What Good Ideas Entail

“Just Full of Ideas” taken from Cayusa on flickr and shared under Creative Commons.

How do you turn an idea into a story?

Regardless of what kind of idea you started from (What if, Image, or Theme) eventually the heart of your story is going to be the characters. But if we just start running from there, we might not hit maximum potential. What I really want to do (because I should stop being presumptive and saying “we”) is consider the way that character, plot, and theme interact. Once I’ve got a good intersection, then I’ll return to the character.

ideas worth following

I don’t have time to write the story for every idea I have. So which ones do I want to put time into? Consider the books in my post on Five Great Concepts.

The concept for each implies the entire story. Rabbits lead to a conflict with human expansion, which leads to an adventure to find a new living space, which leads to themes of courage, mortality, and home. The Magic School Bus entails a classroom of kids, a kooky teacher, adventures in science, and the themes of learning. It’s all there.

High Concept: An idea for a story that can be stated in one or two sentences.

All of the books above qualify. In contrast would be books where characters wander and change slowly. You can still summarize them in one sentence, but you don’t get a sense of why they’re captivating without actually reading the pages. Examples might be Judy Moody by Megan Mcdonald, The Whole Truth by Kit Pearson, or Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. These are great books, but they’re driven by the characters’ voices more than by a one-sentence elevator pitch.

Screenwriter Terry Russio (co-writer of Aladdin, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc) has a great column on high concepts, or the strange attractor. He gives the example…

A man wrongly convicted of murder runs his investigation from the confines of his jail cell.
Okay, this is mildly intriguing. You could use this ‘high concept’ to write a screenplay. It might turn out to be the springboard for a good movie — but a lot depends on the execution, all the way down the line. But even granting that a film did eventually get made, and made well, it still could be a tough sell to an audience.
So from a studio, or ‘development’ perspective, then, this ‘high concept’ is not likely to generate a lot of excitement… or entre into the industry for the beginning screenwriter.
An idea that’s marginally better (in a purely commercial, make-a-
sale-to-Hollywood sense) is:
A man wrongly convicted of murder learns to astral-project himself out of his jail cell; he must locate the real killer in order to clear his name.

That’s an idea that might be easier to market, but is it really worth pursuing? What kinds of conflicts do you see coming up? What kinds of characters does it suggest to you? Do you think that the idea of astral projection is inherently tied to a theme that you are interested in examining?

Chances are (unless your favorite movie is Sharknado), no.

You don’t just want something interesting that implies a bunch of stuff. You want something interesting that implies a bunch of interesting stuff. This is the reason why I think The Graveyard Book was such a great idea.

Sorry, I started using you there for a bit. Let me rephrase: I want to find stories that give me new ways into discussing the themes and ideas that I’m interested in.

how to follow

A lot of the time while we’re chasing an idea, we get distracted by other ideas. Writing a novel or movie takes closer to a hundred ideas than one, and it’s a challenge to make sure all of those ideas actually work together, especially once you’ve been working on something for a long time. When Chris Sanders and Dean DuBlois took over direction of How to Train Your Dragon, one of the first things they did was change the dragon’s model.

Do you remember that tiny little dragon? That was originally Hiccup’s friend. In the books, his friend is a small dragon.

Why the change?

Chris Sanders says that if the movie is about turning an enemy into a friend, then it should be the biggest enemy possible. Which makes sense. It follows the old rule to give your characters their opposites, and their biggest challenges possible.

However, the Hiccup from the book series could never manage the larger dragon. He is the runt of the vikings, and it takes him twelve books to grow up, not ninety minutes. The runt dragon is a good match for him, and the books are about both of them growing together.

In the movies, the dragon’s character arc is far less important.

The Emperor’s New Groove is another movie that had a huge change in the protagonist’s foil. Pacha changed from this mirror image of Kuzko, voiced by Owen Wilson to a strong-backed farmer voiced by John Goodman.

Sting was hired to do the songs for New Groove, and his wife made a documentary of the process called Sweatbox. The original planned film for New Goove was much larger in scope, called Empire of the Sun, and had multiple side plots unrelated to the film’s central question:

Can an ordinary man teach a king how to rule?

Eventually, most of the extras got stripped away. Except for the part where Kuzko gets changed into a llama. Because llamas rock.

Which maybe begs the next question…

what side plots flow from an idea?

This isn’t something I’d thought about until I started reading books on screenplay. They say that the side plot should show another way of tackling the story’s theme. It should be a kind of mirror.

