“Ideas” are irrelevant

It’s that old clichéd question, “where do you get your ideas?”. I imagine it’s asked by people who aren’t writers, because if they are writers, they’d be asked it themselves on a regular basis. And the thing is, ideas are completely irrelevant. Because writers don’t write ideas, they write stories based on ideas. We are not in the business of imagining, we are in the business of telling. And imagining is a part of telling, but it’s not why publishers buy books or why studios buy screenplays. The people who exchange money are only interested in a product, and ideas are not products because they’re not tangible. Perhaps in the future, someone will invent a machine that can transplant thoughts, and writers will be able to literally sell their intellectual property. But that hasn’t happened yet. Which is why ideas continue to be irrelevant. Take The Matrix (1999), for instance. I don’t like The Matrix. Really. The first act is fantastic, but the following three forget why, and instead descends into a generic action film. I quote Roger Ebert (1999):

“The Matrix” is a visually dazzling cyberadventure, full of kinetic excitement, but it retreats to formula just when it’s getting interesting. It’s kind of a letdown when a movie begins by redefining the nature of reality, and ends with a shoot-out. We want a leap of the imagination, not one of those obligatory climaxes with automatic weapons fire.

One thing I find about The Matrix is that its fans give it credit for being a film with many original ideas. And that’s true. Unfortunately, I don’t give credit to stories for their ideas. Good writers begin telling a story at the idea stage, but equally any good writer can tell a good story anyway. If I enjoyed a story, at that point the idea is completely irrelevant, because I gave my time to the story, not the idea. Storytelling is an unspoken contract that exchanges a payment of time for entertainment. I don’t exchange my time for an idea, I don’t know what the idea was, and that’s because I’ve tried to write many ideas that have transformed so much in the editing stage that I don’t really feel I can claim the story to be that idea any more. That’s just the process. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just reality. Writers know this. So it confuses me that so many don’t know that ideas are still held in some high regard by writers. But they shouldn’t be. When I’m starting a new story, I start with an idea, but then the idea’s served its purpose. Ideas spark the ignition, only the writer can tell the story. Anyone who asks about ideas just don’t understand what writers do. There are people in the industry who write ideas, they’re called “story writers”. A film will often credit “screenplay by” but also “story by”, because a screenwriter’s been given a story by someone else, often someone who’s employed to generate ideas, which is then given to someone else to write. That’s about as accurate an example I can give of the disconnect between story and idea. Writers are writers. So when we get an idea, we should recognise that to be not be our writer, but our imaginer. And everyone has an imaginer. Because everyone has ideas, because everyone has imaginations. I quote Neil Gaiman (1997):

You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.

So there we have it. If everyone can get ideas, why should writers treat ideas if they’re unique? Writers shouldn’t pride themselves on the ideas they have, because it’s totally meaningless if they don’t actually write them. A world in your head is going to be to the entertainment of nobody if you don’t show it to people. It’s like Saturday Night Live skits that go on for way too long and aren’t funny: they’ve only been made because someone threw-up an idea during a story-planning spit-ball and the show-runners ran with it without bothering to take it further than the idea stage. The real problem with ideas is that there’s no way for a writer to know if it’s truly theirs. How do I know that my idea about a cheetah boy driving around the desert fighting flamboyant vigilantes hasn’t already existed in someone’s mind? Is the Human consciousness finite? Do we work like random generators that only have so many algorithms? You know, that might actually be the case. But that’s fine. Think of your ideas as like your own writing prompt. I’ve found lots of writing prompts on-line, and the people that make them won’t have a problem telling you that what’s fun about it is how others have adapted it themselves. Think about that: lots of writers, working from the same prompt, writing something different. Ideas do not matter. Nor should they, therefore. I quote Michael A. Banks (1998):

Note that, in each of these instances, my ideas came from concepts or facts presented in the novel and the TV series, respectively. In case you were wondering, concepts and facts cannot be copyrighted. If they could, H.G. Wells would have been the only person who wrote about time travel, and there would probably be only one detective writer, one romance writer, and so forth, in modern fiction.

