Where’s The Big Idea

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I had a blast at IllogiCon last week, and am looking forward to MarsCon in Williamsburg VA this weekend. I didn’t’ have access to decent wifi at the last con, so ended up being a little slow to respond to those of you who posted here. Hopefully this weekend will go smoother in that arena.

Regarding the new IGMS anthology, I’m tickled to announce that we’ve been approached by someone who is interested in producing an audio book of the collection. I don’t want to jinx it by saying too much before it’s a done deal, but audio books always make me smile, so keep your fingers crossed.

I’m also (on a completely unrelated self-congratulatory note), pleased to say that when the Tangent Recommended Reading list came out recently, IGMS had 13 stories that were recognized/recommended. We published 27 stories in 2013, so having half of them make the list was immensely gratifying.

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I think that’s enough niceties, then. Shall we get down to business? Yes, I think we shall.

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“What’s the big idea?”

It’s a phrase you hear often enough, and when you’re writing, it is common for someone to have a ‘big idea.’ As often as not, a ‘big’ or ‘cool’ idea is the spark that will set someone off, starting them down a trail that leads them to writing. And whether it’s your first ‘big’ idea or your fiftieth, whether you’ve published any of them or not, it’s always an exuberant moment.

“I have the coolest idea for a story.”

“I have a million-dollar idea.”

“I have…” etc etc etc.

Ideas are fun, exciting. But if you’re paying attention to the world around you, you’ll also realize that they are far from rare. Ideas abound. They are borderline ubiquitous. That’s half of the reason why established authors inevitably (and if they are gracious human beings, privately) laugh when friends, family members, or strangers in the supermarket offer to share their brilliant idea in exchange for half the money, as long as said writer will just whip off the novel based on their special idea.

So what is it that separates the ideas that work from the ideas that don’t? More importantly to the purposes of Magical Words, what separates the ones that get published from the ones that don’t?

One word: execution. (Which, for those of you keeping score at home, is the other half of the reason why established pros laugh at the generous people who want to share their brilliant ideas: the execution is 99% of the work.)

Obviously ‘execution’ is a huge concept and there is no way to address it in a single blog post (or even a series of them). There’s just too much to cover. But I recently ran into a situation with a novice writer that reminded me of one small but impactful thing you can do in the ‘execution’ department that will stack the deck in your favor (and avoid a deadly trap at the same time).

Let me point out the trap first.

Often what novice writers want to do is build the entire story (and this is a more common problem with short stories than novels, but I do occasionally see it arise in novels as well) with the climax of the story leading to the revelation of their ‘cool’ idea. It’s actually a common trope in certain types of stories–“And when they pulled into the driveway and looked at the outside of the car, there was a hook dangling from the door’s handle, with fresh blood from where the hook had been ripped out of the deranged killer’s arm…”

And for that kind of short, fun story, it works just fine.

But too many newer authors want to use that formula for everything. A while back I taught a class at a local university where a woman wrote a story wherein she described a loving but seriously odd encounter between a mother and her multiple offspring, only revealing at the end of the story that the reason the encounter seemed odd was that the main character was a dog, and the offspring were her brand new litter of puppies. Okay, that’s not a surprise… it’s called cheating. It’s artificially withholding relevant information. And you really don’t want to get me started on THAT subject…

But even in that relatively mundane situation, even where you don’t have a genuinely ‘cool’ idea, you can still do interesting things, present a compelling story—by putting the relevant details up front. Tell us you’re writing a story from the POV of a dog, and then show us why it matters.

Now let’s add a ‘big’ idea to this equation and see what happens.

Let’s say, for instance, that you decided you were going to write a story in a future where teleportation devices had become the standard mode of transportation for people everywhere, and in that world people suddenly and mysterious begin disappearing. In the hands of a newer writer, it wouldn’t shock me at all to see a plot structured in such a way that the people started disappearing, and we didn’t find out until the end that there were teleporters everywhere, and the people were disappearing because of some kind of glitch with the machines. The end.

What you ought to do with this idea, however, is present all the necessary information at the beginning, and then show us the ramifications, the impact, the problems, that arise out of that situation. Let your main character figure out by the end of page two (at the latest) that people are disappearing because of some malfunction in these teleportation devices and then show us how this affects the world as a whole, and the main character in particular.Now it’s not just an interesting concept, it’s an interesting concept kicking the main character in the teeth.

