“Not Every Idea is of Equal Value”

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Morning grass, New Sharon, Maine, www.carolineallen.com

I’m reading Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell (I’d recommend it for practical advice on novel writing), and he discusses how to know when a story idea is too mediocre to pursue. He writes, and I agree, “Not every idea is of equal value.”

It is extremely difficult to explain to a writing student why NOT to pursue a story idea, because as a writer/teacher you can tell when an idea is too boring, not sexy, not worth spending the many hours it takes to write and polish a story.

I remember driving from Seattle to San Francisco with Annie, a friend of mine who had just gotten a Hollywood agent for her screenplay. She was driving onto LA to meet the agent after dropping me in SF. She also was a writing teacher, and for 14 hours we discussed how hard it was to tell a student that their idea was too boring to pursue.

I can explain it all more clearly with visual art. You can draw a LINE on a canvas with paintbrush, or you can make an INTERESTING MARK. What’s the difference? The line has no passion in it. The interesting mark is full of the vibrations and soul of the artist. We’ve all seen abstract art where the artist’s touch even in a single line is glorious. Titillating.

The same can be said of an idea for a story. Is the writer passionate about it? Does it resonate with their soul? Or is the writer trying to play it safe, and write something they think might get published? The latter never, EVER, works. You must engage with the idea as if it were a lover. Grapple with it. Roll with it in the dewey grass of Maine, so to speak. It’s messy and it’s the only way.

Sometimes a student will be crazy about an incredibly boring story idea. For example, the time I went on vacation with my family in Kentucky. No matter how often they write it, it’s exceptional in the fact that it is witlessly mindlessly boring! If the student is completely obsessed with it, though, I know something else is going on and they’ve not written the ‘secret’ part of the story. Often it’s something that happened just before or just after that Kentucky vacation, and if you can get the student to write that ‘secret’, if you can get them to own that there is a ‘secret’ and to delve into the raw power of it, THEN you’ve got yourself an idea of value.

But sometimes, it’s true, story ideas must be let go. They’re just not interesting enough, no matter how hard you try to fluff them up.

I’m a writing coach and the initial consultation is free: www.artofstorytellingonline.com

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