Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.10: Idea, as Genre, with Nancy Fulda

Nancy Fulda joined us in the dark dungeons of Dragonsteel Entertainment to discuss the elemental genre of “Idea.” It’s tricky, because “Idea” in the elemental genres model isn’t quite the same as “Idea” in the M.I.C.E. quotient. There’s a lot of overlap, of course, but the differences are significant.

We talk about stories in which the driving force is “ooh, let’s think about this for a while,” and how we might go about instilling this sense of fascination in our readers.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Find a cool idea, and then brainstorm twenty stories you could tell, using that idea as the core element.

Thing of the week: Dead Men Don’t Cry, by Nancy Fulda, narrated by Joseph Zieja.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: The elemental genre idea story. Not MICE idea. Idea, question, what if? Fascination is the key emotion driving the idea story. What is this, what is happening? Mental exploration, ramifications, consequences, and poking. The reader needs to be fascinated, although the character may not be. Outside of SF/F, often close to mystery, drama, thriller. E.g., mystery looks at why did this happen and who did it, while the idea story looks at the ramifications of it. Beware of falling into world builder’s disease — put in character responses, and give the reader cues to understand and feel, not just details. Think about what could go wrong, who reacts to it, who gains or loses. Show how the idea changes familiar activities. Didactic stories and agendas often use idea stories. But the idea story really comes alive at the intersection with a strong character. Make sure that someone has a personal stake and consequences in the idea. For a story, start with an idea, then add in character, plot, setting, conflict.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 10.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Idea As Genre.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have a special guest star, Nancy Fulda.
[Nancy] Hi.
[Brandon] Welcome back to the podcast, Nancy.
[Nancy] Thank you.
[Brandon] We’re always glad to have you here.

[Brandon] We’re going to be talking about idea stories. Mary, can you dig us into this and explain what we mean by this?
[Mary] Sure. So one thing that I want to make everyone aware of is that when we’re talking about idea, you don’t need to feel like you need to map the MICE quotient on to this. We’re not talking about the idea of the acronym MICE. Although they do have a lot in common. So, an idea story is one where you’re really looking at an idea, a question, a what-if. It’s something that is fascinating to you. It’s really about a question. It’s what is this, what is happening, and you’re exploring that idea.
[Brandon] Each of these elementals genres, we’ve kind of attached an emotion to them, or a set of emotions. Like wonder was driven by awe. This one is driven by fascination, which is different from the curiosity of what’s going… Of the mystery… What’s going to happen next? This is kind of this thing is so cool, I want to play with it longer and see what buttons in it I can push.
[Dan] Exactly.
[Howard] I keep turning the pages because I want to think about this. This fascinates me, and I want to continue being fascinated.
[Dan] A lot of science fiction falls into this, if you have a cool new technology or a new planet that you want to explore. A lot of Brandon’s fantasy books fall into this category because it’s here’s a cool magic system. Let’s…
[Brandon] Play with it.
[Dan] Take a look at all of its ramifications.
[Brandon] You mentioned exploration. Exploration is part of this, but not necessarily physical exploration.
[Mary] It’s really much more about the mental exploration, and the excitement that that can provoke in the reader’s brain by looking at all of the things that this cool idea… I think we were talking about, with some of the others, that you could make… Kind of make a noise with them. This one is, “Ooo, neat.”
[Nancy] One way I like to think of it is like imagine a nine-year-old geeky kid who’s just gotten their hands on their very first Rubik’s cube. They’re like, “Oh, wait, it turns this way. It turns this way. There’s a puzzle… What happens at the end? How can I make it do what I wanted to?” So for me, an idea story is really about digging into the mechanics of something, what can I do with it. Future extrapolation is a big part of this subgenre.

