How Do You Know a Bad Idea?

It happens to all of us–the bad idea comes courting, usually dressed in shiny clothes and seeming like the best thing to show up since air conditioning. It can happen any time of day, but late nights are its favorite haunts, and once you let it in, watch out.

Bad ideas are like cats–they won’t go away, they know just how to pitch a pitiful cry for attention, and they wind around your legs, tripping you up.

The bad idea wastes your time. Once it’s in your head, you keep trying to make it work. You patch the plot holes with more plot. And then more. You put patches on your patches. You knot the subplots around  in a net to try and hold everything together. You bend the poor characters and make them do things that would have a real person screaming at you. And it’s all to make the bad idea work. You keep revising and rewriting and remembering how seductive and cool this idea was when it first showed up on your radar. “It can work,” is the mantra of those tending to a bad idea. Along with, “I just need to work harder.”

Bad ideas are like bad marriages–they need to be ended before things get nasty.

But how do you know a bad idea when it comes calling? How do you know that idea is not really the blockbuster idea you’ve been begging your muse to drop on your head?  Well, here’s the seven ways I’ve learned to test what’s a good idea and what’s a bad ideas that’s going to eat up my writing time and end with frustration and tears.

1-Bad ideas may seem sexy, but they have no legs. If you can’t get a book past chapter three (or five), this is probably one to set aside to see if it’ll day grow up someday into a better idea. In other words, don’t keep throwing good words into bad ideas. Move on.

2-Bad ideas rely a lot on plot contrivance–as in, you need to check in with your characters and ask the really hard question: “Would you ever really do this?” Be honest here, and listen to the character. Good characters won’t tolerate bad plot ideas. (And if your characters won’t answer you, you’ve got another issue there of needing them real enough to talk back to you–so go off and work on them, not the bad idea.)

3-Bad ideas don’t survive exposure. You need a really good friend here (and I mean really) who is also a writer. Tell the friend this idea and ask for an honest quick kill if this idea is too implausible, too silly, or not going to work, no way, no how. You may end up, too, batting this around with  some fresh insight that may make this bad idea into something better. Or different enough to work.

4-For any idea, write it up. Just in a page or two. Put it away for a week. Dig it out and read it aloud. Read it when you are sharp and awake and it’s not three AM. The good ideas will still have some spark going. But the bad ideas will lay there like a lump. Bad ideas don’t built with rising tension to an obvious but unexpected climax–they kind of sputter along. They also tend to make you laugh at some point when you’re sane and sober and well rested. And there’s nothing like putting something on paper to see if it’s real, or a bad idea dressed up as something fancy.

5-Bad ideas are more “idea” than character. I’ve never had any trouble with a plot that came from the characters. I have always had trouble with idea plots. Maybe that’s just me, but I think idea plots are beasts from hell.

6-Bad ideas require more work. Really, they do. They seem so easy at first, so great. But then it’s like putting on tight, sexy jeans–it’s easy over the ankles, and not possible from there. You have to tug and squeeze and suck in everything. And you grit your teeth and dig in and swear you’ll get them on. If the writing is becoming an uphill slog, step back and see if you can get back to writing about interesting people, not ideas that don’t want to fit into anything.

7-Bad ideas come in two kinds–the ones that have been done to death, and the ones that have never been done before, because they are such very, very bad ideas. Beware the plot that is so fresh and different you’ve never read it before–it may not be out there as a book for very good reasons (as in it makes for an awful story). And beware the ideas that have become bad because they are tired and worn out.

Once you know you have a bad idea in hand, give it a hug and a kiss and put it away in an ‘idea box.’ Never throw anything out, because ideas are like compost. What starts out as crap might sit around long enough to become rich soil for something new to grow.

And if it’s put away proper, you can move on to the next idea. And get that one finished into a book.

Shannon Donnelly

Now at Book View Cafe:
A Compromising Situation
Under the Kissing Bough

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How Do You Know a Bad Idea? — 6 Comments

  1. And like jeans, ideas come in sizes. A funny idea may do well as a short story — little more than an extended joke — but be unable to sustain a three-volume fantasy trilogy. So you have to have a sense of what the idea can bear, and not force it to do what it isn’t going to be able to handle.
    Or think of them as actors. Some ideas have range and scope, and can play HAMLET or Harry Potter — like Derek Jacobi or Patrick Stewart. Others are Jim Carrey.

  2. Hey, I think Jim Carrey might have developed into a much more versatile actor with time and maturity. But that’s one of the points — that an idea can be bad now because I’m not skillful enough to either develop it or combine it with a second, orthogonal idea that will create depth and interesting conflict. But it may be a wonderful idea in 5 or 10 or 20 years.

  3. Thank you for an interesting article – and I fully concur with both Brenda and Deborah’s comments. One of the skills as a writer is sifting the flash from the novel sized idea and getting it wrong is a common mistake that new writers often make.
    Meanwhile, I’ve currently got two ideas on the backburner, waiting for my writing skills to improve to the point where I can do them justice.

  4. Wait — but not too long. There are stories that only you can write, that you were born to write. If you get hit by a bus before you get them safely out onto paper, they die with you.