See the difference in the story you’ll inevitably write?

Let me give you a specific example of an entirely different flavor, from an author you know: David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson. Back in 2012, right before the first Thieftaker novel was published, I published (in IGMS) a short story featuring David’s main Thieftaker character, Ethan Kaille, titled “Memory of Freedom.” In the very first paragraph, David wrote, “Ethan Kaille was halfway through this week’s issue of the Boston Gazette when he finally took note of the date on the front page. Monday, 4 August 1760. That made today the seventh. He had been a free man for exactly three months.” So right away, we know when and where the action takes place. Boston, 1760. We also know that the character was recently imprisoned.

Over the course of the next few paragraphs/pages, we are then shown and/or told that Ethan was involved in a mutiny on a sailing ship; that he’s lived a rough life; that he’s currently got a tenuous job at best, working for a street-smart man of questionable character; and that he has magical powers which have cost him greatly in the past, magical powers he’s sworn never to use again. In short, we are told efficiently and immediately that we have an urban fantasy with a twist: a real-life historical setting.

An historical urban fantasy?! Now that’s a really cool idea!

And here’s the key (in my humble opinion): he laid all that out right up front, at the very beginning. Now we, as the readers, get to climb on board with David and with Ethan and explore this big idea together. We are part of the process of discovery; we’re along for the ride.

That’s exactly what readers crave, and exactly what David provided. To be part of the ride. It’s a text book case.

So the next time you have an idea you think is strong enough to support a story (or novel), consider putting it as close to the front of that story as you possibly can. Lay out all of the details—except for one: how does it all turn out in the end? That’s where true tension lays. That’s where the skilled writer knows to put her best surprise.

So that’s my advice, in the Alex-Trebeck-approved form of a question: Where’s the big idea?

If you’ve got an idea that’s truly great, don’t bury at the end, or dress it up in camouflage and make it a surprise. Instead, why not use it to get the reader excited? Why not use it to make the reader your partner?

Where’s the big idea?

I say if you’re smart, it’s at the start.

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Ed Schubert - self-inflicted headshot 2013Edmund R. Schubert is the author the novel, Dreaming Creek, and some 40+ short stories, about half of which are in his collection, The Trouble with Eating Clouds. He’s held a variety of editorial positions, currently serving his eighth year as editor of Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show. He’s co-edited three IGMS anthologies with Card, as well as editing and contributing to the non-fiction book, How to Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. Schubert still insists, however, that his greatest accomplishment came during college, when his self-published underground newspaper made him the subject of a professor’s lecture in abnormal psychology.

He can be found online at: www.EdmundRSchubert.com

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20 comments to Where’s The Big Idea

  • Oddly enough, I just so happen to have had a new shiny idea pop into my head this morning at around 5 am and I had to write it down. It was just a scene, one scene, like I was watching a movie, and I’m not even certain where it’s going to go from that one scene, but it’s going to be fun to figure out.

  • Morning, Daniel. I’m always envious of people who have scenes play out like that, like they were movies. I’ve always been lucky if if I get a slide-show. Good luck with the development of the rest.

  • Edmund, Congratulations on the good news about IGMS stories! That is stellar!

    It’s always a pleasure to have you here. With each post, you bring such a clean, sharp, and specific angle to your subject matter, that I alway read it twice to get all the goody out of it. It’s quite wonderful to read and digest. And then I have to look at my own current story/novel and go, “Well crap. I didn’t do that.”

    I’m looking over the beginning of my current WIP and … yup. I didn’t. I need to go back put the idea closer to the front. Sigh… And Thank you! You just saved me a lot of work. HUGS!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for a very interesting post, Edmund. I must agree with you about not putting the cool idea at the end. The worst, I’ve found, is that you’re reading a story and it’s painfully obvious that the author is planning a twist ending that’s supposed to make the whole thing cool, because really, no matter how weird they’re trying to make things seem before then, it’s really not yet *actually* interesting enough to be worth a story.

    However, since I know *I* have a tendency to save certain “twists” until, say, midway through a book (or the end of the first book for a multi-book story), how do we separate out what constitutes a big idea that’ll be a lot more exciting if we have the reader on board from the start, versus a valid twist that can move the story in new and interesting directions? As an author, I tend to think of this “twist” first (or at least all-at-once-with-everything-else), so is it really my big idea?

  • Hey, a future post could be about doing this without exposition or the info dump.

