The Original Idea

The original idea is the foundation of your novel. When I say idea, I don't necessarily mean the theme, although it could be. Or the most important incident, although it could be. It can be a setting. It could be a scene. It could be a character.

It is simply the first idea you had that was the seed of your novel. All else can change, but the idea can't. It might be a place; a person; an event; a moral; whatever. But you did have it before you began writing and you must remember it as you write. If you don't, your story and style will suffer terribly. You should be able to tell your idea in one sentence. And repeat it to yourself every morning when you wake up and prior to writing. Knowing it will keep you on track.

A TEST: Write down the original idea for your book in one sentence.

If you can't do it, then you need to backtrack through your thought processes and find it, because you had to have had it. Everything starts from something. Idea is not story, something I'll talk about in detail later. The original idea is the one thing in your manuscript that cannot change.

So, the above isn't very clear? OK. In one of my early novels, the original idea was an action: What if Special Forces soldiers had to destroy an enemy pipeline? That's it for Dragon Sim-13. Not very elaborate, you say. True. Not exactly a great moral theme. Right. But with that original idea there was a lot I could do and eventually had to do. I had to change the target country after the first draft. But that was OK because I still had the original idea. I had to change characters, but that was fine too, because it didn't change my original idea. I had to change the reason why they were attacking a pipeline, but again, OK-dokey because—you got it—the original idea was the same.

The author I mentioned earlier who received the two million dollar advance for his first novel said it all began with an idea: What if a man sitting in a Paris Cafe sees someone who had played a significant role in his earlier life but he hadn't seen in 20 years?

Think of all the possibilities that simple idea allows, but also think of the start point it gives you. He doesn't say who it was the man sees; he doesn't even say why the man is in Paris in the first place; heck, he doesn't even say who the man is—is he a spy? A tourist?

You will have plenty of latitude after you come up with your original idea; in fact, I always find the finished manuscript turns out to be different from what I had originally envisioned, but one thing is always true: that original idea is still there at the end.

For my first original idea, I made it as simple as possible for me to write the story because when I was in the Special Forces my A-Team had run a similar mission on a pipeline. Since I had a good idea what would happen in the story, I could concentrate on the actual writing of the novel. And it needed every bit of concentration and even then was barely readable.

I've sat in graduate literature classes and heard students say: "The author had to have a moral point in mind when they wrote that book." I agree, but sometimes it is not at the forefront of the story. Many authors write simply to tell a story started by that original idea, which indeed might be a moral point, but sometimes is a story that they wanted to tell and the theme developed subsequently.

A moral or theme does always appear in a book by the time it is done. Go back to what I said about the subconscious. No matter what expectations or thoughts an author has when they start writing, a lot more appears in the manuscript than they consciously expected.

After you have that original idea, you should spend a lot of time wrestling with it and develop some feelings and thoughts about it. I try to look at my main characters and determine what will happen to them emotionally, physically and spiritually as they go through the story. Who are they at the beginning of the story and who are they at the end?

This is an example of being aware of what you are doing. I said above that not all authors have a conscious theme when they write a novel, but experience has taught me that it is better to have your theme in your conscious mind before you start writing. It might not be your original idea, but it will definitely affect your characters and story.

The reason it is important to have a theme in mind is because people want to care about what they read and the characters. If there is some moral or emotional relevance to the story they read, they will become more involved in the story and enjoy it more. Even if the reader doesn't consciously see it either.

Using "What if" can be very helpful to clarify your original idea, and also—as we will see later—when you try to write your cover letter and synopsis for submission.

"What if a housewife realizes her life is empty and decides to change it?" Not very specific you might argue, but the specifics will come out later. You have the original idea that will allow you to drive from a start to a finish.

John Saul at the Maui Writer's Retreat runs a seminar called "What if?" where he has writers put their one sentence up on butcher paper and analyzes it. He makes sure every word in the sentence means something. For example:

What if Mary has to stop a band of terrorists?

How could this be improved? What does Mary mean? How about 'a housewife'?

Stop a band of terrorists from what? How about 'assassinating the president'?

This gives us: What if a housewife has to stop a band of terrorists from assassinating the President?

The second what if is better than the first one.

