Part One
Many of the people who ask me this question seem to imagine that an idea comes in a lightning bolt of inspiration. In a flash, the whole novel is in my head, and writing it is easy from then on.
The truth is a lot grubbier. The initial idea isn't much; what matters is what you do with it. A long process follows before the idea becomes an outline: fiddling, making mistakes and correcting them, spotting pitfalls (or failing to!), and trying to avoid what has been done before by other writers. Many ideas don't make it through.
To illustrate my process--and mine is only one possible way of doing it, and probably not the best way--I'm going to take a recent movie and show how I would have worked it out, if it had been my idea. Why? Because if you've seen the movie, you'll find it easier to follow the discussion. If you haven't, don't despair, I hope to make my comments understandable regardless. SPOILER ALERT! If you want to see the movie PASSENGERS and be surprised, read no further.
The idea is: people in suspended animation aboard a space ship wake up in mid-voyage. This is a good example of how the idea matters less than what you do with it. This idea, for instance, is the beginning not just of Passengers but of the first Alien --two very different movies. In future, other writers will probably take the same idea in other directions.
Let's say that in developing the idea, I make the same decisions as the writers of Passengers. It'll be one guy (hereinafter "our guy" because it takes me a long time to name characters) who wakes up, and he gradually makes the horrifying discovery that he's far from the destination and will spend his whole life alone on the ship. Despair threatens. But he falls in love with a sleeping passenger, reads her file, and is tempted to wake her, giving himself a companion, but making sure that her own plans for her life go up in smoke.
At this point, a predictability red flag would go up for me. The audience is going to get ahead of me, because only one thing can happen next: he wakes her. If he decides not to, that's the end of the story.
So our guy is going to wake her. My next problem is, that's not permissible in the genre I'm working in. His decision is human and understandable. We're social animals. But it's a monstrously selfish decision, and I can think of no way that a romantic hero can recover from it. That doesn't mean I'd give up on the idea, just that I'd think I may have to change genre. More on that later.
Of course, the writers of Passengers disagreed with me, and had their guy wake her. Some people liked the movie. Others hated it, mostly because of that decision. It's all a matter of opinion. If I'm the one writing the story, mine is the opinion that counts.
(To find out what genre I decided to switch to, check back for my next post. Hint: imagine if Woody Allen had directed Passengers.)
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Published on February 11, 2017 11:15 • 45 views

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