Let’s just say it straight out: Your ideas are not worth very much. Ideas are cheap because ideas are like hydrogen: They are the most common elements in the writing world. Everyone walking around all those conferences, bookstores, and readings? They are absolutely dripping with ideas. And those ideas are worthless, because all have them, and very often we have the same ideas.

What makes an idea worth something is the work you put into it. That’s why writers can actually sell their stories, after all; if it was just about generating ideas we could build some sort of machine and feed it ideas and it would write books based on them (it’s possible this has already happened and they replaced several popular thriller authors with such a machine, but I digress).

It’s what you bring to an idea, the execution, that makes your writing valuable. Here, let’s have an experiment.

An Idea Experiment

If you doubt me, just check out Reddit’s Writing Prompts subreddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/)—which has, by the way, more than 10 million subscribers. People throw ideas out there every single day, and so far there’s no shortage in sight.

I’m now going to dash off ten ideas for stories. I swear I haven’t prepared in advance; you’re just going to have to trust me that I’ll be doing this cold. Ten ideas off the top of my head—use them if you like; I might too. Here we go:

  1. Man has always heard running water that no one else hears. When he was a kid it was a trickle, but recently it’s more like a heavy rain.
  2. Thief breaks into a huge mansion in search of riches, discovers it’s an immense Mystery House-cum-Murder Mansion and becomes lost in the secret rooms.
  3. Old man writes a memoir and tries to sell it to publishers, only to be accused of plagiarism because his life is essentially the plot of a famous novel.
  4. Couple move into a new apartment and their next-door neighbors are super loud. A noise war ensues, getting increasingly absurd, until one day next door is … chillingly silent.
  5. Embittered woman drunkenly decides to murder her unfaithful husband via poison. When she wakes up in a dazed hangover her family and friends have come to visit and she can’t recall where she put the poison.
  6. Man joins an online dating service, checks no sexual preference, and keeps being matches with himself.
  7. Woman has been keeping a diary since she was ten. During a house move she starts flipping back through them and realizes someone’s been editing them, and deleting information.
  8. Aliens invade, conquer us brutally, and offer a choice to all survivors of the Six Week War: Be hunted and killed, or live out your life as zoo exhibits. Our protagonist accepts, then keeps escaping his enclosure on the alien world, and becomes a celebrity animal.
  9. Time travel of a sort is invented; you can show where a molecule or group of molecules (e.g. a person) will be in a certain period of time. The main use is to show precisely when you’re going to die, and where.
  10. In the near future subdermal chips are commonly implanted in employees (which is already a rare but real thing). Now they’re being used to enforce non-compete clauses, and after your fifth job in three years you literally aren’t legally allowed to work anywhere.

Obviously some of these could use some polishing—I just made them up, after all. This took me five minutes. It’s not the ideas—it’s the execution of those ideas.

One thought on “Ideas are Like Hydrogen

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