Being a Better Writer: Can a Dumb Idea Work?

Welcome back readers! How were your weekends? Engaging, I hope? I see a number of you came by to read the latest Fireteam Freelance interview. Not many episodes left now. In fact, I spent some time on Saturday working on Fireteam Freelance‘s wrap-up episode, which … Well, if I say anything about it some of you may infer spoilers, so for now I’ll just say yes, I spent part of my Saturday on it, and it was quite enjoyable.

I guess this is my way of saying there isn’t much news to be had from me at the moment. Just keeping at things and tying up Fireteam Freelance. So with little else to talk about, let’s talk about today’s Being a Better Writer topic. It’s kind of a mixed one.

In fact, I’d imagine that a number of you more experienced writers out there have, upon seeing this title, already deduced the answer. That’s fine. Being a Better Writer covers a lot of writing topics, from the early to the experienced (and if said readers would like a specific experienced question or look at something, they are encouraged to submit it when a BaBW topic call post goes out). Today the topic happens to be a bit more on the “early writer” side, but I’ll see if I can’t throw some tidbits in there for the more advanced writers frequenting the site.

So then, let’s get down to business and dive right in: can a dumb idea work?

I’m actually going to side-step the obvious answer that some of you were no doubt thinking here and instead ask something else: What is a “dumb idea?”

Hold up! Before you answer that, let me stick a codifier on that: What is a “dumb idea,” and don’t use something that’s a tautology. So no saying “Well, a dumb idea is one that’s stupid.” Dumb and stupid are different words for roughly the same thing, so swapping one for the other doesn’t actually define anything.

Harder than you think? I would imagine at least at first it’s a bit of a stumble. Most people, when asked to define “dumb idea” usually stammer for a second and reply with something along the lines of “Well … it’s an idea that’s dumb!” which really doesn’t explain anything. Quick thinkers will quickly spin around and offer an idea that’s a very poor one, like sticking one’s head in the microwave to dry hair (yes, this is a bad idea).

So then … what’s a “dumb idea” when it comes to writing? Not an example of a dumb idea (we’ll get to that in a moment), but conceptually. What makes an idea for a story or book “dumb?” Is it even possible?

Well, yes actually. It is. But not in the way you think. If we look at the definition of “dumb” as we’re using it here (bear with me, I know this is a little in-depth) it’s to ‘reduce the complexity of something.’ So at the most basic, what are the elements of a story?

Well, people debate over the exact number, but all of us should be familiar with these elements: Character, plot, setting, conflict, and theme (I’ve seen some argue that “style” or “point of view” are in there too, but your mileage may vary). So five elements.

So what happens if we “reduce the complexity” of these five? Let’s say we take one out? A story with just plot, character, conflict, theme, and … no setting? No scenery, nothing. Just a featureless void. Wait, that’s too defined. Nothing at all. Not even in

Well, that wouldn’t be a very good story, would it? In fact, it’d be hard to call it a story. It’d be a “dumb” one.

Okay, so there was a point to all this deep-diving. With all that in mind then, what would qualify as a “dumb idea for a story” if such a thing were possible? With what we’ve just looked at above, I would argue that a “dumb idea” would be any idea that doesn’t allow for one of the basic elements of a story to be present: Character, plot, theme, setting, or conflict. It doesn’t even need to have those be present—not in the initial concept—as long as the idea allows for them to exist and come into being.

So then, can you have a dumb idea for a story? Absolutely. Any idea that cannot give you the basic elements of a story we mentioned above, or worse yet, deliberately aims at not providing them? Well, that’s a dumb idea by definition. One could turn around and refine it, however, by bringing back those elements, but if they’re left out, it’s not going to be a good story.

However, a lot of you might be thinking to yourselves, or have noticed, that this really doesn’t apply to a lot of the ideas out there. Few is the idea for a story that says “Hey, we’re not going to have any conflict.”

Few. I’ve actually seen a couple. And yes, they’re a “dumb idea” for a story. Again, they’re trying to be a story while removing one of the basic elements that makes a story a story. That’s a dumb idea.

But a lot of “dumb ideas?” They’re not. They’re just unedeveloped ones, or ideas that need a lot of work to go from “basic idea” to “good story.”

See, a good idea can make a bad or good story, and an idea that sounds dumb, but isn’t by the definition we’ve established, can still produce a very good story in the hands of a clever author. That’s not down the idea, but the skill, talent, and work of the one who takes that idea and develops it into a fully-fledged work. The one who expands on the basic premise of the idea, fleshing out the character, plot, setting, theme, and conflict. Do they build outward and expand on the idea in a way that creates a compelling read? Or do they suffer and fail to expand on one of them?

