Before the cover design, before the editing, before the writing, comes the idea.
Understanding how to generate brilliant storytelling ideas can mean that you spend your writing time as productively as possible.
Getting stuck with half-ass or mediocre ideas could mean that no matter how well you write, your stories never seem to get picked up.
In this article, we’re going to look at what it takes to discover a brilliant storytelling idea and a little bit on what to do once you’ve caught it.
The three understandings
There are three things that you have to understand about ideas before we go any further.
3. Ideas are cheap
The first understanding is this. Ideas are cheap.
They’re a double-sided coin. On one side, ideas are the source of practically every human advancement imaginable.
Every work of art, every building, every advancement in technology, started off as an idea. A simple little idea.
Yet on the other side of the coin, we see that they’re common. Everybody has ideas. Everybody has the ability to think up ideas.
Every storyteller has a near infinite supply of ideas that he can draw on to create his work of art. The value is not in the ideas but rather what ones are worth his time and effort.
While ideas are always in high supply, the time it takes to turn them into a reality is what is scarce. That’s why if we’re to move forward with an idea we have to do our best to make sure it is the right idea.
2. Promise matters more than specifics
This isn’t an easy fact for a lot of people to accept. There’s a reason that I call myself a storyteller rather than a writer. Writing is just the form I choose to convey my stories, whereas writing for writing’s sake is a totally different motivation.
An unsettling truth for a lot of writers is that a lot of readers aren’t actually too fussy about the writing of a piece of fiction.
If a story fulfills its promise, then readers will often be forgiving. Yet if a piece of fiction is brilliantly written but about an idea nobody cares about, it won’t ever be popular.
The promise of your story is what acts as an inbuilt hook to draw the reader in and keep them reading. Storytelling ideas should be able to be summarized within a sentence, and from that, it should be clear if they have a promise or not.
Tell me, what sounds like a more exciting read?
A lonely man lives alone in a little hut on the edge of town and struggles to write his autobiography.
A warrior discovers that a cult of demons has possessed the most powerful nobles in the kingdom and are planning to start a civil war.
I do realize that this is likely the fundamental difference between genre and literary fiction. Simply, if you want your story to be popular, then your idea has to have a promise inbuilt into it.
3. You don’t own them
So, ideas are cheap, and they need a promise inbuilt into them, what else?
You’ve got to understand that you don’t own these ideas. Stephen King’s metaphor of a story being like a fossil is an idea that’s stuck with me for years.
All story structure, all the works of genius throughout history, all the myths, and legends that have been around since the beginning of time, have their root in the collective unconscious of mankind.
Any story idea that you have is largely impersonal. If you decide to write it, then you are simply the guy or gal who’s committing to digging this fossil up.
Cultivation and weeding
Now that we’ve established some basic points about story ideas, we can move onto the next point.
How do we discover a brilliant storytelling idea?
The process is twofold. It involves keeping an open mind (cultivation) and ruthlessly cutting out bad ideas (weeding.)
Keeping an open mind is really all about keeping your mind in a playful state. It’s a state that children quite easily slip into.
We ask ourselves, “What if.” Many of Stephen King’s mega-bestsellers for example, came simply from a “what if” idea.
Once we’ve got a what if, then we play with it in our minds. We follow the thread and see where it leads.
Another way to cultivate brilliant ideas is to read widely. It’s simple input = output.
If you are a storyteller, but you don’t read, then you are starving your creative organ. As storytellers, we need to consistently be fuelling our minds with the right stuff so that high quality ideas have a place to incubate.
As much as we’d like to be original, the truth is nothing is original. Everything with stories is more like a twist of something old so it looks new. A distortion, a different perception, a change in the ways of looking at something.
When you are drawing from many different sources as well as your own experiences, then your mind has a way of combining and rearranging all of that input so that you get the output of a brilliant story idea.
The takeaway here is that it is a state of mind and an attitude. If you look at the world with an open mind, if you play with ideas, and read widely, then your mind will be flooded with all the fuel it needs to generate great ideas for you.
The cultivation side of things gets a lot of attention in many areas of storytelling, but the weeding is often overshadowed.
This is just as important as the cultivation of great ideas.
The ability to recognize an idea that’s got potential, that’s got fire, that can be the core of a great story, vs a passing daydream is essential.
Many underselling novels aren’t suffering from bad writing, but rather from an idea that was too small in scope.
To help explain this idea, I want to give you an example of the mail-order business.
While it still exists today, before the internet sending offers via mail was one of the best ways to get a product directly in front of a potential customer.
To do this, businesses had to have a list of potential buyers who were receptive to being sent mail selling them stuff. They had to have the money to do the design and to pay for the sales letter to be written. They had to pay for the mailing, the stamps, the letters etc.
It was a big cost.
And the thing was, if they didn’t have a compelling offer, then they were sure to lose the money they invested.
To profit from this sort of expensive advertising, the offer had to be so compelling, so targeted, and so powerful that it’d overcome both the customer’s apathy to “junk mail” and the cost of the mailing.
With fiction, we have to do the same thing. Your reader has millions upon millions of books or stories they could read, and only a limited amount of time.
If you waste your time fleshing out a small idea when a big idea was needed, then your potential reader will likely buy from someone else.
Your idea is just the beginning
Of course, having a great idea will help you write a great novel, but it is just the start of it.
Plenty of people have great ideas but a lot of people struggle to do the actual writing.
If you’re wanting to improve your writing abilities, then I have a free resource that might be able to help.
It’s called the Seven Deadly Assumptions of Writing Fiction. It’s about the most dangerous ideas that a lot of writers have that hold back their writing abilities.
You can get it when you sign up to the email list here.