  • Echoing Faith’s comment — always wonderful to see your byline here and to benefit from your wisdom and your wit. Thank you for the shout-out with respect to “Memory of Freedom.” Here’s the way I look at it: Every story needs a hook. Every story needs a big idea. When the hook and the big idea are the same or closely related, it adds coherence to the narrative. And all of us should know by now that you don’t bury the hook on the fifth page or the fiftieth. And you certainly don’t leave it to the end. The hook comes up front, it grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. It MAKES the story.

    Great post, per usual.

  • Faith,

    You are, as always, too kind. And it’s more gratifying than you can imagine to know that you find it helpful. Consider my day ‘made.’ 😉

  • Heps,

    You raise a good point, and I’ll piggyback your question and David’s comment and say that a ‘twist’ and a ‘hook’ and a ‘big’ idea are not all necessarily the same thing. David is 100% correct that if you can show how your idea and your hook are related, it adds coherence. But they are still not the same thing. Likewise with a ‘twist.’ Usually during conversations like this someone raises the question, “What about the movie “The Sixth Sense? That had the twist at the end.” And my answer is “Yes, it did.” But the ‘twist’ was that Bruce Willis had been dead all along (spoiler alert ;-)). The ‘big idea’ was that there was a kid who could see and talk with dead people. Bruce Willis just happened to be one of them. So twists are still a valid and enjoyable part of the process. If you can pull a good one off, readers will enjoy that and remember you for a long time. Distinguishing between a twist and a hook and a big idea is the key here.

  • Daniel,

    Interesting idea. I’ll keep it in mind the next time I’m invited back (unless someone else wants to run with it before then).

  • David,

    Thanks for bringing me “Memory of Freedom” to publish in the first place. It really is good fun, and great insight into the character’s development. And thanks for reminding me of the distinction between a hook and a big idea, and how they can relate to each other. It’s a subtle but important point.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thanks Edmund. Hmmm…now I’m thinking maybe a future post about teasing out the difference between the three?

  • Be careful, Heps. You’re thinking, and than can only lead to trouble… 😉

  • sagablessed

    I love this, and it came at the the best time. I was wondering about this very thing in my current WIP. While I have some twists, I oft wondered whether they were the actual “BI”, or real twist. Now I have to look back…..after I am done writing. ::make furious notes in Scriver to do that::
    I also admit I have difficulty in differentiating the BI, the hook, and twists in my own work. My head may explode. LOL
    Hepseba, love your idea. ::tosses hints at Edmund::

  • This is a great, thought provoking post. I’m now pondering a short story I’ve been working on and wondering if I’m guilty of leaving the “big idea” for the end, or if it’s really just a twist. I’ll second (third?) Hepseba’s request for a post on the difference. :)

  • Thanks for the great post, Edmund! I really enjoy your insights.

    Congratulations on the successes with IGMS too!

    On topic, I think what you are saying is that we need to set the correct expectations with the reader. When we sit on big ideas until later, it makes the reader feel like we’ve been hiding something from them. They lose faith in you.

    So lay it out there from the start. “This is my story, now lets see where it takes us.”

  • Sagablessed–hint taken. 😉

    Gypsyharper–hint embraced. 😉 +1

    Mark–‘Expectations’ is a great lens to view this through. Thanks you. Met expectations vs violated expectations vs no expectations at all vs expectations turned on their ear; it’s all about the power of expectations. Not a power to be trifled with!

  • From my writing FAQ:

    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?

  • Great post and great discussion. Please amplify on diff. btn. the “big idea” and the “hook”.

  • Razziecat

    This has me thinking about the story I was working on last year, which had sort of a twist in it. That wasn’t the “big idea”, it was more of a “big reveal” that comes about three-quarters of the way through the book. I did, however, allude to it, and drop clues throughout, so that by the time the twist is revealed, it should be more of an “I knew it!” situation than a surprise. I think of the Big Idea as the incident that sets the story off, whereas the hook would be something different or unusual about the way the incident is handled (or it could be characters that really intrigue the reader). A twist could be a resolution that turns one’s expectations upside-down.

  • quillet

    Thank you, Edmund, this is pure gold. Like Faith, I immediately read it twice. Then went off to work on my WIP very happily the rest of the day. I’m just back to say thank you (times 1000).

    I know you already took the hint, but I’ll add my voice to the chorus asking for a post on the difference between BIs, hooks, and twists.