Welcome back readers, to another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! How were your weekends? Relaxed and enjoyable, I hope? Mine turned out pretty good, despite an illness dominating the days leading into it. Work continued, even during parts of said illness, on Starforge. This book is going to be a blast, folks!
Aside from that, there isn’t much news to discuss, so I think I’m just going to dive right into today’s topic, which is … a bit of an interesting one.
Let’s start with some background information, shall we? Before on the site—many times, actually—we’ve talked about the writing concept that there are no bad ideas, just bad executions. That any set of two ideas, no matter how odd-sounding, can be made into a pretty awesome story if one puts in the work. A common example of this being true that has been trotted out time and time again is the excellent Fantasy series The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, which was written on a dare/challenge over exactly such a topic to combine The Lost Roman Legion with Pokémon and create from it a good story. A challenge that Butcher delivered on, as The Codex Alera is a thrilling series that stretched for five books and was a fantastic read (in my opinion, still his best).
There are other works that have come from similar challenges, of course. The point is, this is a common saying had among writing circles: There are no bad ideas, only bad executions, and even an idea that sounds really dumb could be a really good story.
Could be. Once again this topic came up last week when I published my critique post of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order‘s lackluster combat system, noting that it felt like a disparate element that had been shoved into a setting and scenario where it didn’t fit. On the site Discord, where discussion had been bouncing back and forth for days on the topic, someone asked if this was an example of maybe not every idea working with every other idea, since in my post I’d noted that sometimes two things went together like orange juice and toothpaste.
That question, then, prompted this post. Was Fallen Order a bad idea, or merely a bad execution, and what separates the two? Intrigued, I immediately wrote today’s topic down on the topic list and resolved to immediately tackle it as a BaBW post. Well, once I’d sat and thought about it.
Because in answer to that query, I’d argue that Fallen Order is an example of bad execution (something I did note in the post). Good concept, but too committed to two ideas that didn’t exactly work well together (and then the actual execution widened that rift).
But this started a little cascade in my brain. We’ve talked here again and again about how there are no bad ideas, just bad executions. But have we ever talked about how to keep those ideas from becoming a “bad execution?” Or have we been throwing the advice out there and then just sort of letting readers (and young writers) bumble their way through without any additional guidance?
Today’s post then, is to rectifty that omission. Today, we’re going to talk about what happens when you bring two ideas together, and what will need to be done in order to assure that any two ideas, no matter how disparate, can come together with a “good execution.”
So hit the jump, and let’s talk writing.
Before anything else, let us return to the classic example given above with The Codex Alera and the two ideas that were its challenged genesis: The Lost Roman Legion and Pokémon.
Now, on its own, some of you might be thinking ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool.” Sands, it’s entirely possible that someone at Gamefreak has even read or heard of The Codex Alera, and somewhere in their development archives is a pitch for a game set in Ancient Rome where Roman Legionaries do battle with Pikachu, Farfetch’d, or Venosaur. No matter how much the author of the challenge that threw down with Jim Butcher might think that’s a dumb idea, it would absolutely sell like hotcakes, because Pokémon.
But if you’ve read The Codex Alera, you might have noticed something as you’ve moved across its pages: There are no Pokémon. And I don’t mean that there aren’t any Pikachu, but instead just some sort of “capturable monster kept by a trainer that is legally distinct from a Pokémon,” like Digimon. You won’t find characters shouting “I choose you!” as they pit their creatures against one another either.
For that matter, you won’t exactly find The Lost Roman Legion, either. Don’t get me wrong, it’s there! As is the “Pokémon” part of the challenge. But it’s not identical to the starting idea, and there’s a reason for this.
Now, bear with me for a moment, because I am not Jim Butcher, so I don’t know the exact process he went through with figuring out these books. But I am a fellow author who’s played with some similar concepts some would call “disparate” (to put it lightly), so I’m fairly confident that I can guess a rough approximation of what Butcher did: he sat down with these two ideas, these two concepts, and began breaking them down into various pieces and parts.
Why? Because one of the reasons some people insist that such ideas are bad ideas is that they don’t go together conceptually at first appearance, like two puzzles that are made of very different pieces and form very different pictures. How could they go together?
But as this neat little aside shows, two puzzles can go together and create some very striking imagery. But there’s a key fact to how that works that we need to discuss: None of those puzzles use all of the pieces from either puzzle.
So it is with The Codex Alera and any other idea mash-up we might be imagining. Alera didn’t take all the elements of The Lost Roman Legion and Pokémon and just slam them together to create a single thing. Butcher broke each idea down into its component pieces and then examined which bits and bobs would fit with others and fit well.
Fitting well is an important aspect to consider here. Let’s set aside The Codex Alera for now and just talk about concepts. Every idea, be it “The Bermuda Triangle” or “Old MacDonald had a farm” is made up of concepts. For example, “The Bermuda Triangle” has a bunch of smaller concepts that make up the whole, such as a triangle shaped area, ocean, missing ships, strange weather phenomena, etc (for the record, the Bermuda Triangle doesn’t actually see more phenomena per-ship/plane than any other part of the world, but has the rep because it’s such a traveled area that more reports come from that area by a percentage that matches with the rest of the world simply due to volume). Each one of those concepts is like a puzzle piece. Some are large, and some are small, but if you put them together, you get “The Bermuda Triangle.”
But what if you’re mashing that idea with another one? Which pieces fit? Which pieces don’t? Can you keep all of them? Or will you need to get rid of some of them in order to build a cohesive image with the concepts from the other half of what you’re mashing up with?
