Writing Excuses 11.12: Idea As Subgenre, with Nancy Fulda
Key Points: Start with a geewhiz idea. Where does it happen? Who’s going to be there, who is affected? Who has what at stake? Often idea as a subgenre or spice is set dressing for a story. Pick a cool what-if, and then tell a thriller, mystery, romance, or whatever in it. Idea, or fascination, makes a great seasoning for a story, just like black pepper! Use idea hooks for characters and setting, to add “Oh, wow!” moments. Idea stories may not have a single protagonist or main conflict, just various viewpoints showing a discovery changing society. Follow the awesome! Pair the idea with something, like black pepper and chocolate. Think about how the idea will change the story. Watch what happens at the intersection of ideas! Mix it up, shake it up, extrapolate, and see where you go. It doesn’t have to work the first time! Add more pepper. Idea stories are driven by what-if combined with fascination. Then think about consequences and implications, and follow the awesome. Push it further, make it weirder in a geewhiz kind of way!
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 12.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Idea As Subgenre.
[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 once again have Nancy Fulda joining us.
[Nancy] I’m waving.
[Dan] So they can see you. It’s okay.
[Nancy] Oh, that’s what that little thing on the ceiling is.
[Brandon] Last time I promised that we… Well, two weeks ago, I promised we were going to dig into this a little bit more. Because I really want to say… People have this idea, our listeners, they’ve brainstormed it. How do they go from that to story? Then also, how do they use that as a smaller piece of a much larger story? Mary, you said you have an exercise?
[Mary] Yeah. So, one of the things that people run into… When you’ve got… You’ve got the geewhiz idea. You don’t really have anything to hang on it yet. So one of the things that I do is I think about where this geewhiz idea might happen. Like, let’s use the milliner assassin that I was doing last time… Or last season. So, milliner assassin. I’m going to say secondary world, Venice. All right.
[Nancy] Milliner assassin, in the idea story genre, is going to concentrate a great deal upon the mechanics of milliner assassinry.
[Nancy] How did she do it? What kinds of needles? What kind of poisons? Which kinds of hats are best to hide things in?
[Mary] Maybe. Yes. It could go that way. But this is one of the things is that when you’re coming up with a geewhiz idea, it can go a lot of different ways. If I’m focusing on the milliner assassin as my main character, yes. If I’m focusing on someone who’s trying to track down the milliner assassin, it may not focus on that. So first, I come up with where it’s taking place. Which tells me a lot of things. Then, I kind of make a list of who’s going to be there, and who’s going to be affected. So there would be the assassin, there would be victims, there would be windows, possibly a detective trying to track her down, clients. I would go through this whole list. Then, from that list, I would kind of look at it to see who has what at stake. The person who has the most at stake is the one that I’m going to pick as my main character. From there, I am able to construct a story, because now now that I know that she has something at stake… Let’s say I pick the milliner assassin. Okay, well, what does she have at stake? Then I will again brainstorm all the things that she might have at stake. From there, I’m able to craft a story that is idea-driven, but it’s not just “look at this neat idea. There’s an assassin who kills people with millinery.”
[Dan] One of the ways that you see idea used as a subgenre a lot, or as a spice to a story, is as the set dressing. This is basically what the YA dystopia subgenre is. I’m going to tell a thriller or a romance or whatever, but it’s in a cool world where X happens. That’s what Divergent is, that’s what…
[Brandon] People can take their teenagers and send them for recycling.
[Dan] Yeah. You come up with that cool what-if and then you tell a thriller inside of it.
[Howard] I think that… Two weeks ago, we tried to distinguish a little more clearly between the MICE idea and the idea element. Inspiring fascination in the reader, and having that carry the whole book, to me, anyway, is a lot harder than taking fascination and using it as a seasoning for a story that is principally a thriller or principally a romance. So when we talk about idea as a subgenre, I think that is where the distinction between MICE idea and elemental idea really kicks in.
