The Myth of the “Great Idea”

The other day I was talking to someone about my book. I don’t always love talking about the fact that I’m writing a book, mainly because people who’ve never attempted to get into publishing have no idea how anything works and when you tell them you’re writing a book, they assume they’ll see your name on the bestseller list in a couple months’ time.

But anyway. After I vaguely described to her what the plot was about, she said this:

“That’s a good idea! I feel like all I’d need is that one great idea, like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games, and then I’d be rich!”

It took a tremendous amount of self-restraint to not start lecturing her right then and there.

Instead I’ve saved my lecture for this post.

This is something I encounter not only when talking about writing, but in my job in marketing as well. People are always talking about the “next great idea”. As if “ideas” are these elusive, slippery things floating out there in the ether, and all you have to do is grab one and boom! You’re rich.

My boyfriend, who works in video game development, has encountered the exact same thing. “I have this great idea for a game!” is something he hears constantly.

As for me, I have a list of a dozen different ideas for novels, and I’m adding to it all the time. A little spark of something, a flash of a character or a theme–I jot it down, occasionally start fleshing it out a bit–and harbor excitement that this could really be something someday.

Ultimately, when it comes time to write a new novel, I look through that list of ideas and pick one to turn into something.

And that’s when the hard part comes in.

This character isn’t coming together, or I don’t actually like the voice I’ve started writing this story in, or this theme is going to be really difficult to incorporate into this kind of a story (you should never start with theme anyways; more on that later), or this tiny idea isn’t expanding itself out into a full-blown plot.

And that’s when I know:

Coming up with ideas is easy.

It’s executing them well that’s hard.

Ideas are important–don’t get me wrong. Without the initial idea, you don’t have a novel or video game or marketing plan in the first place. But if you look at the successful books/video games/movies around you, you’ll find an interestingly common pattern.

Feel free to argue with me on this, but I’ve found that the most compelling stories are not the ones with the most out-there, original ideas.

JK Rowling–who by the way, I worship–did not come up with the concept of children who can do magic. Harry himself actually pretty closely follows the very typical hero’s journey, the one followed by every hero from Frodo to Luke Skywalker.

Likewise, The Hunger Games is not the first dystopia. It actually very closely resembles the plot of Battle Royale. And the reasons that writers like Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson are bestsellers? It’s not because they’re constantly coming up with revolutionary, amazingly original ideas. Actually, from the works of theirs that I’ve read, both of these writers have a tendency to write the same kind of stories over and over again.

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”–Willa Cather

These books didn’t succeed because of their “great ideas”. They succeeded because these writers are good at writing compelling stories.

You don’t need a plethora of good ideas to become a writer. You need the talent, know-how, and most importantly of all the willingness to put in the work to turn your ideas into something great.

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