Do you believe in Carl Jung’s collective unconscious? To summarise, he believed we share a common inheritance of instincts, memories and archetypes. I think of it as a universally available lending library. It makes sense, but accepting that or not, where do you think ideas come from? Do they live in us or outside? As a writer, you must speculate on them, I’ll bet.
Renowned filmmaker David Lynch thinks they ‘re like fish. The biggest and best are huge and hidden. They lurk in the deep, safe in the dark where we can’t see their fat, silver-scaled potential and in order to catch one we have to drop our lines and be very quiet and patient. Have a listen to where he talks about ideas. Just his telling of it is magical and inspirational. (6 minutes in).
Ideas About Ideas
I love the notion that ideas have a life of their own. Think about it, every idea of mankind is generated by pure creativity or as a solution to a problem. But why did the idea pick you? Or me? Who knows? We all have niggles that won’t go away and we have to deal with them, which makes them part of our urge to write and maybe ideas are searching for the best vehicle to birth them. As David Lynch says, “The idea wants to be something, it’s a seed for something.” It doesn’t have to be a piece of writing; it might take another form. To shift the metaphor from fish to oyster, the irritation is the grain of sand, the idea is the pearl.
Where do they come from? There are 3 main sources, I believe.
Unprompted. They walk into our heads, as image, concept, or character.
Externally. You’re given a stated theme or source material.
Brainstorming. Writing down your madcap thoughts, going off like fireworks in your inner vision.
But when having ideas about ideas, we’re chasing them, and like fish, they swim away. It’s best to do as David Lynch says and wait patiently.
Ideas and Execution
Once an idea grabs us, what do we do with it?
Execution – otherwise known as craft – is the hardest thing to do. When deciding what to write about, and how, or what will most appeal to readers and audiences, we have to navigate a maze of creative choices as well.
Ideas and execution are symbiotic. I believe one is nothing without the other, but some literary managers and agents say they look for execution over idea in a submission. Others say the idea is everything, ‘high concept’ being the Holy Grail. Having chased the writing dream for a while, I now favour execution over idea. That’s not to say idea isn’t important, but a genius writer can make any idea sizzle with deft, innovative execution, as in ‘a new twist on…’
Creativity and Execution
You can’t separate the two. Firstly, creative choices are part of the execution. What’s the best setting for this scene? Where do I place it in the scheme of things? How much do I reveal? Where do I start? We immediately get that, but for a written piece the choice is more than a passing sense of defeat, it’s technical, as in, ‘Where does my story start?’ The decision is crucial. Too early, and the reader gets bored, too late, and you risk confusion. On that subject, decisions about planting information early are on a technical ‘need to know’ basis. How much does the reader need to know to understand the set-up, unless you’re considering holding back for later reveals, which I would argue, requires your creative hat.
Secondly, we’re getting into the realms of story design here, something I’m studying at the moment, and it matters, because how you present your idea is a crucial part of shaping your project. The success of your story design, and in turn the execution of it, depends on creative (and analytical) skills in the early stages. That’s not to say it’s cast in stone and you won’t change it.
I’m ambivalent about this. The gurus say you should stress test your initial writing ideas with other people. Is it strong, and original, and most of all, is it commercial? There’s nothing wrong with that process and it’s essential in the business of film, but if we’re talking purely creatively, an idea is often so personal that others are not going to get it at first, but the idea came to you for a reason. Additionally, if you feel passionately enough, my instinct says you should go with it. I think this is the essence of the approach write from the heart, but that’s just me. Your idea is huge, beautiful and life changing to you and you alone, however, if your execution is good enough, you stand a chance of making it irresistible to producers and the marketplace as well. Oh, and remember to write it down. Why are ideas like fish? They’re slippery and they can get away.
Header image: Courtesy of Picjumbo.com