[Brandon] I would say that for me… This might be why I write epic fantasy, but an idea is generally not enough to drive a story for me that I want to write. I go longform. Even my short stories are long. I am usually looking for an idea hook for every character. Where if I were to say it’s this, you say, “Oh. That’s interesting.” It’s a guy who’s raised as a surgeon who is sent to war and learns he’s really good at killing people. That’s a “Oh, that’s cool.” I want multiple idea hooks for the setting. It’s a world where storms that are as powerful as any hurricane on earth come every three days. I want multiples of those. I want… Here’s what the government is. Here’s a hook on the government. This is a government based around the idea of MLMs. The more money you earn, the higher your rank. This sort of thing I’m going to take a seasoning for every aspect of my book and use that to make lots of “Oh, wow! Oh, wow! Oh, wow!” moments. The book is not about those. But the “Oh, wow!”s are all over the place for me in a story. But that… I’m writing 400,000 word books.
[Mary] Let me offer two books that are pretty much pure idea, just as a contrast.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah. They totally exist.
[Mary] One is 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, which is basically “Look at how cool the solar system is,” and I’ve got some plot, kind of, here, but really “Look at how cool the solar system is.” The other one is Seveneves by Neal Stephenson which is basically “So what happens if the moon blows up?” The rest of the novel is dealing with that, and getting very, very detailed about aeronautics. These are both driven by the Whoa! as opposed to what you’re talking about, where we are using it as a seasoning. It is a lot more common to see it as a seasoning. And it’s…
[Nancy] One thing to be aware of, too, if you are writing idea stories, you will get a very polarized response from readers as you’re in the development process. Because some people are reading primarily for plot, primarily for event, and they’re all going to complain at you about how much time you’re spending on the idea. That does not necessarily mean you’re writing a bad story. It means you’re writing an idea story and they weren’t looking for one. So what you…
[Howard] Jack McDevitt’s… Oh. Sorry.
[Nancy] I’m sorry. Well, I was going to say, so what you really want to do is check to see if there is anyone who is loving it. Right?
[Nancy] Quite literally. If you have… If you’re getting two very different lines of feedback, that’s okay. Just start listening to the people who like the idea stuff.
[Nancy] [garbled — and in your revision process?]
[Howard] McDevitt’s Engines of God and Ancient Shores. Both very much idea novels. The distinguishing thing for me… I mean, I’m fascinated throughout the book as the idea is explored. But one of the hallmarks of this, where the idea, the fascination, is the driving force, is that there are so many characters. We are moving from character to character as we explore the idea, because there isn’t a single protagonist or a single conflict that is driving the story forward. We are watching as this discovery propagates through society and changes things. We are watching as teams of explorers in different places dig into this new information… Very much not about characters or plot.
[Mary] I’m wondering actually as I’m thinking about it if that is a hallmark of a giant idea… Like, any idea as major…
[Howard] In this case, I think it is.
[Mary] Because I was just thinking about China Mieville, and pretty much anything that China Mieville has ever written is an idea novel.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week.
[Mary] All right. So the book of the week is The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. This is great. So it’s Victorian, and the main ch… There’s a couple of different protagonists. But one of them is a watchmaker. He’s in London. It’s Victorian London. He’s Japanese. He makes these amazing, amazing watches. Then there’s also this entire mystery thing of someone has been misusing them, because they can do amazing things. It’s… It is fascinating because of the details. It’s a really good example of the idea as subgenre, because the details and what can happen with them is so cool. Then it’s also beautifully written and great character stuff. So it’s not just a straight idea story, but it has a very strong idea component. I highly recommend it. So, again, Watchmaker of Filigree Street. You can hop over to audible…
[Mary] Thank you. Sorry. I just totally blanked on that one. And pick up… Start a…
[Brandon] 30-day trial.
[Mary] Wow. You can tell that this is the last episode of the day.
[Mary] Because I’ve lost all of my words.
[Howard] Who wrote Watchmaker of Filigree Street?
[Mary] Natasha Pulley.
