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The Foundation of Ideas


Ideas underpin any piece of fiction. They make the difference between the book that doesn’t get sold and the bestseller; they also make the difference between the bestseller that a couple of years later you find on the second-hand bookshelf, and the bestseller which is read again and again and made into box-office-shattering films.

Get the ideas right, and the rest will come much easier.

But what ideas? Do you just dream up some clever ideas and then hope for the best? No, there are ways of approaching this which will get you to the core of the matter far more quickly.

The motivation you have as a writer is intimately connected to the central ideas or themes you want to communicate in your work. If you consider, deep down, that your ideas are not important enough or powerful enough, it’s likely that you won’t make the time to push various obstacles out of the way and get writing actually happening.

If you find it easy, you are inspired; if you find it difficult, then the other forces in operation in Life - family pressures, health, money and all the rest of them - are stronger than your drive to write. What can you do?

Dig deeper.

To overcome this kind of inertia, you need to tap into deeper, more profound levels of thought and imagination than you are currently.

Throughout the history of literature, one thing stands out when you examine successful authors: all of them had some kind of consistent vision about Life. These things may have changed and evolved over time for them; they may occasionally be hard to summarise or even express in terms apart from their fiction itself; but, at the time of writing, a stable vision underlaid the piece of work.

Think of Shakespeare’s Tragedies; think of Donne’s poems; think of Forster’s novels. Think of George Lucas’s Star Wars.

Think of any piece of successful fiction that you like. They all have themes, and by themes is meant that they all rest upon a foundation of powerfully held ideas. The ideas may not be the personal beliefs of the author - it’s hard to conclude that Shakespeare himself viewed Life tragically, or what exactly went on in Donne’s love life, though thousands of words of speculation have been written about both - but for the time that the work was being created, ideas formed the basis of it.

Where does one start in creating a set of foundation ideas for a piece of fiction that in any way approaches the grandeur of, for example, Hardy’s melancholic view of Life, or Tolkien’s or Graham Greene’s Catholicism?

The truth is that you will already have these ideas in some form. It’s quite possible - even likely - that your existing fiction already reveals some of the underlying basis upon which it can develop to be better and more powerful.

Like an untrained coal-miner, you’ve probably walked right past seams of coal in your material without realising what they were.

Here’s what you can do to get started:

A. Spend some time working out the central ideas or themes you want to communicate in your work. What’s important to you? What gives your life meaning?

B. Work out how to go deeper; reach more profound levels of thought and imagination than you are currently. If possible, work out what your consistent vision about Life is. You will probably have these ideas in some form already at work in your life. Think of yourself as a coal-miner, seeking rich seams of coal in your own material.

C. Look for the particular turns of phrase that you admire in a piece of your writing; are there specific chapters which resonate with emotional power? Work out from these what is working in your writing already.

Soon the core ideas that will form the heart of your fiction will begin to pull everything else together.

For more, see the book How Stories Really Work.


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