[Brandon] It’s very interesting that science fiction has a grand history of this, and some of the best idea stories are these dark dystopias. Some of the other best idea stories are these beautiful exploration, Star Trek, look at this cool planet we found, let’s see what happens on it. Both things… Like, what would happen, in 1984, if the government watched everything, to what would happen if people were able to fly? Or could read minds, or things like this.
[Mary] One of the things about this, is that sometimes your character is the one that is asking the question and you are going along for the ride with your character, but with an idea story, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Whereas with the MICE quotient, in that structure, your main character does have to be the one with the question. But in the elemental genre, it is really about the state that you are provoking in the reader, and the reader’s desire to see.
[Brandon] That’s interesting because this is one of the few genres, in fact it may be the only one we’ve talked about so far, where the character’s emotion doesn’t align with ours. I don’t think that the characters in 1984 were ever feeling fascination by the situation they’re in. There feeling like this is terrible or I’m feeling betrayed. But while I’m reading that, I’m fascinated by the idea of a world where they can rewrite history on the whim because we’re no longer at war with them, we’ve never been at war with them. That’s very distinctive about this.
[Mary] Although you can definitely have stories with the character and the reader have the same emotional reaction. Oh… The movie has just gone out of my head. Oh, well, I’ll use that example later when I’m…
[Brandon] One of my favorite films that does this is Gattaca, which might be one of my favorite films of all time. Which of course mixes some kind of thriller elements… This tension of is he going to get discovered or not with a primary idea story. What would happen if your genetic code determined what type of job you could get, how people responded to you, there could be prejudice against you because of what your DNA says and things like that.

[Dan] I think the idea also can engender rather than fascination, it can be shock or it can be horror. There is the great classic SF story that I can’t remember the name of where the space ship arrives at a supernova and finds that that was the star of Jesus. Do you remember that one?
[Brandon] I do remember that one, I can’t remember what it’s called.
[The Star by Arthur C Clarke]
[Dan] That’s basically… The idea of that story is, “Well, what if the reason we could see that star when Christ was born is because God blew up a sun and killed a whole civilization.”
[Dan] That’s horrible, but it was an amazing story.
[Nancy] It’s a fascinating concept. Immediately you hear that statement, and I’ve never heard of this story, and suddenly you want to go dig it up and read it. That’s a good sign that you’ve got an idea story, when simply the core concept of the story is sufficient to make you want to go, “Okay, and? What’s next?”
[Howard] The flip side of this is, and I’m sure I’m going to make all kinds of enemies, the superhero genre. Where, and I like using Iron Man as an example, we never explore the ramifications of arc reactor technology. What we explore is what if an angry drunken genius became a superhero? That has always frustrated me because I love idea stories. But if you step away from the superhero genre and say, “Oh, no. Those aren’t really idea stories…”
[Brandon] Right. Most of them aren’t.
[Howard] In that way.
[Brandon] They might have some sub elements, but they’re not really idea stories.

[Brandon] Let me ask you guys this. Idea stories that are not science fiction/fantasy? How do you approach one of these, what kind of ideas are not science fiction/fantasy stories?
[Nancy] When you’re outside of speculative fiction, the idea stories I think are going to come much closer to other genres like interpersonal drama. What if you had a woman who discovered that her child was not really her child, because someone had, not accidentally but maliciously, swapped out her baby in the hospital for nefarious purposes? Right? We’re getting more… It’s closer to mystery, it’s closer to drama, and yet there is still… In the presentation, the way you present that, the way you explore it would determine whether it would be an idea story or a mystery or a drama.
[Mary] I think that one of the differences in terms of the way those would play out is that you could tell that story as a mystery, and there you would be trying to find the answer to what had kicked everything off. Whereas in an idea story, you would be looking at the ramifications of this.
[Brandon] How does someone deal with this. One of… This reminds me of our good friend Jancey’s story, Gift Child, which is about a teenage girl who decides to get pregnant because her sister and…
[Nancy] It’s because her mom never had another baby…
[Brandon] Is it that or is it her brother… Someone she knows wants a baby.
[Nancy] So she decides to have the baby.
[Brandon] She decides to have the baby.
[Nancy] To fill that need.
[Brandon] For them to fill that need. It’s all about the psychology of that and how her family reacts to the fact that she’s like, “I went and got pregnant so you guys could have a baby.”
[Nancy] Tada!
[Brandon] Here it is.

