Ideas vs Stories


Ideas and stories are not the same. Ideas can be the starting point of stories or any other story fragments, but they are not stories. An idea can be the basis of lots of different stories. A great idea doesn’t equal a great story. On the other hand, without a great idea, you can never create a great story.

Simply put: ideas are what come to you, while stories require work.

In the business of self-publishing, where a lot of writers start (and often end!) their careers these days, I see a lot of books published where the authors have had ideas but have not developed them into proper stories. This is a terrible shame. In part because their ideas often deserve to be transformed into stories. In part because poor quality self-published books throws long shadows of doubt as to the quality of self-published book in general.

There are a few criteria that distinguish a story from an idea:

  • An idea is often very general, while a story is always specific.

  • A story has a beginning, middle and an end. A character is taken out of her static, ongoing situation, due to an unusual event. This event prompts the character to react and act. The character now has a problem to solve or a desire to pursue. There are obstacles that prevent the character from achieving their goal. Initially. At some point the character manages to turn the situation around and overcomes the obstacles, thus achieving the goal created by that unusual event. Or the character is completely beat and gives up the fight, thus giving up the goal. The end.

  • The actions in a story are linked together through cause and effect. They are not a sequence of events that just happen to unfold chronologically.

Examples are:

  • You might want write about a cop solving crimes. That is too general and therefore an idea, not a story. A story would be about a specific cop solving a specific crime. Even better still, a specific cop solving a specific crime that breaks the patterns of her usual crime solving activities.

  • A cop who comes to a crime scene and apprehends the bad guy red-handed is not a story. A story involves the cop going up against a lot of obstacles before solving the puzzle of who did it or obstacles that prevent the cop from actually catching the bad guy if she early on knows who he is.

  • Your idea might be to write about your life or the life of someone else. That’s an idea, not a story. You might say: this is about a specific person. All the same, a person’s life is not a story. Within the life span of a person, there will be many stories. That is why writing a novel or screenplay based on a lived life is so difficult. Most people will get hung up in details and never focus on finding an actual story hidden within all the sequences of events that have unfolded. They simply show a random sequence of events without any outer or inner progress. Their character might have a lot of trials and tribulations, but that in itself is not a story. That might actually be the status quo.

  • Ideas might be any part of a story (story fragment). Your idea might be that unusual event that yanks the character out of her everyday life. Say: someone is unjustly accused of murdering their spouse. A great idea for a movie or novel, that promises a lot of action and an emotional journey. The start of the story is the situation BEFORE the murder. Without it, you don’t have a start. Then there are all the obstacles the character has to go through to prove his innocence. Some of these will be incriminating evidence.

  • Another idea you might have is for a children’s book about a child who is afraid of the dark and has trouble sleeping. An idea, which could be the basis of many stories. It is not a story if you present the child getting out of bed, afraid of the dark (which is a usual event that happens every night) and a parent explains that there is nothing to be afraid about, which calms the child to fall asleep. And perhaps wake up the following morning, proud that he no longer is afraid of the dark. This is not a story because it lacks the unusual event and the child doesn’t really conquer any real obstacles.

We often say that ideas “come to” us. Just about everything and anything can inspire an idea. Having ideas is a blessing. If, however, you choose to run with an idea and not take the time to properly develop it into a full blown story, it will be like saying a picture puzzle is complete even if many of the pieces are missing.

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