I’ve heard a lot of people say that. Sometimes, when I hear the idea, I agree with them; sometimes I don’t. But here’s the thing that I realized after having spent over a decade of my life as a writer:
The Idea is the Least of the Important Parts.
To be clear, I am not saying that it is unimportant. Ideas are great. A great idea can be the foundation for an amazing story. But of all of the many important parts that go into writing a story, the idea is the least important one.
For years, I guarded my ideas like gold. I was uncomfortable with the thought of letting other people read my work because, dammit, I didn’t want anyone stealing my amazing ideas!
One of the first clues I got to the mistake I was making was when I realized a basic truth of storywriting: we’re all stealing ideas all the time. Sometimes it’s obvious. When I was younger, in particular, it was a bit of a problem, I’d see a movie or read a book, something would resonate, and I’d write a story disturbingly similar to it. Over time I became more sophisticated in my thefts, but make no mistake, they’re all over the place. Whether it’s choosing to write from a particular perspective, or a moment in time designed to evoke a feeling I had when reading something else, all of my ideas are patchworks of things I’ve read other places or done other places.
Have you ever watched an old movie? Something that someone else told you was ‘amazing’ and ‘revolutionary’ and found yourself thinking, ‘please, I’ve seen this a dozen times, and done much better, too!’? Of course you have. The first time I watched Psycho I was terribly disappointed. I knew the big twist at the end, but even if I didn’t, the possibility would have occurred to me fairly quickly. A major character who doesn’t ever appear and is only ever interacting with one other character? Come on.
But the reason it’s so obvious now, the reason it’s been done so many times is because it was so revolutionary at the time. The reason it was done better later is because so many other people stole it. That’s what you do. That’s what writing is. You take what’s there, you mix it up with other stuff, try to do it better than it was ever done before, and when you fail, you try again.
The fact that there are so few new ideas is sort of the point, though. Whether or not you have a great idea, the point of a story is to use it well.
I’m reminded of the movie ‘throw mama from the train.’ The story of a writer teaching a writing course who gets into a quid pro quo murder scheme with one of his students. When everything is said and done, they both write books about it. The student writes a children’s pop up book, and the teacher writes an award winning novel. The same information went in, but each of them took very different journeys from there.
Ideas are great, but don’t worry about them. You’ll have plenty. And for god’s sake, don’t ask a writer to write your idea for you. It’s taken us a lifetime to figure out how to screw up our own stories.