When to Say “No” to a Good Idea

Training an ice-cyclops to freeze over Florida’s highest peak into a popular ski resort. A blind poker player on the run from America’s casinos. A zombie writing an apologetic on zombiedom. Church pastors teaming up to overtake the local mob with an alternate crime underworld.

What do those ideas have in common? They’re all great ideas, but they would all make poor stories.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I have a great idea about a house that becomes sentient after a homeowner “cracks the code” by stirring his coffee with a fork and not a spoon. Faced with the prospect of having a dweller exist more efficiently than the house, the house turns on him, trying to squelch his innovations and everything. So how would I make a good story out of this?

—Violet Naumann, San Diego, Calif.

Ah, a great idea. I agree with that much. Making a good story out of this? Hate to say it (OK, no, I don’t), but the best story you can make of it is no story at all. 

Some great ideas aren’t meant to be fleshed out. Ideas both good and bad make awful tales, short and long. Takes the rare material to stretch a good idea, solid concept into a narrative. Diamonds? Valuable, shimmering, pricey gem: unmalleable. Then there’s gold. Still worth your dollar, yet you can press it out for construction, just like the city of Denver did in erecting their Capitol building entirely out of an orange-sized ball of solid gold.

When to say “No” to a good idea:

1) When the idea shines brightest in its purest form. 

“Zombies bite into brains, seeking the Holy Grail of flavor.” (STOP THERE) You can go on and on about the strains of succulence in brain tissue, but that is ‘polishing the diamond,’ nothing more. It’s a fabulous thought: Tweet it instead.

2) When it delves into idiosyncratic interests.

I would read a story about the underworld dealings in Ty® Beanie Babies™ – picking up on the endless inside jokes about the “pellet density” in the Princess Di bears and the alchemy involved in creating dye to fabricate the rarest version of “Peanut, the Royal Blue Elephant.” And your readership would be me, and me alone. Don’t waste the effort.

3) When it works better as part of a grander idea.

Don DeLillo’s concept of a college professor serving as the chair of Hitler Studies is almost a story unto itself. The concept? Marvelous. But does DeLillo take this and run with it? Not quite. The genius is in its restraint, its tucking away into a larger fabric that works as a narrative. Even if that narrative (White Noise) puts the “stmo” in “postmodern.”

When have you benefitted from saying “No” to a good idea?

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and tossed into the wide-mouthed rubbish bin of fantastic ideas and fantastical narratives.


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