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


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

Dead Men Don’t Cry, by Nancy Fulda, narrated by Joseph Zieja

15 thoughts on “11.10: Idea, as Genre, with Nancy Fulda”

  1. It sounds like the idea story is closely linked to what you say in your elevator pitch, which makes me think that most, if not all, stories that get published nowadays are inherently idea stories.

    1. Better to say that the elevator pitch itself is a very short idea story. It’s not at all accurate to suggest that publishing today is dominated by idea stories.

  2. Would it be fair to say that all idea stories are wonder stories, but not all wonder stories are idea stories?

    1. Not the way we’re using the term, no. Wonder doesn’t have the mental exploration-of-concept that Idea does. Certainly there are stories that have both elements, but the Venn diagram doesn’t have one circle containing the other.

  3. The idea story example I thought of is I, Robot (the short story collection, not the movie). Asimov takes a simple idea – 3 Laws compliant robotics – and then comes up with as many problems as he can regard it’s implementation.

    When you were talking about idea stories outside of SF/F, I thought of “The Time-Traveler” by Spider Robinson, which has a bit of an interesting history as it was published in a science fiction magazine but then received some criticism for containing no specifically science fiction elements. (The defense was that time travel is a very science fiction concept, even if the method employed by this story was mundane).

    The other one that occurred to me was My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I haven’t actually read the book, but what I’ve heard of it sounds like it would qualify.

  4. As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating.” Yes, we are fascinated with ideas, wondering what if at the drop of a hat (or other changes). And you can read all about it in the transcript, available in the archives or over here


    right now. Just imagine, what are the consequences of having Writing Excuses available online every week? Yes, yes, you’re out of excuses and have to write! But what else?

  5. When you asked what non-genre stories could be called idea stories, my first thought was The Color Purple. You might say this is a story with an agenda. But I also think this would work if your agenda is simply to share a bit of culture that might not be familiar to your reader.
    I recently read The Melancholy of Resistance, about the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. It showed, through character experiences, the despair of living in Soviet-controlled Hungary, the confusion of where the resistance came from, the fear of change (especially among the bourgeoisie), and the change and lack thereof that came with the Soviets crushing the resistance. It’s a very powerful book because it shows the effects of ideas on people.
    Thanks for another great podcast! Lots to think about here!

    1. Along the lines of what Fritze just said, I was thinking that The Bluest Eye could an example of a real world idea story. It’s a sort of dystopia; like 1984 I couldn’t put it down because despite my distress, I was too fascinated. I think the idea is “this is what happens when you immerse people in the unquestioned assumption that they are unlovable and ugly.” I think that may be the difference between an SF idea story and a realistic one. SF says “what if?” and realism says “this happens.”

    1. Yes. It is a social extrapolation of a general decline of reading (books abandoned for TV) combined with rising government censorship to preserve social order, which puts is firmly in the dystopia camp.

  6. Iron Man is indeed the classic example of superhero stories that ignore The Idea. But some superhero stories are almost entirely about The Idea. Tooting my own little horn, I launched the Wearing the Cape series of capepunk novels on the idea: “What if a tiny percentage of real people suddenly possessed superhuman powers?”

    I still haven’t run out of consequences of that Idea to play with.

    BTW: love your podcasts.

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