[Brandon] Read by Thomas Judd.
[Mary] I read this in one sitting.
[Brandon] Excellent. All right. Last half of the podcast. I want to talk about using idea as subgenre, specifically in our stories. I want to move away from “Hey, here’s a good example of it that I’ve seen in fiction” and more of a how-to. I’m going to ask Nancy. You’ve got a great idea. You know you’ve got this story that you’re going to write that’s a thriller or a mystery or something, and you want to highlight the geewhiz of the idea as a component of this. How do you go about doing that without letting the idea gobble up everything else, and get into this world builder’s disease that Mary had mentioned?
[Nancy] One thing that I try very hard to do is to follow my own sense of cool when I’m writing. It’s very easy… World builder’s disease tends, at least for me, to come from a feeling that I have to get it all down, I have to know it all. I have to… A sort of an external expectation that I must know it all. Whereas there are always going to be threads in the idea that are going to be what I personally find most emotionally engaging, what I personally find interesting. So over time, I have learned, and… I mean, this may just be my writing process, right? Who knows if it’s applicable to someone else? But I’ve learned if I just follow the things that I think are awesome…
[Brandon] Okay. Follow the awesome. That’s a great phrase to tell people. Mary, I see you writing things down. That usually means you have something brilliant to add.
[Mary] So, I find that one of the things that works best with ideas is to pair it with something else. If you pair the idea with the character’s reaction to it, if you pair the idea with exposition, if you pair the idea with action. If we use the cooking metaphor, it’s kind of like black pepper. It’s really good. You don’t want it all by itself most of the time. It’s one of those spices that is, I think, best paired with other things. You can pair it with some surprising thing. Like, I’ve discovered black pepper and chocolate is really, really good…. Brandon has just made a face.
[Brandon] My mother discovered black chocolate and popcorn… Er, pepper and popcorn is one of her favorite things. Peppering her popcorn. I’ve tried it. It’s a very different experience. You’re like, “Oh, wow.” I don’t like it better, but I’m glad I tried it because it was a different take on popcorn.
[Mary] So I find that ideas are very much the same thing. That if you can give us a… So let me give you an example of how to do this. So if I’ve got a really cool idea, and I want my readers to have the understanding of how really cool it is, I can pair it with a character reaction. So that my character comes in and looks at it… Like, looks at the cardboard thing that is sitting on the couch and goes, “What is this?” Someone says, “Well, put it up to your face.” They go, “Oh, my gosh! This is virtual reality. You have virtual reality in a cardboard box.” That amazed reaction is going to tell my reader, “This is a cool thing.” As opposed to if I have my reader pick it up and go, “Oh, you got one of those, huh?”
[Brandon] Yeah. That goes back to that character attention thing that you’re always telling us about. I would say also, over the next few months, we’re going to be digging into some more elemental genres that I think will illustrate how you take an idea and turn it into a mystery or take the same idea and turn it into a thriller or take the same idea and approach it as a horror story. The idea is often the seed for a lot of these things. But the elemental genres, the other ones were going to be talking about, pair really well with idea stories.
[Howard] If I find it fascinating, and then you convince me to be frightened of it, you may have written a horror story, you may have written a thriller. When I do these… Currently, with Schlock Mercenary, I’ve broached the question of Fermi’s Paradox. Why… In our world, why have we not seen aliens yet? Because the math says we should have. In the Schlock Mercenary universe, well, we’ve made contact with the aliens. Would anybody still be asking that question? What I said was, “No. Until just now.” Somebody dug it up and started looking at it. As I noodle on that, the characters… Some of the characters are very frightened by it. Some of the characters are like, “Eh? The aliens showed up. What’s the question? I don’t see what the big deal is.” I find it fascinating, the thing that makes it so useful is that in our world, the possible solutions to Fermi’s Paradox are manifold. I get to plug into all of these different things through the points of view of the different characters.
[Brandon] Dan, how do you go about taking an idea and creating a larger story that maybe isn’t about the idea but just incorporates it?