[Dan] There’s a lot of great true crime stories actually that fall into this category in the realm of scams. There was a big deal a few years ago where someone realized that they could use a loophole in a pudding cup promotion to get unlimited frequent flyer miles. That, as an idea, spawned this entire story of this heist and this crime. Might be a mystery or a thriller when you tell it, but the idea was the kernel.
[Nancy] The Cuckoo’s Egg is an excellent example of non-genre idea fiction. Well, it’s not fiction, it’s nonfiction. It’s the story of this guy who tracks down a cyber criminal way back in the very early days of the Internet. It has, again, some thriller elements…
[Howard] The 80s.
[Nancy] Way back!
[Brandon] Waaay back.
[Nancy] [in terms of] the Internet. It’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, because it digs into all the little technical details. It does all the things that they always tell you not to do in terms of exposition and over technifying your reader and lots of things that in other genres, you have to kick out. In an idea story, you get to put them all in. Because that’s what makes it awesome.
[Howard] What’s fun about that book, and I may have plugged that one as an audiobook here on the cast at one point. Because it is from the 80s, he has to explain to his 1980s audience what a floppy disk is.
[Howard] And how connections between computers work. The language that he used, the metaphors that he used in order to explore this idea of computer crime which was brand-new back then is very, very telling. When I read it, I realized that when we as science fiction authors are describing these cutting-edge things now, at some point our grandchildren are going to look back and say, “Oh, how silly and quaint.”

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is by Nancy.
[Brandon] Tell us about Dead Men Don’t Cry.
[Nancy] Dead Men Don’t Cry is a collection of short stories that I wrote over about a 10 year period. They were all published somewhere else first, in Asimov’s and various other magazines, most of them professional. Then, at some point, we collabora… We pulled them all together and made them available in paperback and in electronic format. Almost every single one of them would fall into the idea story genre. They’re all about what if an AI was being stalked by a person instead of people being stalked by computers. What if your dead mother could haunt you for the rest of your life via technology and neural uploads? Things like that. They’re really fun. They’re really enjoyable. I think.
[Nancy] Other people have told me. It’s beautifully, beautifully narrated on Audible by Joseph Zieja who did a great, great job bringing life to the characters.
[Brandon] Excellent. So if you want to try Nancy’s collection, get most, I assume, of the stories that you’ve written, because you have a bunch of them…
[Nancy] It’s about half.
[Brandon] About half. Half of Nancy’s stories in audiobook form and enjoy them, you can go to, start your trial membership with Audible and download Nancy’s book, Dead Men Don’t Cry.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s talk about how to write an idea story.
[Mary] Well, one thing that I want to bring up with an idea story is that… Is a caution.
[Brandon] Oh, good.
[Mary] Which is, as part of how you write them… Idea stories are really about drilling in and getting excited about something. So this is one of those places that can easily trigger world builder’s disease. You have to remember that what you’re trying to evoke in the reader is the sense of “Oh, how cool is this!” Which means that you actually have to put in character responses to stuff and cues so that the reader understands how cool it is. Just putting in a lot of details is not enough.
[Dan] You can focus that world building and that idea exploration by thinking, “How could this idea go wrong? Who could hate it? Who would love it? Who would benefit from it?” That will help you keep it connected to character and story.
[Howard] A really useful trick here is to take an activity that the reader is familiar with and describe that activity in a way that the idea at work here has changed it. A great example would be self driving cars. If there are fleets of self driving cars, you show the guy commuting to work by walking outside and tapping his bluetooth headset. 30 seconds later, a car shows up and pops the door for him. He hops in and is commuting and he’s frustrated about how long it takes to get to work. Readers today who are used to commuter traffic will be fascinated by that.
[Brandon] I like this idea of how can it go wrong and what can you do with it? It doesn’t even have to be this dystopian catastrophe. One of my favorite idea stories ever is by a good friend of the podcast, Eric James Stone. Hero one where someone in the near future, we have 3-D printers, and someone 3-D printed a Stradivarius. It was identical, atom by atom, to the real Stradivarius. It was about two people who’d been put on the case to try to determine which one was real, and did it matter? Because the real Stradivarius is there and the copy, and no one knew. Everyone had forgotten. They got mixed up. The guy who’d stolen the Stradivarius and made the copy didn’t really even know, I don’t think.
[Mary] That’s great.
[Brandon] So that is so cool, just to think about as an idea. It’s something going wrong, but it’s also how our society would change.
[Mary] That’s the key. With an idea story, it’s not just the details. It’s the implications and the consequences. That is what is pulling you through the story. That is what is… You’ve got the what if, but the story is to articulate.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah. It’s easy to say what if. What if people could clone dinosaurs? Right? Okay, that’s a what if. The story is, “Okay, dinosaurs go crazy on this island, get away and start eating everybody.” Then you’ve got yourself a thriller using that idea. But you could make up 100 different stories with that same idea. What kind of consequences, what kind of emotions do you want to display? More of… Idea stories are sometimes the best ones if you have an agenda that you can get across. We’ve talked about whether an agenda is a good thing or not. I think there are arguments on both sides.
[Mary] I think any fiction that you write has an agenda. It’s just that it’s…
[Brandon] Conscious agenda. Yeah. Conscious agenda. Specific I want to teach people this thing. Didactic stories. Idea stories are the bread and butter of didactic stories.