Sometimes the original idea could even be a way to tell a story, rather than the story itself. Telling the same story from two different perspectives, usually presents two different stories. For example, an original idea is "What if a person with limited mental capacity interacts with the world?" In the film A Dangerous Woman (films work the same way) shows normal, everyday life with the main character being a woman who always tells the truth. Boy, you want to talk about someone who is dangerous. Think about it. The film is an excellent portrayal of our society, but the original idea was the different perspective. What was Forrest Gump about? It had the same basic what if. Wasn't it the main character's perspective that made the story, rather than the actual events?

Whenever I watch a film or video I try to figure out what the original idea the first screenwriter had. For example, in the movie True Romance written by Quentin Torrentino, there is a scene at the end where there are four groups of people in a room all pointing guns at each other in a classic Mexican standoff. Rewatching the film, I can see the entire movie driving to that one climactic scene in the mind of the writer. In an interview, Torrentino said that scene was the original idea. He didn't know who the people with the guns were; where the room was; why they were in the room; whether it was the beginning, end or middle of the movie; what the result of this stand-off would be; etc. etc. He just had this vision to start with.

Again, idea is not story. We will get to that.

I said that the original idea is not necessarily the theme of the book. It can be, but the two are not necessarily synonymous. If they aren't then, again as I said above, you should know what your theme is anyway.

Instead of the word theme though, I like to use a term I've stolen from screenwriters and that is INTENT. It took me almost ten years of writing and 15 manuscripts to realize the absolute critical importance of having an intent to my stories, beyond the one I used to hold onto of simply being entertaining. And having that intent in my conscious mind.

I've heard someone in the screenwriting business say you should be able to state your intent in three words. For example:

Love conquers all.

Honesty defeats greed.

There are others who say you need to be able to state it in one word:

Relationships.

Honesty.

Faith.

Fathers.

Think about what you want the reader to feel when they've finished you book. Filmmakers have to think about what they want the viewer to feel when they walk out of the theater. This is one reason there are so few negative endings in films. That's not to say you can't have a dark ending. It's more to point out that you need to be aware of the effect of a dark ending.

I've seen some excellent films where the ending was dark and bleak—and often most realistic—but most of those films were not box office blockbusters. The original screenplay for Pretty Woman was called Five Thousand Dollars. And the Richard Gere character drives away at the end. Realistic, yes. Would it have succeeded as much as the rewrite?

I'm not saying you have to have happy endings and make your reader happy. I'm saying you have to know what feeling you want the reader to experience and make sure you deliver. Larry McMurty is a master writer and most of his stories have rather bleak endings.

I think that the more negative the intent, the better you have to be as a writer to keep the reader involved. To take readers on a dark and relatively unhappy journey, you have to be very good to keep them in the boat.

Another interesting thing to do is to compare the book with the movie. Yes, I know, the book was always better. Maybe. I've seen one or two films that were better than the book.

Pat Conroy novels are always interesting to watch on film. Many times entire subplots are left out without the other subplots changing at all. Sometimes what seems to be the main story is left out; for example, in The Lords Of Discipline the love angle between the main character and his roommate's pregnant girlfriend was very much downplayed. In The Prince of Tides, the Prince, Luke, was practically nonexistent in the movie and never on-screen.

An example where the loss of original intent can hurt: Courage Under Fire was a good movie but it missed out being as good as it could have been. I saw the movie first. I was perplexed about the reaction of the Denzel Washington character. He seemed to me to be overreacting to a mistake. Granted it was a tragic mistake, but he seemed to be taking it a bit too far. When I read the book, I saw what had gone wrong. In the book it had not been a mistake. He had been a coward. The subsequent actions then made sense. But I could see a production meeting and Denzel Washington saying: "Hey, I'm not going to play a coward." So the story was changed. But in changing that, not only did it take away from the motivation of his character, it took away from the core of the book, which juxtaposed the cowardice of the lead male and the bravery of the lead female, and, how through the male's investigation of her heroism, he came to understand his own cowardice.

The longer I've been in this business, the more I've realized that it is one based not on logic, but on emotion. That is why predicting if a book will sell or if a movie will be a blockbuster is so difficult. The more a reader feels about a book, the more he or she will get into it. I believe feeling comes out of the three aspects of a novel:

2. Intent.

3. Characters.

Most particularly the third factor. If you know and, more importantly, have a good "feel" for each of these three before you begin writing, you increase the quality of your work.

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