I used to think it was a chance to explore a completely different theme. Sometimes I still think it can be useful that way.

The person who breaks this down most fully and clearly is Dara Marks in her book Inside Story. These are her breakdowns for Romancing the Stone and Lethal Weapon.

(I apologize in advance for badly aligned formatting. C’est la vie.)






Love is an adventure

|                                             |

PLOT (“A”)                             SUBPLOT (“B” & “C”)

(external thematic goal)           (internal thematic goal)

Trust the adventure                    Follow your heart

|                                                      |

OBSTACLE                       FATAL FLAW

Fear the adventure                         Hide from your heart

CONTEXT                                CHARACTER TRAITS

Dangerous                                             Isolated

Scary                                            Lonely

Unpredictable                                   Idealizes Love



Life and death



Choose life

|                                             |

PLOT (“A”)                             SUBPLOT (“B” & “C”)

(external thematic goal)           (internal thematic goal)

Value life                                  To connect with others

|                                                      |

OBSTACLE                                  FATAL FLAW

Devalue life                         Disconnected from others (Riggs)

                                                   Too attached to others (Murtaugh)

CONTEXT                                CHARACTER TRAITS

Murder                                    RIGGS         MURTAUGH 

Corruption                              Lonely       Overly attached

Desperation                       Reckless           Controlling

Savagery                                 Suicidal          Accident-prone

She not only suggest side plots, she also suggests what character traits, obstacles, and personal flaws are necessitated by chosen themes.

I’ve never tried to start a story by doing a chart this comprehensive, but when my stories feel like something is “off” I’ve been able to repair it by taking some of Marks’s ideas into consideration.

Thinking about too much of this drives me crazy. And I want my stories to feel organic.

Don’t you?

a final note on following quirks and being organic

Writing a good story isn’t always about hitting your theme, or hitting the exact logical monomythic step. Sometimes it’s just about writing something cool.

See: Llamas.

One of my favorite examples of this in children’s literature is Scaredy Squirrel. It’s a simple concept, but the reason it works so well is that Mélanie Watt can hit it from about a million angles. Hilarity overload.


So Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I’m about to do something very foolish. Before I tackle the question of where ideas come from, I’m going to provide a funny, insightful, seemingly-off-the-cuff video of the master Neil Gaiman saying that the question has no answer.

Then afterwards, I’m going to try to answer anyway. I’ll give you three ways to generate ideas, and one special tip.

Method 1: What If?

At 2:40, Gaiman describes the moment of inspiration as “it’s that moment where you’re sitting, thinking, what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?”

We can actually break down what he’s just said, along with the moment before it. He started with something that’s well established, and then took it in a new direction. “What if?” 

You can start from lore and clichés as knowledge, or something about our world. This question is most often used in science fiction, but it can work for any genre.

We’ve heard about fountains of immortality. What if there was one on your property, and a family came back to use it again? (Tuck Everlasting.) We know about faerie godmother gifts. What if a faerie godmother’s gift was obedience? (Ella Enchanted.) Siblings are often difficult. What if a boy’s parents adopted a chimp and tried to teach it sign language? (Half-Brother.) Cemeteries are cool and filled with ghosts. What if a boy was raised by those ghosts in the cemetery? (The Graveyard Book.)

It’s that wonderful moment of looking at something from a new angle. Then, to build a story, the obvious question: “What would happen next?”

Method 2: Images

Gaiman soon realizes his werewolf chair story has to be winter, so that you can see chair tracks in the snow. This leap is caused by visualization, an image.

In my post on simplexity, I gave another example of building stories from images: Aimee Bender’s short story “The Healer”. From the image of a girl with a hand made of fire, and another with a hand made of ice, the whole story springs. The leading question is not “What happens next?” but rather, “Who are these people? What do they care about? Why is this happening?”

After you’ve got those handled, you can get into “What happens next?” Chances are you’ll have to walk your way through all of these questions before you’re ready to start actually writing the story.

Many writers get these images in dreams, but there are many possibilities. It could be something that haunts you, or another case of “What if?” that leads to it. Or something you’ve seen in art that you would like to take in a different direction.

A few kids’ books that could have started from images: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Dicamillo, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd.

Method 3: Theme

The last way I’m going to talk about isn’t mentioned in the video, but it’s exemplified in Gaiman’s newest kids’ book: Fortunately, The Milk.

