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January 20, 2011

When Is a Story Worth Writing? – Part Two

Green eggs and ham

Writers are often overwhelmed with story ideas.  When I’m in the middle of difficult revisions, it’s normal for me to think of several other shiny ideas that I would much rather work on instead of doing yet another round of edits.  But not every idea is worthy of a story, so how do we decide which ones deserve our limited writing time?

Last time, I introduced the idea of the story “seed” and the emotional heart of the story.  My first tip was to compare the two and see how well they’re connected.  We’re more likely to finish writing our idea to the very end if the initial story seed gives us a shiver and ignites a passion to tell the tale.

For today’s tip, I want to talk about uniqueness and whether or not your story has a point.  After all, if the idea has already been done, why spend your time on it unless you can bring something new to the story?

How Unique Is the Story Idea?

Or perhaps I should say, “how unique is the idea?”, as this concept also applies to non-fiction.  I run into this issue all the time when I brainstorm my blog posts.  How many hundreds of posts are out there about query letters, or synopses, or just about anything you can think of?

In other words, there aren’t a whole lot of new ideas under the sun.  I don’t see the point in rehashing what’s already out there, so I post on topics only if/when I have something new to add—a new observation, a new approach, a new depth, a new something.

The same goes for fiction.  Boy meets girl has been done a bazillion times, so what makes your take on the idea new and different?

Does the Story Have a Point?

If it weren’t for the Dr. Suess story, would anyone ever want to make green eggs and ham?  Sure it’s something different, but if you ask me, that picture above looks kind of gross.

The same goes for stories, even with a unique idea, it still might not be worth a story if it doesn’t have a point.  I could write Wizard of Oz from the point-of-view of the wizard.  That would be different, right?

Okay, but why?  What would I be trying to say with the story?  What insight or observation would I be able to make about life, humanity, or the original story from that viewpoint?

This reason doesn’t have to be deep, and it doesn’t have to be unique.  The theme of many romance stories is the same: Love conquers all.  Many authors of all genres tend to write stories with a similar theme over and over.  But if you pair that message with a unique vehicle for expressing the idea, then you have a potential story.

According to my contest feedback (“This is the most unique premise I’ve ever seen”), my story ideas are different from anything else out there .  I think that’s a good sign, or possibly, it’s a sign of my insanity.  I prefer to take it as a the former.

My problem is that when the emotional heart isn’t connected to the story seed, I have a harder time identifying the point or theme of the idea.  I like to know the point of the story before I start writing so I know I’m not wasting my time with something that’s going to wander aimlessly and never get anywhere.  Then again, I’m not a pure-blooded pantser.  Others might be fine with discovering the point as they go.

How do you come up with unique ideas?  Or do you struggle with how to make your ideas different enough?  Do you usually write with a point in mind?  Or do you discover the theme as you write?

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Jami's Tech Guy

Great post Jami! Very insightful on how to help lessen the risk that an author is putting their time and energy into an idea or POV that may not be as compelling to their potential readers or even themselves.

“I’m not a pure-blooded pantser.”
Shall we take this as a confession? I suspect that most of us already knew this about you. Then again, I wonder where most perfectionists fall on the great plotter / pantser divide.

-TG

Suzi McGowen

Ideas? I’ve got a million of ’em. But as you said in the last post, I want the ideas that shiver. (For me, it’s actually a “fire in the head”, but a good kind. Shiver probably conveys the feeling better, though.)

If it’s not unique, it doesn’t shiver, and if it doesn’t shiver, I don’t want to write it. I keep some ideas around for a while, to see if they grow and get the hook that makes them shiver.

I know my cryptozoology book has a good idea, but it doesn’t shiver (yet). I keep it around. Everyone once in a while I poke at it. I do research on other cryptozoology books to see what tropes are common, and then try to find two (or more) tropes to blend in unique ways. When I find the shiver, much of the research and world building has already been done 🙂

Joanna St. James

I write whatever keeps me awake at night or yells so loudly i might lose it, I am also smart enought to chalk most of my writing down as writing exercises.
Great post Jami

Anassa

I tend to get ideas by taking tropes and clichés and stories we’ve all seen a hundred times, and either poking holes in their logic or mashing them together. We’ve all seen alien invasions, but what if aliens invaded the 18th century? What if multiverse theory is correct and the worlds start to recombine? My themes come out in later drafts and during re-reads. When I’m writing, I go with the flow.

And I’m half pantser, half plotter. I’ll sketch out the basics, then write like heck.