[Nancy] To a certain extent, it’s a little bit of a dichotomy, but a really, really good idea story, at least in my experience and my writing process, tends not to come to life until you actually do find the intersection with a character. The more powerful the character is, the more life… Contro… Paradoxically, the more life the idea story receives.
[Mary] I’m going to…
[Dan] A great example of that is an old science fiction story called Slow Glass.
[Nancy] Oh, I love that.
[Dan] Which is just a beautiful story. The core idea is what if light passed so slowly through glass that it would preserve memories for years and years and years. That by itself is not a story, until he made it about a man and woman in a failing marriage. All of a sudden, this concept of loss and wanting to hold onto those visions that you can see through the glass made it into a story, just like you’re saying.
[Nancy] I thought the woman had died, and he stayed around for the next 40 years watching for a glimpse through the window…
[Dan] Well, the guy selling the glass, yeah. The narrator was with his wife on vacation.
[Nancy] Oh, the narrator. Now that’s fascinating. Because when I read that story, many years ago, probably as a teenager, I focused completely and entirely on the old guy looking for glimpses of his wife from 40 years ago through the windows of the house.
[Mary] [inaudible. The passover?]
[Nancy] It felt like there’s a complete other story there.
[Nancy] I need to go read it now.
[Howard] Twice in 30 seconds, we used the word fascinating. Which is a really good indicator of an idea at work. In this case, the idea is that the point of view of teenage Nancy and the point of view of…
[Nancy] Not teenage Dan.
[Howard] Middle-age Dan is completely different on the same story.

[Mary] One of the stories that I actually want to talk about in terms of something where it’s a cool idea and then we actually go on a very similar journey to the character is Holes. These kids are digging holes in the middle of a desert. That’s a cool idea. What… Why? Why are they digging holes in the desert? We’re wondering, and the character is wondering at the same time, and it’s getting back to what we’re talking about, which is that the character… Which is that there is a personal stake and that there is a consequence to this weird idea.
[Brandon] Right. I think what we’re all kind of getting at is to make an idea story work, you have to have a story. I think that is what maybe new writers forget. I see this a lot with my students. Look at this cool thing. Well, you could have written me a paragraph summary of hey, this cool thing. That’s not alone a story. If you want to make it a story, you need character, plot, setting, conflict, and these sorts of things to come together. You don’t have to have all… Everything. You don’t have to throw everything at it, but you’ve got to have something like that.
[Nancy] A technical manual…
[Howard] I find that…
[Nancy] Go ahead.
[Howard] I find that… I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries while I ink comics. I say watching… I like documentaries because I only have to listen. There was a series on air disasters. One of the disasters was the famous Grand Canyon crash back before air traffic controllers, back in the 50s or 60s. Airline pilots who were crossing the country liked to show their passengers, who were typically very well to do, views of the Grand Canyon. Two planes collided in midair, killing everyone, because there were no controls in place to prevent these pilots from being in the same place at the same time. As I watched that, I thought, “Wow, this is a perfect example of someone failing to look at the implications of what we had built.” That episode spun into what air traffic control has become. I bring that up because watching those sorts of things, learning those sorts of things, I believe is how you program your brain to do that exploration of the idea you’ve come up with.

[Brandon] I like how this discussion’s been going. I don’t know if we’ve drilled yet into enough practical advice on how to write these. Fortunately, we’re going to come back to this topic in a couple of weeks. So wait for it then, and we’ll try to drill into the hows and whys you use this. Until then, we have some homework for you. Dan is going to give us our homework.
[Dan] All right. What we want you to do now is to go out and find a cool idea. Find a science blog or find a cool new piece of technology somewhere in the world or a great idea for a magic system you have floating around in your head. Find an idea, and then brainstorm 20 stories you could tell about it. Conflicts that could arise, using that idea as the core.
[Brandon] All right. Nancy, thank you so much for joining us.
[Nancy] Any time.
[Howard] Can you come back in two weeks?
[Nancy] Absolutely.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.