If You Want a Great Story, Focus on Skill Over Ideas

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Do you ever think you could write a great book if only you had the right idea? There’s a problem with that thought; many people have great ideas for novels. All you need is a little imagination, curiosity, and the right questions.

“What if the dark lord won?” That’s the question that spurred Brandon Sanderson to write his best-selling Mistborn series. Was he the first or only person ever to ask that question? Probably not. However, he had the skill to make it into one of the best fantasy series today.

“A great writer can take the most basic ideas and make a brilliant novel out of them. And a terrible writer will take the best ideas in the world and will turn them into something terrible.” — Brandon Sanderson

A great idea alone won’t make a great book

Imagine i the novel Frankenstein didn’t exist, and one day you got this email: This is an idea with the potential to be a literary classic. A scientist creates a monster from dead people. When rejected even by its creator, the monster seeks revenge.

Would you be able to make that into a great novel that endures the test of time? Most people wouldn’t. If you understand character building, story structure, pacing, plot, and all the other elements needed for a story, you might have a chance.

Try this challenge: Ignore everything you know about Frankenstein and write a short story based on the idea above. If nothing else, it’s a fun exercise, but it might also prove a point. Ideas aren’t everything.

How to make basic ideas great

A good writer can take any idea and make it into a good novel. Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera is a perfect example of this because it resulted from an argument about whether skills or ideas are more important. Butcher was on the side of skill. Someone dared him to make a good novel from the ideas of The Lost Roman Legion and Pokemon. Those ideas became the Codex Alera series.

If everything apart from the idea is excellent, you’ll have a good story.

But how does a great author take any idea and turn it into something not only readable but enjoyable? A comprehensive answer to that would take up several books. I couldn’t give you one anyway. If I could, I’d probably be a best-selling author myself.

However, I have some basic knowledge of how writers can turn any idea into something good. You do it by being great at all the other elements that go into a story. If everything apart from the idea is excellent, you’ll have a good story.

Character

Characters are essential elements in any story. Without characters to interact with the world or experience events, there wouldn’t be much of a story. They also connect the reader to the story by relating everything to the human experience.

Great characters make a reader feel engaged and invested in the story. Who hasn’t had a character they absolutely fell in love with? How do you think that character came to be? It wasn’t by luck.

Creating a great character isn’t easy. It requires a sense of balance between strengths and flaws, an understanding of how to create a compelling character arc, and an ability to make the character feel realistic and consistent. Good characters don’t exist only for the sake of the plot. They have lives and aspirations outside of it.

Plot

The plot is generally understood to be everything that happens in the story. What happens to the characters and how they act and react is all part of the plot. Any idea will probably contain some central elements of the plot. In the Frankenstein example, the monster’s creation and the quest for revenge are parts of the plot.

A well-crafted plot can make the most basic of ideas interesting.

A good writer must understand how everything in the plot works to drive the story forward. Which conflicts are important, and what types of conflicts are suitable for this story? They need to know which subplots are essential and which they should cut. A well-crafted plot can make the most basic of ideas interesting.

A good plot depends not only on what happens but how quickly it happens. Proper pacing of your story helps to ensure the reader doesn’t get bored or feels like the story is rushed. Have you ever read a story and found yourself wishing they’d just get on with it? That might be a sign of too slow pacing. Bad pacing can be enough to make the reader give up.

What can also ruin a great story is not wrapping up plot elements. Imagine if a novel starts a romantic subplot with two side characters, only never to show them interacting again. You’d wonder what happened and why the story focused on them at all.

Structure

How you structure a story is important for how well it turns out. How often do you switch between viewpoints? How long should the chapters be?

Something as simple as switching to another viewpoint at an exciting point of the plot can keep the reader immersed and captivated. Thriller novels tend to use this technique, and it works. However, you need to do it in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or forced. That requires skill.

In Frankenstein, the structure is a significant factor. The story is told from three points of view. It opens with the point of view of Robert Walton, an explorer who finds Victor Frankenstein on an expedition to the north pole. Then it moves on to Frankenstein’s point of view. Finally, we get the monster’s point of view. Then the novel returns to Frankenstein’s point of view and finally back to Walton.

By introducing the reader gradually to the central part of the story, Mary Shelley made it more believable. If she told the reader from the get-go that this monster was not only created from the dead but that it could read and write, they might dismiss the whole idea. However, as the story zooms in on this element, curiosity keeps the reader invested.

A good writer knows whether the story needs a prologue or not, which viewpoints add or detract from the story, and where to put the climax of the story for maximum effect. These all factor into whether the reader will enjoy the story or put the book away after two chapters.

Prose

Any idea can be enjoyable if it’s well-written. Good prose isn’t always about using the most beautiful, poetic language. That’s a good idea if you want the focus to be on the language itself. However, sometimes you want the reader to be immersed in the story and not be distracted by the prose.

Brandon Sanderson usually takes a straightforward approach to prose. He compares his prose to a clear glass window where all the focus is on the story itself. More elaborate, poetic prose could be seen as a stained glass window. Both approaches can work. It depends on what the author wants to accomplish and what their strengths are.

Patrick Rothfuss is an example of a more stained glass window approach. His prose is meticulously crafted to be beautiful. As a result, his prose stands out and draws attention. That doesn’t make the story less enjoyable. It’s just a different kind of experience for the reader.

A good writer will be conscious of what they want their prose to accomplish and will be consistent with the style they choose. If your book starts with beautiful poetic prose to draw the reader in, they will be disappointed if that style vanishes after a chapter or two.

Stop waiting for great ideas to find you. They might, someday, but until then, you need to develop your skills as a writer. Take whatever idea most excites you at the moment and write. That’s the best way to get better.

Along the way, you should also seek the advice of great writers. If you know any, ask them for feedback on your work. Find youtube videos or podcasts by professional writers. Learning from their years of experience can save you a lot of time.

So, write as much as possible. Learn about story structure, characters, plotting techniques, and whatever else you can find. You might produce some great writing while doing this, and if you get a great idea, you’ll be ready. Great ideas are wasted on writers who haven’t developed the skill to execute them.

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