In Gaiman’s earlier book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, (Definitely a “What if?” book) he came to feel that he was teaching the world thatfathers were oblivious, newspaper-reading occasionally carrot-eating lumps of distraction.” Fortunately, The Milk is his way to make up for that, by giving us a novel that has a father on a wild adventure.

Which means, the idea for the book came from a theme he wanted to portray.

As kids’ writers, we’re often told not to do this. “Don’t build your book around a lesson,” they say, even though it worked out great for books like Animal Farm by George Orwell or The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.

When kids’ books are built around a strong theme well, they often wind up as classics: Feed by M. T. Anderson; The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, etc.

Apparently The Wizard of Oz is about using the gold standard vs. the silver.

Special Tip: Don’t Stop

This is the most important trick. It takes time to find an idea worth writing a whole novel about. There are writers who believe first thought equals best thought (ex. Stephen King) but not many. Most agree you’re likely to find your best ideas if you write a list of thirty things, then go back to find your favourite.

There’s a Vonnegut quote (I thought it was in A Man Without A Country, but I can’t find it tonight) where a friend tells him that he has an idea for a novel. Vonnegut responds that’s too bad, because his friend is funny. One idea is enough for a serious novel, but a funny novel takes hundreds of ideas.

I’m not sure if that comparison is accurate. What I do know is that every novel I’ve tried to write has taken hundreds of ideas. (Eep! Maybe that means I’m funny!)

That’s actually why I find answering the “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” question difficult. It’s not because I don’t know how to get ideas. It’s that the ideas in my novel aren’t just one idea. They are a bunch of different ideas that got jammed together and then had the sides filed off because they weren’t fitting together well.

If it ends up looking like one idea, then yay. I did my job.

The trickier part of this question is really about recognizing a good idea, and knowing how to turn a so-so idea into a good one. Sounds like an idea for next week!

Five Great Kids’ Lit Villains

Villains can make or break a book. I’ve heard it said they’re especially important for sequels, when we want to see the heroes tested by something harder and from a new angle.

The ones I find most interesting are the ones who get inside protagonists, playing off an insecurity. It might be that they trigger an especially strong fear or hatred. It might be that they trigger tenderness at the same time, making the hero and reader unsure how to react.

5. Gwendolen Chant

(Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones)

from deviantart user kecky

It’s hard to list all the reasons why Gwendolen is so memorable without giving away major twists from Charmed Life. Suffice to say that she’s able to make Cat squirm in very interesting ways. She is a powerful foe, but it’s the way that she uses her power that create images and conflicts.

The picture above is kind of a spoiler already. Those who’ve read the novel will get the significance of the match. Those who haven’t read the novel, should.

4. The Other Mother

(Coraline by Neil Gaiman)

from Tabitha Raincloud on iRez

Gaiman has talked about how parents are often more creeped out by Coraline than children are. There’s just something incredibly disturbing about having the villain be a loving mother with buttons for eyes.

The Other Mother is perfectly designed to fit into what Coraline thinks she wants. She’s tempting because we all understand the want for love, and terrifying because we see there’s something off about what she’s offering.

She’s also difficult to vanquish, and even when it seems like Coraline is safe from her, she isn’t. The Other Mother breaks the usual rules of Magic Door Stories, by refusing to stay only in her world.

3. Goth

(Silverwing Trilogy by Kenneth Oppel)

image from Wikimedia Commons

Goth is a gigantic, fervently-zealous, cannibal monster who escaped from a zoo. Are you scared yet? Because that’s terrifying!

He’s a good match against Shade who is the runt of his litter, an especially small bat. Compared to humans, Goth might not be so bad, but on the scale of bats he’s a huge. There are several moments when Shade fantasizes about being as strong as the cannibal.

I’ve said before that I don’t like generic evil, and I don’t think Goth qualifies as that. He is an embodiment of fear and death, but he’s also manipulative and plays on Shade’s uncertainties, trying to rip him apart from his friends, and his hope.

2. Dolores Umbridge

(Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling)

from deviantart user *WayForge

We’ve seen this one before

so who took #1?

1. Long John Silver

(Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson)

from deviantart user vitorart

Long John Silver is not only an iconic character–the crutch, the parrot, the grin–he also gets deep inside Jim Hawkins.

Early in the novel, Silver is a father figure to Hawkins. This is a hugely important part of the relationship that isn’t always done well in adaptations. Long John Silver is cutthroat, but he’s also jovial. And Hawkins looks up to him.

