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“Is this a good idea, or an idea idea?”

Setting, character, idea

Still just trying to improve the quality of the crap I find on the fantasy and sci fi shelf, so I don’t have to write my own quite so much.

What I wanted to say here was: Forget ideas. Just put interesting characters in an interesting, challenging, flexible setting and let what happens happens. I wish that were all there was to it. Ideas do matter. But I think both my readers, and all five bazillion other amateur novelists out there, will agree that “elevator pitch culture” overemphasizes cute ideas to the exclusion of what actually makes readers read books.

In case you don’t know what an elevator pitch is: I believe the term originated in Hollywood, although it could have been New York or Silicon Valley. You have a brilliant idea for a movie, a TV series, a startup, whatever. You get on the elevator and discover that you’re sharing it with the Head of Programming (or the Chief of Investment Banking or the studio’s chief scout or whatever). Possibly this is not an accident: possibly you’ve been waiting behind the potted plant in the lobby. In any case, you now have ten seconds to sell your idea (to someone who, frankly, would have been happier left alone). For example… well, check this lovely startup elevator pitch generator. The same basic idea works for novels, of course: now you’re on the hotel elevator with the sci fi editor for DAW.

Clearly having a succinct idea, and not just a good setting and a good cast, matters. Just to illustrate the obviousness of this, let me try and elevator-pitch some novels you may or may not have read.

  • A downtrodden orphan is informed that he’s actually a wizard and is invited to attend the School of Wizardry; at the same time he learns that his parents’ vicious killer is still on the loose.
  • Every year, each district sends two children to the Capitol (sic) to compete in a murderous contest from which only one out of the twenty-four contestants will emerge alive.
  • The neat-o magic ring your uncle brought back from his famous adventure? Yeah, it’s actually evil, and you, shorty, you have to take it across the world and throw it in a volcano, and yeah, there are some people who don’t want you to do that.
  • The last gunslinger, exile from a forgotten time, chases the man in black. But he must gather allies from the past if he wants to solve the mystery of the dark tower and save the world.
  • The King’s kid number five, age ten and a half, suddenly finds herself on the run—and the heiress to the empty throne, the only survivor when the royal family is wiped out by murderous invaders. And somehow, with help from both living and dead, she has to turn herself into a warrior and a Queen.
  • Her wizard parents are both dead and she has to go to the School of Magic where their killer probably lurks. And that’s only the beginning of her troubles, because she, um… it’s really complicated but it involves these four elements, you see, and she’s in love with this swordsman but you know they’re not going to end up together and she goes on the run and she has a baby but there’s something complicated about that too, and just when it all seems like it’s coming to a final conflict, it sort of just misses and there’s one more book which is totally unnecessary but must have sold well and it’s actually the best-written of the four…

Okay, the last one was a little unfair. Aurian is not the greatest fantasy series ever, but it’s a counterexample anyway, because readers are borne along by their attachment to the main character, not to the quite complicated plot. In any case, Aurian is not about to be turned into a major motion picture. (Nor is the one before it, I’m afraid; that would be my self-published e-book, Princess of Ghosts.)

But it’s not all about the pitch

Looking at the list, it seems like the succinct idea is the key to writing that masterpiece. It’s true that each of these (well, except the last one) has a clearly definable basic idea, one that could be gotten across in a twenty-second elevator ride. But concentrating on that elevator ride is misleading for at least three reasons:

  1. You aren’t going to get across the characters, not really, in twenty seconds, so concentrating on the pitch biases your view against the importance of character.
  2. Bad ideas can be short too. And good ideas can be long: try elevator pitching The Great Gatsby: “Nick discovers he has an interesting neighbor when he moves to Long Island, near where an old friend of his lives. The neighbor is some kind of mobster but is also the old flame of the old friend’s wife. The old friend is kind of a jerk, but his wife is beautiful and seems really nice. But the neighbor mobster has a secret. And he has this car, and that matters because… aw, crap, the publisher guy got off at his floor.”
  3. The publisher guy probably wasn’t listening anyway.

The value of the elevator pitch isn’t that you’re going to pitch someone in an elevator: it’s that you can actually state, concisely, what your story is about. That has value. But so do other things:

  • The Harry Potter novels have multitudes of interesting characters and a setting that is unsurpassed for the combination of beauty, complexity, horror and simplicity.
  • The Hunger Games would not be The Hunger Games without their first person present tense narrator, the marvelous Katniss.
  • The Frodo Baggins of the novels is a surpassingly compelling character, much more so than in the movies; his supporting cast, especially Gandalf, Sam and Aragorn, are archetypal yet also highly individual; the world is both stunning and totally believable, a visual feast even on the black and white page.
  • The Gunslinger of the Dark Tower novels is the sort of main character the reader feels loyalty toward. If he showed up on my doorstep with an extra gun and said, “You gotta come with me,” I would do it. (I’d insist my wife come with. He’d be down with that.) And the settings are perfect: just warped enough not to be the predictable West.
  • I can’t say how readers feel, but Alice forced me to write what I wrote. I had to write it just to find out what happened to her, her best friend Skela, Skela’s mom the warrior Ingrid and so on.
  • Aurian. Aurian, Aurian. She’s the one and only reason I tormented myself through four thick volumes.


The idea idea

Contrast this with something like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (Or, and maybe I’m being unfair, almost anything either steam punk or cyber punk.) The elevator pitch is nice and short. But somehow the execution leaves a lot of us quite unimpressed. I suspect the problem in this case is with using characters someone else invented, rather than developing characters organically. I know my own opinion is subjective, but you can probably think of your own examples.

I’m a sort of Lovecraft expert/apologist. A friend of mine informs me at least twice a year of a novel she thinks I would love, and the usual plug goes sort of like this: “So this hard-boiled detective investigating secrets under the Vatican discovers a cult that’s trying to raise up Cthulhu and he has to get Mata Hari to…” I don’t listen to the rest. It can’t be good.

It’s great to have a succinct plot idea. But the characters carry the story, and characters taken off the shelf at the Character Store are just not compelling. I mean, what shelf at the Character Store had Harry Potter? Or Katniss or Frodo or, for that matter, Jay Gatsby? (Or Jacky Clothilde?) They had to grow organically, and we had to learn their secrets and their ins and outs organically.

I have more. But I’ll save it for later. Any thoughts?