Last week I got into another one of those discussions with a would-be writer who was convinced that before he ever sat down to write, he had to have the perfect idea – one with depth and resonance, something he found personally meaningful and inspiring, and above all else, something original. If it wasn’t original, fresh, and new, it wasn’t worth doing, as far as he was concerned…and he was positive that an original idea was all he needed to achieve not merely publication, but wildly successful publication.
I blinked at him a couple of times and then quoted Watt-Evans’ Law of Literary Creation (There is no idea so stupid or hackneyed that a sufficiently-talented writer can’t get a good story out of it.) and Feist’s Corollary (There is no idea so brilliant or original that a sufficiently-untalented writer can’t screw it up.)
In other words, it isn’t the idea that has to be meaningful and full of depth and resonance; it’s the finished story that needs those things. Of course, he didn’t want to believe me, but it got me thinking.
How do I get from the stupid, hackneyed idea to a reasonably decent, interesting story?
Well, I start by looking at the parts of the story that aren’t included in the idea. Ideas, by their nature, need to be developed and expanded in order to become stories. They aren’t complete in themselves, or they’d be the stories we make them into. So whatever the idea is that one starts with, it’s missing something.
A lot of the ideas that get lumped into the “stupid or hackneyed or clichéd” category are plot ideas: the orphaned hero turns out to be the lost heir to the throne, for instance. What’s missing is characters (by which I mean “specific people with names and individual personalities,” rather than just roles like “orphaned hero” or “smart-mouthed sidekick”) and setting. Some of the “hackneyed or clichéd” ideas are the characters who’ve been around the block too many times: the spunky young girl, the thief with a heart of gold, the mustache-twirling villain, the noble hero who’s good at everything. What they’re missing is plot and setting. And of course Generic Fantasy Setting #2,349 needs a plot and characters.
So I look at the cliché “orphaned hero is lost heir” and I think about just who that orphaned hero/heroine is. Somebody different; somebody unexpected. Maybe she’s a Goth girl with no patience whatever for the rules of the court she’s suddenly thrust into. Maybe he’s an emo poet, or really, really, really wants to play major league football, and to heck with this being a king stuff. Maybe she’s the absolutely perfect ideal the court has been hoping for…too perfect? How’d she get that way, when she didn’t know she was a princess? What’s she really thinking, underneath all that perfection? What if my orphaned hero is a gang member (or equivalent)?
Or I look at the cliché and I think about where it could take place that would be interesting and different. Aliens. Insectoid aliens…maybe something like bees, where the new queen has to destroy all her competitors? Or merpeople – I could combine the “lost heir” with one of the selkie legends about the selkie maiden who was trapped by the fisherman and forced to live as his wife until she found the sealskin he stole from her. That’s certainly one way for the True Heir to get lost.
Telling a familiar story from the point of view of a normally-minor character often works well – the maid or valet, the coachman, the cook, the captain of the guard, all can bring a fresh perspective to a familiar tale…or sometimes spin off it sideways into stories of their own, for which the familiar “main” story ends up being no more than something happening in the background.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to execution. You can make anything sound horrible and clichéd and stupid in a summary, without even trying much. (“The Lord of The Rings” is about a short guy with hairy toes who throws a ring in a volcano.) And if you boil things down far enough, there aren’t any original plots…that’s why Heinlein could claim that all plots are variations or combinations of only three fundamental types. It’s the final product – the total impression made by 90,000+ words of novel – that’s going to be meaningful and inspiring and interesting and deep. Not the log-line.