of teenagers drove around the country in a van solving mysteries? What if the Roman Empire never fell? What if a vampire got a glow-stick stuck up its ass? These are all interesting concepts, but left un-examined, that’s all they are. They imply potential for a story, but they aren’t a story. The story begins to happen when someone takes that concept and says: “Okay, this is what happens…”
Concepts are wonderful, but my advice to anyone out there who is hoarding some concept for fear of it being stolen is: stop worrying. In fact, you should tell your concept to as many people as you can and listen to their reactions. What questions do they ask about it? What are the aspects they want to know more about? What about it are they skeptical of? This is your free focus-group! Take your concept out of your head and explore it, outline it, define the characters, create a beginning, middle, and an end—then you’ve got a story!
It’s my belief that great writers can take any concept—that they care about—and make a story out of it. Several great writers can take the same concept and create several stories out of it, each one unique and each one their own.
Stephen King isn’t successful because his ideas for novels are hundreds of times more original than other writers’, he’s successful because he fleshes his concepts out with rich, memorable characters and vividly-drawn places that engage and reader and make them give a shit! Stephenie Meyer isn’t successful because Twilight was an original concept or even because it was particularly well-written; Meyer used a familiar framework to tell a story about characters that she obviously loved. Somehow, it showed through everything else, because readers across the world identified with those characters. She got her readers to give a shit. The secret to successful writing isn’t great concepts (although those help); it’s taking a concept and exploring it in a way that is uniquely yours. It’s making the reader care about what happens to your imaginary people and their imaginary world. And it’s something that no one else can give you.