Anyone can have a good idea. It may be your starting point for what becomes a novel, screenplay, song or whatever else you decide to write, but ideas are far from an endangered species. What makes the difference between a good and bad piece of work is how these ideas are executed, and the process is beset by difficulty and bumps in the road.
Chief among these is the problem of the signal to noise ratio. Simply put, it’s the degredation between the idea in your head and how it actually turns out when it’s put on the page. My belief is that the signal to noise ratio is the one thing above all else that determines whether you’re likely to end up being successful as a writer, assuming that you’re not short on good ideas.
Preventing signal loss isn’t just about finding the right words on the page to best translate your idea. The best way to improve the connection between brain and page, in my opinion, is to boost the signal beforehand by iterating on your premise. Think of it this way: an idea without context, without placement, without considering the possibilities when it comes to plot and character, is nothing. A one-sentence premise may sound superb and compelling, but over the course of a 100,000 word novel or a 120 page screenplay, much more is needed, and that’s where the process of iteration comes in.
My ‘thing’ when it comes to writing is to explore how a high concept idea might affect the real world. In my novel Certainty, the premise of a countdown inside the main character’s head that gives him just eight hours to live was the starting point, but the real meat of the idea came from iterating upon that, considering the possible consequences of such a thing actually happening, and then figuring out the character and story possibilities that might lead on from it.
In the novel I’m developing at the moment – The Man Who Shouldn’t Speak – the “what if?” is the idea of a corporate fixer who reads minds and hasn’t spoken a single word for 20 years. The way I’m iterating on that is to figure out what it would mean if one man alone in the real world actually had that ability. I’m setting up the rules, boundaries and weaknesses for him, trying to work through what his life would actually be like, how his childhood might have gone, and then using what I imagine his place in the world to be as the basis to build the plot around.
In my experience, a good idea is one where such possibilities make themselves known to you very quickly – where the initial problem of developing your story is working out which of the many possibilities you should exclude, rather than struggling for ones to include. Having a pretty indestructible world present when starting to write is helpful for avoiding the signal to noise problem. Stray words and mangled sentences can be found and edited. An underdeveloped idea or a story world that doesn’t make sense are much more difficult to fix later.
So, you think you have a cool initial idea for a story? If you’re anything like me, then you’re not ready to start writing yet. Make ‘iterate’ your watchword first.