And if ideas are treated as if they’re important, the problem, of course, becomes that they can be considered a magic bullet. Writing is a romanticised lifestyle (unless you happen to be one), so everyone wants to do it. They want to be the next J. K. Rowling, the next George R. R. Martin, in some cases, even the next E. L. James. And they think that all they need is a good idea, and then they can write that idea down, and then they are a writer. I quote Ursula K. Le Guin (2015):

That is, they want to write, or more likely what they want is to be a writer, because they know writers are rich and famous; and they know that there are secrets that writers know, like that address in Schenectady; and they know that if they can just learn those secrets, those mystical post-office box numbers, they will be Stephen King.

That’s really not how it works. And anyone who’s ever written something knows why that’s not how it works. What even is writing? Well, writing is exactly what I’m doing now. I’m pressing specific keyboard keys in a particular order to communicate my thoughts to you. That’s literally all that’s involved in writing. It’s not hard. In fact, it’s deceptively simple. The hard part is the storytelling, the rewriting – deciding which keys to press, which characters to use. That’s the decision making. And decision making is what makes a story and its teller unique. I quote Robin McKinley (2009):

you’re probably born with a really strong story-telling faculty like you might be born with maths ability or sprinting speed. Everyone with two sound legs can run, but not everyone can win a marathon.

Ideas don’t require decisions. Things that occur to us aren’t things we choose to think. We’ve achieved nothing in being sentient. We shouldn’t pride ourselves on having brains. Brains created nuclear warfare, brains created hatred. I’m a subjectivist, so I believe the universe only to exist because I perceive it. Call it my way of staying sane, or accepting my insanity, or that I’m part of the most destructive force to ever exist, or that eventually nothing will exist, and the very concept of existence and concepts will no longer matter. My point is, everyone thinks. Not everyone engages with those thoughts. As soon as you do engage with those thoughts, and interpret them, that’s when you can call yourself an artist. Because otherwise, your life will consist of telling people you’ve had an idea for a novel. You have? That’s nice.


Really, I’ve written this because I have so many ideas in my mind that none of them strike me as special any more. If I have so many, how do I know they’re worthy of a story? What if I’ve just opened my mind too much to any random idea, regardless of quality? Well, I’ll let Lawrence Watt-Evans (1999) answer that one:

I don’t have any way to turn off new ideas. This can be a nuisance at times, but beats the heck out of the alternative, which is writer’s block, which I’ve had a few times.

References cited

Lawrence Watt-Evans. 1999. Where do you get Your Ideas?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.watt-evans.com/wheredoyougetyourideas.html. [Accessed 12 March 2016].

M. Kirin. (2016). Overcoming the Block Writer’s Life Vlogs. [Online video]. 11 March. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvoHtvL13R8. [Accessed: 12 March 2016].

Michael A. Banks. 1998. Where do you get Your Ideas… ?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/mar98/where-do-you-get-your-ideas-3986. [Accessed 12 March 16].

Neil Gaiman. 1997. Where do you get Your Ideas?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.neilgaiman.com/Cool_Stuff/Essays/Essays_By_Neil/Where_do_you_get_your_ideas%3F. [Accessed 12 March 16].

Robin McKinley. 2009. Where do you get your ideas?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.robinmckinley.com/faq/faq.php?q_id=5. [Accessed 12 March 16].

Roger Ebert. 1999. The Matrix. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-matrix-1999. [Accessed 12 March 16].

Ursula K. Le Guin. 2015. “Where do you get your ideas from?”. Available at: http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/41119/where-do-you-get-your-ideas-from.html. [Accessed 12 March 16].

Wheeler Centre. (2011). Neil Gaiman: Where do you get your ideas from?. [Online Video]. 22 December. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-C48jAkVlI0. [Accessed: 12 March 2016].


Author: alexsigsworth

Basically... run.

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