What this means is ultimately that good and bad stories alike can come from the same idea, regardless of the “value” that idea. This is why authors like to note that ideas are a dime-a-dozen: The hard part is in the execution, and that’s where a story lives or dies. Not in the idea.

Let’s look at a now classic example. Many years ago, an author ended up, so the story goes, in a debate with another about whether or not there was such a thing as a “bad idea.” They argued that in the end, it came down to the execution. In frustrations, their opponent in the debate challenged them to make a “good” story out of what they saw as a “bad idea” and challenged them to combine two very different things: The Lost Roman Legion and Pokemon.

The result? A six-book fantasy series known as The Codex Alera that took that idea and built it into a sprawling setting full of character, conflict, plot, and theme. While only a few of those things were specified by the original idea, there also was nothing to the idea that said it couldn’t develop the rest of those elements. And so what one claimed was a “bad idea” ended up becoming a fantastic multi-book Fantasy Epic.

So then, where does that leave new, young writers? Does a story that flopped mean the idea was bad? Not necessarily. If the idea didn’t account for, or in some way discouraged development of the basic elements of a story, then sure, it was a bad idea. But if it didn’t fail in that regard, then it wasn’t the idea that was bad, but some element (or elements) of the execution. It was something with the characters, or the plot, or the setting, etc, that just didn’t click in the right way. Maybe it wasn’t developed enough, or maybe elements of it didn’t fit together. Could be a lot of things, but the point is that the fault is not with the concept, but the actual execution.

Furthermore, most ideas that writers come up with, new and experienced alike, aren’t going to be bad. Not in the sense that we’ve talked about. They’re just going to be that: Ideas. So worrying about whether or not an idea is “good” or “bad” shouldn’t normally be an issue. Worrying about the execution, about the inclusion of and expansion on the base concepts that make up a story from that idea? That’s where the worry should be.

So if a story flops, don’t automatically assume that the idea was bad. Look at the execution and see how well it handled the basic concepts. Could it have done more with character, with setting? Could the plot and conflict have been handled better? Was the theme not displayed as strongly as it should have been? The cause will be found with one of these elements, not with the idea (unless the idea, as we’ve stated before, did not account for these elements and was in fact, a bad idea).

Now, there’s one more direction I want to take this post, but before I do that, let’s recap what we’ve discussed so far.

First, a story is composed of the basic elements of plot, character, setting, theme, and conflict. Second, an idea for a story is only a dumb idea if it fails to account for expansion on those elements, or worse, outright rejects one or any of them. What this means is that it comes down to an author’s execution at working with each of those elements to make a story bad or good, not the idea. If a story fails, it may very well be because the creator failed to successfully make those elements function, rather than the idea being bad.

With all of this said, then, there’s one last thing to discuss: Bad ideas still exist. More than once I’ve seen a young, would-be creator present their idea, only to note that “there is no conflict because they don’t need it to have a good story” and then be utterly flabbergasted when the story falls flat. Guess what? “No conflict” (the most common one I’ve seen) is a dumb idea, and it won’t deliver a good story.

Is a bad idea going to be behind a bad story? Not most of the time, no. Largely it’ll be the execution, not the idea. But dumb ideas do exist. Thankfully, they’re easily fixed. Identify the missing story element, and adjust the idea to accommodate its inclusion or expansion. Problem solved.

Then, of course, you can get on to the harder part: writing the actual story.

Good luck! Now get writing!

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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Can a Dumb Idea Work?

  1. Hmm, that’s an interesting thought. I’ve had a few ideas I’ve considered dumb, but maybe they just didn’t have all the pieces they needed. Speaking of the basic elements, how do you figure out what your theme is? There are topics here /on/ theme, but I’ve never quite figured out how to put a definite answer to the question of what the theme of a book is. Plot, character, setting, conflict? Pretty easy. Theme? Sometimes it’s easy to put a finger on it, other times… pretty confuzzling.
    Maybe I’m just trying too hard to pin it to down to a single, easy-to-state idea, rather than the multi-faceted three-dimensional thing it should probably be….


  2. […] I chose to put this topic on the list because personally, I felt it was a fascinating way to look at potential problems with a creative work. Especially when applied to writing. See, in writing it’s generally held that there isn’t a “problem” that can’t be overcome by a skilled enough author. And … yes, this is pretty true. Usually however, when we think of “problems” of this nature, we’re thinking of common bits of bad advice, like “nothing new under the sun” or “there are bad ideas.” […]


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