A lot of Silver’s power comes from physical prowess, but it’s also from charisma. And it’s not just the other pirates that follow him. Readers do as well, to the point that we share Hawkins’s grim hope and relief that Silver escapes with money.

My personal fondness for the character is cemented by Tim Curry’s portrayal in Muppet Treasure Island. I would love to post his final scene, but that would be a spoiler, and I can’t find it on youtube anyway.

Instead, I’ll leave you with this…

Next week, I’ll tackle one of the most common questions that writers get asked: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Five Great Harry Potter Villains


I’ve seen Voldemort appear on bloggers’ lists of the greatest kids’ book villains of all time. Personally, I don’t think he’s even the best villain of the series that he’s in.

The Harry Potter series does have great villains, but Voldemort is one of the least interesting. He’s the generic evil problem I talked about in my last post. The more interesting characters are the ones with internal conflict, or the ones who make us angry because they remind us of people we’ve met.

Before I continue: a shout out to the deviant artists whose work I’m using in today’s post. I didn’t want to use movie screenshots because I was sure that fans could capture the characters in interesting ways, and help me keep this about the books. Clicking on images will take you to the artists’ pages.

5. Grindelwald

from deviant art user dreizehntredici.

I find Grindelwald a more interesting character than Voldemort for a few reasons. His motivation is similarly generic, but there’s more mystery and detail around him.

Really though, it’s because of his relationship with Dumbledore. Rowling has said that the reason Albus didn’t take a strong enough stance against Grindelwald is that he was enamoured with him. I like to take this a step further. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry asks Dumbledore what he sees in the Mirror of Erised. According to the mirror’s rules, it should be something that he longs for, but can’t have, and may actually cause him damage.

He tells Harry that he sees himself with a new pair of socks, an obvious lie. I like to think that he sees himself in a relationship with Grindelwald.*

4. Dudley Dursley

Image from deviantart user ~Gytrash01

I love the Dursleys. From the opening description of the first book, they’re hilarious and on point. The fact that Uncle Dursley works with drills is the perfect detail for his character.

Dudley is the one who makes my list because he’s the one who changes most over the course of the series. There’s a tendency in the series for the overweight characters to be lazy and stereotypically stupid (Uncle Vernon, Slughorn, Umbridge, etc.) Dudley still hits that note.

But he also gets a redeeming scene after Harry saves him from the dementors. He gets a little respect for his cousin, and actually stands up to his dad.

3. Draco Malfoy

from deviant art user Adyti

Like Dudley, Malfoy experiences internal conflict, and changes over the series. He also has to stand up to his dad. But for Malfoy, the struggle is a lot more intense. He gets dragged into a situation where he almost has to kill Dumbledore, and after he’s gone this far, it’s incredibly difficult for him to turn around.

He also works well on the level that a punk-brat villain should–he’s very easy to hate. When Hermione curses him, everybody is happy. The two-dimensional sneer isn’t that complex, but it’s highly effective.

In short: he’s a great rival when the series is acting as middle-grade, and he transitions well into a more tortured character when the series becomes young-adult.

2. Severus Snape

from deviant art user Violette-Kollontai

I don’t have Snape this high on my list for the reason that most HP fans adore him. I think his relationship with Lily is more creepy than heroic. I think it’s interesting, but I don’t think it redeems him, and I think it’s really weird that Harry names one of his kids after him.

I have him high on my list because I was never sure whether he was actually a good guy or a bad guy. I was so sure each way, and especially when he kills Dumbledore, I thought that was it.

For keeping me guessing, Snape is #2.

1. Dolores Umbridge

image from deviantart user *WayForge

I hate her so much!

And that’s great. There’s the description as toad-like and dressed in pink that makes her instantly iconic. There’s her repeated phrase, “Hem-hem”, annoying and evocative of character. There’s her meanness.

What really sells it is her restraint. The fact that she’s in such a position of power, and that she’s so stubborn, and that she dials it up slowly until we can’t stand her any more without ever tipping over the edge.

I really don’t think I’ve ever hated a character more. She made me want to throw the book across the room. In a good way.

Honorable mention to Gilderoy Lockhart. He was very, very close to stealing #5.

Next week, it’s another list of Five Great Things! I’m going to expand my focus and look at villains across all of children’s literature. Will Umbridge stay at #1?


*EDIT: Apparently Rowling has said what Dumbledore saw in the mirror: “He saw his family alive, whole and happy – Ariana, Percival and Kendra all returned to him, and Aberforth reconciled to him.” So I guess #5 should be Lockhart.