As a teacher of creative writing, I am often privy to complaints by new writers that their books or screenplays don’t get off the ground, sinking into obscurity instead.
Is it fate, karma, or just plain bad luck, they ask?
Now, while it’s true that luck plays a role in a writer’s success, (not sure about the other two), it’s also true that you can’t keep a good idea down.
Not just any good idea, mind you — a vibrant, original idea we haven’t encountered before, or, at least, an idea presented in a way that feels new; an idea that takes us places we’ve never been, fills us with wonder, introduces us to characters that captivate us.
Consider some of my favorites stories: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Stranger than Fiction, City Of God, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984.
All of these, apart from being well-written, are fascinating and original. They grab our imagination and compel us to know more.
A mysterious black monolith that appears at crucial moments of man’s evolution to spur him on? Wow!
A procedure to erase painful memories from one’s mind. I want to know more!
Jurassic creatures brought to life through DNA preserved in a dollop of Amber? Yes, please!
A secret passage that takes us right into John Malkovich’s head! Who would have thought it!
These ideas are so good, so original, they sell themselves. They make for hugely successful stories – providing all other elements of fine writing are in place, of course.
I believe I should not start writing a story until I am absolutely convinced that the idea behind it is as good, as original and unique, as it can be, because once I start, I find it difficult to change it mid-stream.
My advice to myself is simply this: Start with an idea that fascinates. Isolate its captivating core and think about ways to make it more unique, more original. Come at it from different angles, from the point of view of different characters, different genres, even different epochs. Write at least ten versions of the basic idea, trying, each time, to up the ante, then walk away from it for a week or two, to give it time to breathe, before repeating the process.
Once I’m convinced I have a good idea, I test it on others. I watch their eyes as I speak. If they flick away, seem distracted, I’ve lost my audience somewhere. That happens a lot. The path back to the drawing board is well-worn.
Your process may differ from mine, but one thing seems likely: the more original and unique your idea, the more fascinating your story will be.
Fascinating, original, well-written stories are the panacea to obscurity.
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Image: Saad Faruque