If ideas form the centre of a successful piece of fiction, does it matter what those ideas are?
Should a writer just dream up any kind of idea, and, as long as it remains central to everything else in the story, will that guarantee success?
First we have to define what we mean by an ‘idea’. The dictionary can easily confuse us at this point. ‘Idea’ is defined as ‘a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action’ but also as ‘a mental impression’ and ‘an opinion or belief’. ‘Idea’ can also mean the aim or purpose of something, which is getting closer to a workable definition in our context. Plato used the word to mean ‘an eternally existing pattern of which individual things in any class are imperfect copies’; Kant defined ‘idea’ as ‘a concept of pure reason, not empirically based in experience’. Somewhere in all of that is a definition that works in relation to fiction.
Our definition is not what most writers probably come up with when they think of the word ‘idea’. The usual concept is something more like an image: for example, the ‘idea’ behind Harry Potter is a school for wizards; the ‘idea’ behind Star Wars is a galactic rebellion; the ‘idea’ which prompted Superman is an alien landing on our world from another planet. And yes, those are all ideas in one sense - but it’s possible to define ‘idea’ more like the theme of each work: the subject of a piece of writing. In that case, Harry Potter is about friendship and loyalty; Star Wars is about faith and truth; Superman is about power used for good.
Somewhere between the definition of ‘idea’ above and the word ‘theme’ is the definition we need: the subject of a piece of fiction, the single governing concept which lies at the heart of the work - not quite the same as ‘theme’ because that can be too colourless. For us, ‘idea’ is the uncloaked truth about a tale, the sun-like centre of it.
What writers normally think about as the ‘idea’ we will call the ‘image’: school for wizards, galactic rebellion, alien from another world, etc.
Confusing the two is why the vast majority of stories fail.
How? Because the Idea is the force which pulls a story together and makes sure that it works, that it operates as a dance of images. Unless this is spotted, writers tend to think that it is the Image which lies at the heart of a story. Thus a tale about a school of wizards which focused only on that image - children receiving lessons about magic, and all the interaction and episodic events which telling that story would conjure - would be entertaining for a short while, but in the end it would spin off into a void and perish, a passing delight, a temporary dream. What makes Harry Potter last, what gives it its real drama and power is its Idea: that friendship and loyalty and love are prime. This notion, about companionship and compassion, is then dressed in the trappings of a school for wizards. That unique blend of Idea and Image gives us one of the best-selling series in the world.
Similarly, concentrating on the ins and outs of a galactic rebellion with its spaceships and battles and monsters and devices gives us something more closely approaching a computer game than a lasting work of fiction. The Star Wars films, at their best, focus instead on faith and the truth that lies in the heart of human relationships - and in that way they forwarded a cultural revolution.
What we see going on in the world of comic books, to give another example, is symptomatic of dwelling too much upon the powers, the battles, the superficial conflicts contained within the Images of its stories. At its best, the tale of Superman touches on the moral choices that come from having superhuman power.
Whenever a work of fiction contacts its Idea, it comes to life; whenever it lingers too long on its Image, it starts to fade.
C. S. Lewis’s famous classic for children, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, famously began as a series of images in the author’s mind: a faun, a lamppost, a snowy scene, a wardrobe. With the entrance of a great Lion, these images were pulled together. The story goes into orbit around its central Idea of sacrifice and resurrection and is one of the best-loved tales in the world.
Think of any successful piece of fiction: each of them is a dance of images around a central Idea or closely interwoven set of Ideas. Lesser fiction can still succeed - we can still enjoy stories which are simply gatherings of Images, even computer games which are two-dimensional stories. But these will lack the force to survive beyond a superficial level. The great stories, the great literature, the culture-changing material which forms myths and legends in our own minds, all have Ideas at their heart around which everything else revolves.
There are technical reasons why all this works, which we will get to later.