Syleste Hoskins
Syleste Hoskins

Hey Jami! The most recent unique idea I came up with manifested from a tiny piece of my life and blossomed to what it would have been like if I’d taken a different route as a teenager. I wrote out the moral/theme, the major scenes and the character backgrounds. If I can’t do all of that with an idea, I trash it. I learned my lesson from having to completely rework the manuscript I’m editing now. Thanks for your insight!

Murphy

Hi Jami,

Hmm.. I think a lot of this depends on whether your story is character or plot-driven. If the main focus/purpose of story is to explore the dynamics of a building relationship – how unique does the plot have to be? Interesting, yes, but do you need additional plot bling? I have a tendency to think that the extra bling translates to either weighty baggage or distracting influences that detract from the reader from a character’s emotional journey.

I could probably word that better. If you have a story that has two characters that have connected and are coming to care for each other over a series of discoveries (getting to know one another) of course there’s trials, conflict, tribulations, failures and successes within that getting-to-know-one-another phase, right? So, do you need to throw in a kidnapping, shooting or stalking, to switch a premise up to make a romantic relationship more interesting for the reader? Unique is great, don’t get me wrong. But if you are interested in exploring the space between two people and how they close that distance over time, I think I’d be more inclined to pay attention to those subtle human nuances – if there weren’t an alien with three heads, pointing a ray gun at them. 😉

Great topic.

Murphy

Murphy

Absolutely! (about no other characters would fall in love exactly like them because they weren’t the same people) <-This is a major pet-peeve with me – with some stories I've read by multiple published authors. The characters are drawn the same each time, only the scenery or time period has changed. (Sheesh, I've been tweeting too much. I wanted to add hashtags of #dilemma LOL!)

I guess, what I think with character-driven stories, the uniqueness should be the emotional development between the MC's. Their needs are not the same, but should compliment each other in some way. Really, if you put a collective jeopardy in front of them then their immediate needs become the same and yes, there's growth in that direction, but that direction might be a place they never have to turn to again. As in, they worked well together saving themselves from being blown-up on a bus (how often is that likely to happen to them?), but then can't stand each other when – two weeks later – they have to go grocery shopping together. That's all I'm saying. 🙂

Ponder…again, great topic.

M. or is it Murphy? I obviously couldn't decide today. 😀

Rachel Firasek

Great post. I will usually have a dream or a waking dream that will prompt it. Sometimes I meditate-my hubby calls it daydreaming-and if I clear my mind, a story will come to me. But, like you, I will try to get out of revisions by brainstorming new ideas, too!

Lisa Gail Green

Well I have about seven false starts sitting on my hard drive, waiting for me to someday possibly come back to. I hate to say it, but I go with my gut. If I’m feeling it, it’s worth writing, and the rest kind of comes out of my subconscious on the 1st run through. Yes, those elements you speak of have to be there, but I commit first, then figure all that out. Then again, I’m strange.

Pen and Ink

Interesting post. We call know it can be worth while to retell a story from another point of view. Since you brought up the Wizard, well… Gregory Maguire made a wonderful book of Wicked. Rosencrantz and Guildernstern by Tom Stoppard is Hamlet from their point of view. So if you have a unique take on a story – go for it. IWhen I think of an idea, I try to write it down right away. Those darn things are elusive. They slip away like dreams in the night. Write it down and worry later whether its worth telling.

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[…] far, in Parts One and Two, we’ve focused on what it would take to get us through the first stage, finishing the writing […]

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[…] In other words, good story ideas—those with enough details for us to work with—have a premise, character sketch, and specific situation.  We mix those elements to create a unique story. […]

Debra
Debra

Interesting post indeed. I also have tons ( in fact a flash drive full) of ideas and none of them are really finished, they have all lost their sizzle. Sure I take them out and poke at them, but nothing stays exciting after a while.

I was thinking of tossing them all and starting over saving those few that take me to a place other than where I am currently. And from what I read that’s what a reader looks for something that will take them away.

But my question is this, If I cant find that spark or sizzle in my writing, does that mean I shouldn’t write or have lost the flare? How can I get that spark back when I write?

Alex Flores
Alex Flores

Thanks Jami for your pair of articles on this topic, I’m just starting to seriously commit to the process of writing and your article was super helpful in terms of allowing me to see that having a ton of ideas is normal and it also gave me a filtering process for knowing what ideas to pursue and what to leave behind. Thank you!

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