When a Good Idea Isn’t a Good Story

All stories can be broken down into two core components:

1. The idea

2. The execution

The idea, also sometimes referred to as the premise, is often where a story begins. Rarely does a writer sit down with absolutely no idea and end up with a brilliant story after pounding aimlessly at the keyboard.

Every good story starts with a good idea

In order for a story to work, there must be a strong idea at the core of the story. If the idea is unique, or at least not overdone, then the story has a better chance of succeeding. A story with a tired idea will often be read without enthusiasm regardless of the quality of the prose.

Can fantastic prose save a bad or cliché idea? Perhaps, but the prose had better be truly phenomenal. Such writing is truly rare.

At the same time, a great idea does not automatically make for a great story. A writer must be able to execute the idea within the context of the narrative. This requires careful attention to structure, word choice, characterization, description, and so forth. In other words, you can’t just slap down anything around a great idea and call it brilliant.

Many writers seem content writing a story that either has a great idea or is well crafted. When one of these two elements is sacrificed, it is typically the execution. Very few writers will brilliantly craft a story with a lousy or non-compelling idea. During my 8 years as Managing Editor of Bartleby Snopes I don’t ever recall reading a submission that made me say, “Holy shit, this writing is amazing. It’s just too bad the idea for this story sucks.” Much more often, I would say, “Wow, I love this idea. The author could have something great here if he/she just put some more effort into the execution.”

Unfortunately, all those great ideas just end up in the rejection pile because editors don’t have time to turn ideas into stories. That’s the writer’s job.

So how does one properly execute a great idea?

There is no single formula for doing so, but it typically takes several drafts. Often, the final draft will only slightly resemble the original one. In these cases, drafts are much more than looking for grammatical errors and cleaning up a few spots of confusing prose. Rather, they consist of looking for new ways to tell the story.

Oftentimes in life, we will do something that sounds like a great idea at the time only to find out it wasn’t quite as well-thought out as we had hoped. This doesn’t mean it was a bad idea. It usually means we didn’t really think about how to do it.

The same is true for storytelling. When you have a brilliant idea for a story, you can’t possibly hope to dash off a quick draft and submit it for prestigious publication. Rather, you must think out every piece of your story.

A story is never ready to go after a single draft. If you’ve only written one draft and you are thinking of submitting your piece for publication, then you are likely wasting your time (not to mention the time of the editors). Subsequent drafts should involve much more than mere surface editing. You should be looking for ways to tell a better version of the story.

A good story is more than an idea

One of the biggest obstacles that prevents a good idea from becoming a good story occurs when a writer never turns the idea into anything more than a mere idea. In these cases, the “finished” work will read like an outline for a story rather than an actual story. It will lack sufficient context, character and plot development, proper pacing, and more. Many times, it will seem more like a writing exercise than an actual attempt at writing a story.

Too often, writers submit their stories when they should be working to make them better. Before submitting anything, make sure it’s the best version of the story you can possibly tell. If you can imagine a better version, write that one instead.

Remember, no matter how good a story idea may seem, the story itself can only be as good as the idea and the execution. Many times, great ideas are drowning in mediocre prose and careless structure. Rather than rushing through your good ideas to make them into something that can barely pass as publishable, give your ideas the nourishment they need to grow into something brilliant. It may take significantly more time, but you will be a significantly better writer.

How do you turn your good ideas into good stories? Share your tips in the comments.


7 thoughts on “When a Good Idea Isn’t a Good Story

  1. Absolutely! When I got in touch with my editor the first thing she asked me was how many drafts I had written. Seven. I could actually hear her sigh of relief. She told me I would not believe how many writers wrote one draft and believed it good enough for publication. Together we went through two more drafts. Thanks for a great post.

  2. Golly! Thank you for that … I am clearly clueless! Not that I’m writing a book, but I’m sure that knowing this will help with my posts and what I’m trying to say and get across. Thanks!

  3. Thank you for writing this. Just because the first draft isn’t where you want it to be doesn’t mean that the idea was bad or that it can’t be made good, it just means that there is more work to do.

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