[Dan] What I try to do is start by thinking how will this idea change the story that I’m trying to tell? I’m trying to tell a romance. Or if I’m trying to tell a mystery. Well, if I put this one cool technology into it, or this one cool kind of magic, how will that change the romance? Or how will that change the mystery? How will that change the way people solve the mystery? If those questions provide interesting answers, then I’m going down a good path and I keep following it. If I can’t come up with anything good, then I need a different idea.
[Nancy] I think it’s fascinating that the past three comments have all really highlighted the idea of the intersection between your cool idea and something else. It’s a little bit like describing a static scene. No matter how interesting the stuff is, it’s kind of static. As soon as something’s moving, there’s a wind blowing, there’s a person picking up cool vase instead of the vase on the table, it gains interest and gains meaning.
[Brandon] For me, a lot of this comes from the intersection of two ideas. Idea stories are ones that you can multiply ideas really well and say… Mistborn, I’ve often pitched, “This is the idea of what happens if the hero loses mixed with a heist story and a fantasy novel.” That intersection was really fascinating, exciting to me. It turned out to be an epic fantasy. It’s actually not an idea story, it just has a lot of strong idea elements to it, like a lot of fantasy does. But the beginning was what happens if I put these two ideas together? Shake them up, what starts to come out?
[Dan] One thing I love doing is combining a really cool idea with something really banal. Like Mary was talking about virtual reality and a cardboard box. Take something awesome and then something we see every day.
[Brandon] I think that’s our key for idea, is kind of this mix it with things, shake it up, extrapolate, and see where we go.
[Nancy] One thing that useful to remember as well is it doesn’t have to work the first time. We write stories iteratively. One of my most successful stories, in terms of reader appeal, actually on its first draft completely flopped. Nobody liked it, everybody hated it. In the revisions, when you actually look at it, the final version is not very different from the beginning version. This is movement, right? The only thing that changed was I added an emotional cast to the character’s experience. So instead of a static character observing without any emotions, now I had a character who was responding to the situation, who had a feeling about it, who had an opinion about it. In terms of the number of words on the page, it wasn’t that big. So I guess what I’m trying to say is if you try to write an idea story and everyone hates it, it doesn’t actually mean that your necessarily far from your goal. It just means you’re missing the pepper.
[Mary] One thing that, as we’re starting to wind up, that I want to go… Take us back to is that idea stories are driven by what-if combined with fascination. This is one of those places where you do have to trust your instincts. As Nancy said, to follow the awesome. So one of the things when you’re looking for actually how to do this is you’ve got your geewhiz idea, you’ve got your really cool thing. Write down what if? What if bees were sentient? Then just brainstorm all the possible consequences of that. The one that makes you go “Oooo!” The one that fascinates you is the one to follow. That is… You can do this… It doesn’t even have to be the thing that is driving the story. It can be a moment when your character walks into a new space, when they discover a clue, when they have a conversation with someone. Whatever that idea is that you’re looking at that is… Whatever you’re doing, you can build the fascination with it by in fact trusting your own instincts.
[Brandon] That’s very good. I think we’re going to end on that note. Although I’m going to give you guys some homework. This is something I push my students to do a lot in my class, which is to take a step further on something in their story. Often times, I’ll have students come to me and say… They’ll have actually a really compelling character, but they’ll be in the most bland, generic world that’s ever existed. So I want you to take a story that you’ve been working on, and I want you to push either some world building element or some character element further. I want you to brainstorm an idea. I don’t want you to just have a monarchy. I want your monarchy to be weird in some way. I want you to follow the awesome. I don’t want you to just use coins in your thing, or just fly on spaceships like every other spaceship you’ve seen. I want you to take a story you’ve actually written, and make it weirder in a geewhiz kind of way.
[Mary] While you’re doing that, make sure that you are thinking about the implications and consequences.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. Nancy, thank you so much.
[Nancy] You’re very welcome.
[Brandon] You all listening are out of excuses, now go write.