Deb Elise Brings the Big Idea Down to Size

Vice Versa18 againBig

Here’s the thing about The Big Idea, at least in my opinion.

It’s not such a big deal.

Yes, the Big Idea is great, and you want it to have that compelling “elevator pitch” quality that will reel people in the second they hear about it… but the Big Idea is really a very small part of writing any story, in any medium.  The meat is in the details.

I remember realizing this vividly when I was in high school.  It was 1988 (go ahead, do the math), and three movies came out at pretty much the exact same time, all with the same Big Idea: spend some time in a body not your own, and gain a new perspective on life.

The movies?  Vice Versa (dad and kid exchange bodies), 18 Again (kid and grandfather swap bodies), and Big (kid makes a wish and gets an adult body).

Most likely, you only know one of those movies.  I actually saw all three, and you didn’t miss anything.

And yet… they all had the same Big Idea.

The difference, of course, is in the execution.  A Big Idea might sell a project, but if the execution isn’t solid; if the details aren’t specific, unique, and compelling, the story will be hollow, and it won’t succeed.

Publishing is a business and it’s certainly easier to sell your book when you have a Big Idea “hook,” but the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you’re done once you have it.  Got a hook you love?  Great.  Set it aside and don’t concentrate on it while you figure out your characters, your world, and all the little idiosyncrasies that make your story ring true.  Once that work is in place, you’ll have more than a Big Idea, you’ll have a great story that works.

Have you found this in your own writing?  Do you tend to be inspired by a Big Idea, then work back to fill in the world?  From what I’ve gathered in his author notes, that was the process of Stephen King’s Under The Dome — he had an immediate Big Idea of a Dome sitting over a town… but the story only works because he moved beyond that idea to get intimately involved with every personal story within that town.  Or do you start your stories with a character that speaks to you,  then follow him/her until you find the story, and whatever Big Idea naturally evolves?

~ Deb Elise

15 Replies to “Deb Elise Brings the Big Idea Down to Size”

  1. A character comes to me first, and I follow her (or sometimes him) around until she (or he) reveals the Big Idea to me. And you’re absolutely right — a Big Idea is a fine thing to have, but not nearly as important as what you do with it.

    1. I’ve gone both ways (stop laughing, Tawna), and there’s definitely something exciting about following a character around with no concrete Big Idea. When he or she leads you there, it really is a revelation. Yet even in start-with-big-idea stories, fleshing them out completely leads to huge surprises.

      Pretty much it’s like all of us writers have huge habitrails in our heads, and get to ooh and aah all the time over what our fuzzy little rodents decide to do in there.

  2. Yes, I can relate to this! I had what I thought was a great plot idea, and I originally envisioned it as a play. I tried to write the play on and off for years, but I was having a hard time figuring out how to do it. Then one day I thought, “how would I write this as a novel?” I realized that the best way for me to connect with the story was through the eyes of what had previously been a minor character. That night I went home and wrote all night and three months later I had the first draft of my novel 🙂

    My original plot idea wasn’t enough, I had to picture it through the eyes of that one character to really get into the story.

    1. I love that! I’ll do that as an exercise too, just to make sure none of the characters are flat. I have whole slush word docs detailing what each character is thinking/feeling about the story and their part of it. In their own heads, each character is the MC, and they need to be filled out just as much.

      It must have been so exciting and satisfying to see your story morph from one type of story to another!

  3. I love the idea of each character thinking they’re the main character – what’s that saying, you are the hero of your own story? The same goes for characters and antagonists, too. 🙂

    I tend to see a character first and then let the story develop from him or her. But I do sometimes feel pressure to come up with “the big idea” first and then insert characters. So many article and books put the emphasis on that hook/big idea. Of course, when I try that, it doesn’t work for me. You’d think I’d learn by now. 🙂

    1. Populazzi actually did start with its Big Idea, but when I had it, I knew I still didn’t have a novel. What the Big Idea gave me were questions. Who exactly would do what I was proposing with my Big Idea? WHY would she do it? How would people react? Why would they react that way — where were they coming from that they’d see the world the way they do?

      It was the answers to those and a zillion other questions that got me excited about the characters and eager to follow them. That’s when I knew I had a novel — everything before wouldn’t stand up to the toothpick test — it was still moist and uncooked in the middle.

  4. I definitely start with a group of small ideas and weave them together – no big ideas for me.

    But I am interested in how movies and books both get into trends of big ideas – chick lit, the current paranormal romance craze…seeing those three movies together reminded me of that.

    1. I think execs/publishers talk and/or read the same trend forecasting reports. There are firms out there that play fortuneteller and prognosticate the Next Big Thing. Companies pay huge money to subscribe to the best of these firms, and I suppose it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when everyone seeks out projects that fit that mold.

      Next Big Idea — get one of those firms to say the Next Big Thing will be the EXACT plot of the next book I’m about to pitch!

    1. I think I saw EVERY movie that came out in 1988! I used to go the movies A LOT as a teen. Pretty sure half my daily calories came from popcorn!

  5. Funny that SAME big idea keeps popping up, along with other BIG IDEAS that seem to appear in threesomes all at once and rarely with the same degree of success. I don’t mind recycling really good old BIG IDEAS as long someone sees the concept through fresh eyes and a new slant and makes me really invest in the characters. It’s the details – the parts that breathe life into your characters – that mean more than the idea bubble in which they live.

    1. I agree. I have no problem with a “tired” idea… if it’s executed in a way that draws me in. I thought the Lindsay Lohan (pre-train-wreck) version of “Freaky Friday” was like that. It wasn’t earthshattering, and lord knows the plot — and even that exact movie — has been done a zillion times, but it was emotionally grounded and completely adorable.

  6. Although I definitely write Deb Eleanor style (using the paper clip process), I also have to have a BIG IDEA to start with. I have to fall in love with the idea and the characters (and be borderline obsessed with it) before proceeding. xoxoxo

  7. This made me think of an article I read recently that went through all the really creepy aspects of the movie BIG. I hadn’t thought of it when I watched the movie back in 7th grade, but there really are a lot of ick-factors in that movie!


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