Ideas are like assholes: everyone’s got ‘em. So, what makes your idea worthy of becoming a book, or a film, or a TV series?
For me, if that idea gnaws at my brain until I can’t kick it, I know it’s probably worth exploring. The key is an idea that’s unique and different enough so people don’t roll their eyes because they’ve seen it a thousand times, but also comparable to other great ideas, so it’s not too far out of someone’s comfort zone to pick up or watch.
Make sense? Just walk that fine tightrope of a line without falling. No big deal, right?
I love the Die Hard series. Unabashedly. Well, the first three at least. For a long time, Hollywood loved those movies so much that they would take the Die Hard idea and transplant it into another action movie. Die Hard on a bus, voila, you got Speed. Die Hard on a plane—the brilliant Con Air. Die Hard in Alcatraz—The Rock. Not super original, but it gave viewers some pretty great flicks. And Hollywood felt comfortable enough with these mash-ups to throw millions of dollars at those budgets.
Fast forward to today. Original ideas are very hard to come by and get financed.
We like Marvel because it’s a built-in audience. We like things we already know are going to be decent. Right now, if you look at the multiplex there’s only one original idea in the mix (and yes, we’re still in a global pandemic, so there’s less movies to choose from), but just Old by M. Night Shyamalan, and one could argue it’s a lost Twilight Zone episode.
So, how to get your original idea out of your mind and into the mindset of others? Well, all ideas were at once a blank screen on a computer. Start typing and see where it goes.
I’ve written eight novels, and even though I like to think each one of them is original, they are all ultimately a mash-up of other great ideas. My novel, The Mentor, about a psychotic mentor, is Cape Fear meets The Wonder Boys. My newest, Stalker Stalked, about a stalker of a reality TV star who finds herself stalked, is YOU meets The Real Housewives. The trick is to take that mash-up and give it an original twist. So, YOU, the show with Penn Badgley from the Caroline Kepnes novel, is great in both forms about a stalker named Joe who falls in love with his victims. And the Real Housewives is a nonsense guilty pleasure about the lives of “rich” “housewives” in “insert said city.” Boom, combine the two and you have an original idea that still harkens back to ideas that viewers know and love.
OK, you have an idea now. It’s original enough, but also comparable to other great ideas—what’s next?
My first step after it’s been marinating in my head enough that I have a sense of the characters and some of the plot is to begin an outline. My first novel, Slow Down, was written without an outline, and ultimately that book took about a decade to finish, so I’m never going to do that again. The outlines I like to write are character summaries plus about a paragraph per chapter (if the chapters are short), so that way when I sit down in front of my blank screen, at least I know where I’m heading that day.
Once I have about a twenty-or-so page outline, I’ll start writing. Usually, I blow through a quick first draft, writing new parts in the afternoons and editing in the mornings what I wrote the day before. The quickest I’ve written a draft for a book is probably about six or seven weeks, but then the editing can take up to six or seven months. I try not to overthink it too much anymore. And usually that burst of inspiration from the early draft is a lot of the best stuff.
Another important part of getting your germ of an idea fleshed out is to have readers. Now, if you’re not published yet, you likely haven’t built up a readership, so you have to start with people you know. Ask friends and family to take a look at what you wrote. It’s good to have a mix of people who are positive, so you don’t want to slit your throat, and those who will be honest. Honest feedback is really the most important part of the writing process because publishers and Hollywood folks will all be as honest as possible (or more likely with Hollywood, they’ll just ghost ya), so find those people who will give you the truth.
Lastly, nurture your idea. Sometimes an idea is a tiny seed, and it needs a long time to grow. I just finished my latest book, The Great Gimmelmans, about a Jewish family in the 1980s who lose all their money in the Stock Market Crash and decide to become bank robbers, a Jewish Royal Tennenbaums meets the Coen Brothers, but it’s an idea I’ve been rattling around for years. Originally, it was going to be set in the 1930s and be a Very Serious Novel, but I kept not wanting to write that book. The late 80s with the music and fashion of the time instantly made it more fun to write, so I’m glad I let that idea sit for a while.
Be kind to your ideas, make sure they have enough water, and when they’re ready to grow, let them flourish. Yes, everyone has an idea for a story, but a great one has been given enough love and dedication to truly flower.
*Feature Image: "Hunters Ideas" by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)