This last question is a vital one. Let’s stick with the “Bermuda Triangle” concept a bit longer and say that we’re going to combine it with … F1 Racing! There we go! Our mash-up that we’re planning is “F1 Racing with The Bermuda Triangle.”
But that mash-up immediately gives us a problem. Can you see it? Let’s break down the concepts once again. “The Bermuda Triangle” is made up of “triangle shaped area,” “ocean,” “missing ships,” “strange weather phenomena,” and for fun let’s say “alien encounters.”
Now let’s pick apart the concepts that make up “F1 Racing.” “Race cars,” “tracks,” “sponsors,” “racing teams,” and, uh … “drivers” (please note this is an example; if you’re an F1 enthusiast go easy on my simplification here).
So, with these two lists, can you see any of these concepts that go well together and lead to some neat story elements or occurrences? I certainly can!
But I also see a few elements that, when placed together, bring problems. One of the largest ones is the mix of “tracks” with “ocean.” See, ocean doesn’t have pavement. It’s water, which also gives us a problem with the “car” concept a bit.
This isn’t to say that these two ideas don’t work together. Of course they can. But when figuring out what concept pieces to keep and what to set aside, we’re going to need to make some decisions, because we cannot fit all the pieces of each idea together.
Furthermore, the various concepts that made up each idea are not created equal. For example, we can cut “alien encounters” and “weather phenomena” from “The Bermuda Triangle” and still be left with “ocean,” “triangle-shaped area,” and “missing boats.” Enough to recognizably be “The Bermuda Triangle.” But if we cut the other direction, and remove “ocean,” “triangle-shaped area,” and “missing ships” suddenly what we’re left with isn’t exactly “The Bermuda Triangle.”
Same can be said for “F1 Racing.” What this means is that in order to blend the two, we must decide which concepts matter most, or rather, which concepts are the largest and most influential, and how we wish to array them.
For example, to meld those two ideas, we either have to cut “ocean” or “cars” from our story as a cohesive concept. Cars just don’t work well “on” water (for starters, they sink). If we try and go ahead anyway, and have our cars run on water or just ignore entirely that the two don’t mesh well together, well, that gives us an issue I alluded to last week in the post about shoving Dark Souls-style combat into games where it didn’t mesh with the other concepts.
Maybe we expand on another concept. Maybe we take “tracks” and we tweak them so that they float on or above the water. Or maybe we break down “cars” further and take most of those elements and apply them to speedboats instead? Can we make the other elements of “F1 Racing” work with boats?
What I’m illustrating here is a path of give-and-take. Each of the concepts that make up our ideas has a certain size and weight to it that can be so small as to be almost inconsequential or so large as to impact every other aspect of the idea. And what we as authors must learn to do when mixing these concepts is to determine the “weight” of each concept and whether or not it is worth pursuing over what it may cost the rest of our idea.
For example, we could be very committed to the “cars” element of “F1 Racing” in our mash-up above and choose to let that bit take the most important consideration for the rest of our story … even when that means we will need to cut the ocean aspect of the other side. The “car” element simply has so many requirements that it cannot coexist with the “ocean” in the way we’ve decided to put our story together.
Or … we could go a different direction and change the “tracks” element. Or remove the “car” element and swap it for “speedboat.” Or other possibilities.
The point is some of these concepts have a larger footprint over our overall story, and as we’re examining the elements that make up our ideas, we need to recognize these footprints for what they are and what impact they will have on our story. If we don’t, or rather if we fail to extrapolate what the impact of having one footprint might extend to, we can create a story that is very much a “bad execution” because we didn’t realize what a jarring combination two concepts might be.
Right then, what’s our conclusion today? If take any one thing from this post, it shouldn’t be that “there are no bad ideas, just bad executions.” You can take that from any number of other posts.
No, what you should take is that there’s more to a good execution than simply thinking to one’s self “I’ll make a good mash-up of these two ideas.” There needs to be a reasoned, careful break-down of what goes into each idea, of what elements and concepts give shape to each one, along with how important those elements are to the idea, or rather how big a footprint each one carries. Then we need to compare and contrast the elements and footprints from each idea, looking at them and seeing what fits when we start putting them together … and what does not.
And again, you usually will not use all the pieces of each idea. Like with those puzzles above, you’ll be creating a composite from the various concepts, and that means some of them will be reworked, replaced, or discarded. Above all else, you’ll want to pay close attention to the “footprint” of various elements to make sure that it doesn’t eclipse what you want the fusion of your ideas to represent. Instead, find a footprint that will support what you’d like your fusion to look at, so that if it is something that takes over all of the other concepts or needs to be above them, it’s the thing that you want the story to revolve around.
This sounds complicated, I know, but trust me when I say it’s simpler than it appears, as well as easier once you get some practice with it. A lot of creators will learn to do it in their heads, but some will sit down and create charts or diagrams to explore the way these ideas intersect.
Whichever you do, just don’t forget the why behind it: Your goal is to take two (or more) ideas and fit their concepts together to create your own blend that creates, in the end, a good execution.
There are no bad ideas. So get out there, and start finding your good execution.
Good luck. Now get writing.
Being a Better Writer and Unusual Things are kept advertisement free thanks to the donations of our Patreon Supporter crew: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Miller, Brown, Lightwind, Boomer, 22ndTemplar, Piiec, Wisehart, Sarah, and Taylor!
If you’d like to be a supporter as well, then check out the Patreon Page (and get access to some bonus exclusive content) or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, why not purchase a book? Or do both!