Weekly Writing Memo: What Do I Write?Posted: March 16, 2016
I think the writing questions I hear the most are questions about where to get ideas, and what ideas are good ones. People constantly want the secret formula for the next bestseller, or confirmation before they start writing that the idea they’re working on is great. The problem is, there is no magical way to tell before something is written.
Of course, there are ways you can help improve an idea before writing, but there isn’t a secret guide to a guaranteed selling idea. That being said, there are some tips to help you decide whether the idea you have is one you want to pursue.
What do I write?
Ideas are everywhere. Look at friends and family, look at the news or celebrity magazines, and find what interests you. I always advise writing something that truly gets you involved and not just something that you think will sell. The more you love the story, the better the writing will be, and the audience will be able to feel your enthusiasm for it. So find a story involving something you love, or something that fascinates you.
Once you have a topic, the next step is to figure out your character and your plot. Those things are blog posts of their own, so I’ve posted a few links to previous ones I’ve written on the subjects below for more in-depth information. In general, though, you need to understand who your character is and how they would behave, and you need to know what kind of trouble they are going to get into that will disrupt their world.
Is my idea good enough? Interesting enough? Sellable? The next big hit?
Maybe you already have an idea, but you’re not sure it’s interesting or sellable. You can always ask a few people and get a second opinion, but in general until the story is written there is no way to say one way or another. A great idea can be presented in a poor way and make people think it won’t work, but then you write it and it does. A bad idea can be made to sound wonderful, but then it can fall apart in the writing.
The only way to find out if your idea works, is to write and see how it turns out. That being said, you can help increase the chances that your idea works by doing your homework up front. Outline, develop your characters, develop your setting, and learn as much as you can about writing as possible. No matter how good of a writer you are, there is always more to learn.
Has it been done before?
Beyond the concern of whether a story idea is interesting, the other concern I often hear is whether the idea has been done before. It’s easy to look at your story concept and think of everything similar that has been done. You’ll start to feel inadequate, or like a mimic, or that your story doesn’t measure up. This is a valid concern because you don’t want a story that is too similar to an existing one, but all stories have elements that overlap with other stories. There is nothing wrong with being inspired by another story, or having something similar with another story, but the key is to have something to distinguish your story from the existing one.
For example, an easy reference of distinguishing traits is to look at the movies White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. The two movies came out around the same time and had incredibly similar plots, but what distinguishes them from each other, besides actors, is tone. White House Down isn’t a comedy, but it does come off as a bit more lighthearted and comedic at times. Olympus Has Fallen, on the other hand, is more of a serious action movie in the vein of the original Die Hard. Now if the movies had been written one after the other, whichever was written second would have had to do even more to distinguish itself from the original, but because they came out at the same time they get away with being so similar.
The important thing is to remember that as long as you’ve taken steps to separate your idea from whatever existing idea you’re looking at, then you should be fine. Focus on making it your own, on writing it the best you can, and embrace your story, and always have something that makes your story your own unique, be it style, viewpoint, character, or plot.
The easiest way to truly learn to understand stories, and to know what is and isn’t sellable, is to consumer stories that are selling. Read, watch movies, listen to podcasts, check magazines, and take in stories in all of their forms. One of the easiest ways to learn about writing and telling a story is to see how it’s been done for centuries and think critically about them.
You need to take in stories wherever you can, and always take note of what you like, what you didn’t, and WHY. The more you study existing works and learn how the storytelling is executed, the more techniques and tools, so to speak, you’ll have at your disposal for your own writing. So study, explore, and embrace your idea. In the end, once you get it out you can always verify with someone else whether the idea is too similar to something that exists or if it’s any good, then tweak as needed, but until it’s on paper, no one will ever be able to say for sure. So go write, stop procrastinating with worry and self-doubt, and maybe you’ll surprise yourself.