The idea of ideas

Certain questions come up again and again at writing panels, on writing forums, and in writing discussion groups. A lot of those questions are about “ideas.” Where does a writer get ideas? How do you know an idea is worth writing? How do you translate your idea into a story? And so on.

I put the word “ideas” in quotes in that first mention because I believe the people who ask these questions have a profound misunderstanding of the meaning of the word. All words have different meanings depending on the context, of course, but I’m talking about something more than that. Because not only do the people who ask these questions misunderstand the word idea, they misunderstand the entire notion of story.

A story is not a collection of unique notions and eccentric characters presented in a series of shocking situations leading to a surprising ending. Some things we call stories contain all of those things, and in very rare occasions some good stories contain those elements, but that isn’t what a story is. If you want to turn to the dictionary, you might think of a story as a narrative designed to entertain the reader or listener—but that’s at best a mechanical definition of certain types of prose.

A story is a means to transfer a dream from the imagination of the storyteller to the imagination of the reader. Another way of putting it, a story is an incantation for evoking an experience in the mind of the listener.

Specific situations, characters, confrontations, and so forth are part of the arsenal of the storyteller, but they are building materials, not tools. And they are basic building materials, at that. Think of them as nails. Does a carpenter spend a lot of time agonizing over whether a specific nail is worthwhile for this project? No, unless a specific nail is obviously damaged in some manner. Does a carpenter spend a lot of time worrying about where he will find his next nail? No, nails are the kind of supplies a construction company buys in bulk. Does a carpenter spend a lot of time worrying about how to translate his bag of nails into a finished building? No, because nailing boards together is just one tiny part of the entire process of building something, and how to do that is a fundamental skill one should master long, long before attempting to build a house.

The sorts of things that people usually mean when they ask, “Where do you get your ideas” really are as fundamental and individually unimportant as a nail. Yes, if you’re building a house you will need good nails, and they’ll need to be used properly, but no single nail being slightly imperfect, or slightly out of place should ruin the entire structure.

The true skill of storytelling is the process of assembling all of those things together. And as you learn to do that, you start to realize that the parts you were focused on so intently when you were learning the craft are not the most important part of the story. It’s not where your nails came from, or how perfect each nail is.

It’s how you use them.

Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.
—Ray Bradbury

7 thoughts on “The idea of ideas

  1. Reblogged this on Jcckeith and commented:
    I really enjoyed the method of explanation. A story is comparable to a house and yes, the idea, the situations, the confrontations are all basic building blocks of that house.

  2. I appreciate the downplaying of the importance of having An Idea, but it seems to me that just shifts the mystery to how one knows how to assemble things into a story, an idea-of-construction rather than an idea-of-materials.

    1. Yes, it does. But this also gets to one of the reasons that asking about where Ideas come from reveals a profound misunderstanding. The person who asks this wants me to say some magical phrase that will transform them into a writer. They think that the art of storytelling is some sort of thing that you can master with the revelation of a single mystery.

      My building a house analogy points to the actual answer, which is not a simple one. Just as I can’t, in a couple of sentences, teach a complete novice how to construct a house from scratch, no one can succinctly teach a complete novelist how to construct a story. A person has to study, and practice, and fail, and practice some more, and start figuring out how to fail a little less spectacularly, over and over, and over again. An experienced writer can teach an inexperienced writer, but it is a process that takes time and effort, and there is a limit as to how much time and effort one can donate to other people out of the goodness of their hearts.

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