Good Idea Bad Idea

If, having read the title of today’s blog post, you’re now thinking of the Animaniacs, all I can do is apologise. Or, I suppose, say ‘you’re welcome’, depending on your opinion of the aforementioned ‘lovable’ creatures. If you have no idea who or what the Animaniacs are, don’t worry. It shouldn’t impede your enjoyment of the post.

Anyway. On with the show!



So, me blogging about ideas is nothing new – have a look here if you’d like a blast from the past – but today I’d like to think about the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ideas, in the hope it’ll save someone, somewhere, a bit of time and energy.

Of course, I have to start out by saying it’s important to be constantly on the lookout for new ideas. I’m also now having second thoughts about whether it’s helpful to classify ideas into ‘good’ or ‘bad’; in essence, all ideas are ‘good’ ideas. Perhaps it’s better to describe them as ‘mobile’ or ‘stationary’ ideas, in other words ones you can do something with, and ones you cannot. For example, at the weekend I walked into a bookshop – not exactly unexpected – and was immediately struck by something weird. My attention was dragged away from the books, if you can imagine such a thing, by low, throbbing, strange-sounding music which sounded like a chant. I found it very soporific and quite bewitching, and immediately an idea began to slither into my mind. Just as I was about to grab my phone to start tapping notes into it, I realised a couple of things.

First, I realised that this idea I was having was a bad (or, perhaps, ‘stationary’) one. It was an idea which wasn’t going to go anywhere and wouldn’t ever become the basis for a strong story, and because of this, I put my phone away and let it fade. I also realised that the reason I knew this – that the idea wasn’t a usable one, I mean – was because it was based on a movie I’d seen, years ago. As I kept thinking about it, scenes from the movie actually started playing inside my head. I had forgotten the movie when I’d first heard the music in the bookshop, and the primal power of the idea behind it had grabbed my brain. When I’d thought about it, however, the truth became apparent – this idea wouldn’t work not because it was a ‘bad’ idea necessarily, but because it was a ‘stationary’ one; it had been used before, and not by me. I still remember the sensation of walking into the shop and feeling like I was walking into a spell because the music was so strange and enticing (it turned out to be Leonard Cohen, fact fans, just being played at such a low volume that I didn’t recognise it for several long minutes); that sensation, that feeling, may well end up being used in a story of mine. But the main idea – a boy being bewitched in a strange old bookshop and being sucked into a story and/or a story coming to life – is, I realised, somewhat of a cross between ‘The Never-Ending Story’ and ‘Inkheart.’ Unless something else occurs to me, something completely new and unique which I can weave into this basic idea, then this particular story seed is going to remain dormant.

I mean, come on. How would I ever top this? Image:

I mean, come on. How would I ever top this?

It’s important, I think, when you feel the rush of inspiration wash over you, not to always go with the first idea that comes to you. Chances are, you see, that the ‘idea’ is not your own. Our brains are filled with all the things we love, all the time – all our favourite books, movies and TV shows, the stories which have shaped our lives. They are at our fingerprints as readily as our memories are, and you mightn’t even realise that this is true until you start trying to map and keep track of your own ideas. If you don’t encourage your brain to have second and third and fourth thoughts about the inspirational things you encounter every day, you may run the risk of repeating ideas that have already been had, either by you or (more likely) someone else. There is so much newness and wonder out there, so many ideas ready to be discovered, that it would be a shame to use and re-use the same bunch time and time again.

It’s important to say, too (particularly in light of yesterday’s blog post), that every idea a person has is going to vary slightly from any idea that has gone before. Everyone will sprinkle a little newness over any idea they have, and that’s wonderful. Sometimes, however, you’re going to have an idea and you’ll be really enthusiastic about it and you’ll have a whole story arc planned out – and then it’ll strike you. ‘Oh yeah,’ you’ll say to yourself, sadly. ‘That’s the plot of ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, isn’t it? More or less?’ Then, you might have to take your story and chuck the whole thing out, and that would be a shame. Particularly if you’ve been working on it for a while and you have lots of words written.

Not that I know from personal experience, or anything. I’m just using my imagination here, trying to picture how it must feel to realise, too late, that an idea isn’t really yours. Of course.

'Oh, really? That sounds highly illogical to me.' Image:

‘Oh, really? That sounds highly illogical to me.’

If the idea of having an idea that’s inspired by another work of art doesn’t bother you too much – and perhaps it shouldn’t, really, because that’s what a culture is about, after all, works of art influencing and reflecting one another, to an extent – then think about this: if you always go with the first idea to strike you, then you might risk writing stories full of clichés and overused tropes. If it’s the first thing to strike you, chances are it’ll be the first thing to strike most people. And who wants to be just like everyone else?

One final caveat: this post is, like all my posts, based entirely on my own experience. I’d love to hear another take on this, particularly if you fancy telling me I’m talking a load of old rubbish. What are your thoughts about ideas, inspiration, and popular culture?

3 thoughts on “Good Idea Bad Idea

  1. MishaBurnett

    I don’t really concern myself with whether or not an idea has been done before, because the idea in its initial form usually isn’t much like how it ends up. I think a lot of artists censor themselves too soon–all ideas are to a certain extent derivative in the concept phase, it’s how we develop them that make them ours.

    To take your bookstore idea, where could it have ended up if you hadn’t given up on it when you did? Suppose that instead of a child, the protagonist was an adult woman, and that instead of a fantasy novel she is sucked into a romance? Say, a period romance where she is kidnapped by pirates, but instead of the idealized world of the novel she has to deal with the real conditions of the time–bad sanitation, lack of medical care, and all that?

    Let’s say, further, that she has some medical background and is able to pass herself as a healer, and gains wealth and status in the 17th Century (or whatever) Caribbean islands? Then, let’s say, she finds out that she is actually changing history, altering the balance of power between the European occupying forces and the privateers?

    Suppose then she has a choice to either return to her time, and the boring life that drove her into reading pirate romances in the first place, or stay in the past and live with the idea that her presence will have serious repercussions on the time that she left.

    That’s just off the top of my head, changing the age and sex of the bookstore patron, and I think it yields an entirely different story. I do think it’s important to realize when we have ideas that have been done before, but for me the next step is asking, “Why was it done that way–and how could I do it differently?”

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      *Excellent* comment, Misha – thank you! I really love what you did with the example I provided (you really need to write that book you outlined, by the way! It sounds great. :)) I guess I touched on the points you bring up by saying the idea I had would have to lie dormant until I could come up with something new, something to make it mine – of course, changing the age and sex of the character, as you did, would be exactly that. I will admit I was probably foolish to not make a note of the idea at the time for future reference, and it’s out of character for me to let an idea slip by; funnily enough, though, I haven’t forgotten it, as normally happens when an idea escapes me. I wonder if that’s a sign I should take it and rework it, just as you suggest? I love the question you finish your comment with – why was this idea handled in a particular way, and how can I make it different? – I’ll bear that in mind next time an idea starts to creep into my mind, and I won’t dismiss my thoughts so quickly.

      Thanks for leaving such a great comment. You’ve got me thinking!

      1. MishaBurnett

        Not me–too much research needed to do it right, and I hate research. I’d like to read it, though, if someone else wants to write it.

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