Thursday, June 25, 2009

What’s the Big Idea?

I feel like I’ve been working on my WIP in layers. I’m trying to really challenge myself and question everything in the novel. But every time I get one layer figured out, it makes me see through to the next one to wrestle with. For example, I recently spent time figuring out what my character wanted. Hooray! But then I got stumped when I had a good-but-not-great answer to the question “why does she want it?”

This story is an office drama, but in workshop last week my instructor Jill made a comment that stories don’t really take place in a stinky old office, do they? Okay, Jill did not use the word stinky, but that’s how my MC Sadie would describe it.

So Jill then asked the question, what’s the story about? Short answer: it’s about how a naïve, smart-but-not-as-awesome-as-she-thinks young woman deals with a re-org that puts her job in jeopardy.

But Jill pushed further. She asked, “What’s the big idea?” To which I wanted to respond, “Hey, what’s the big idea with you, punk?” But Jill is not a punk so I figured she meant something smarter than that. And she did.

She meant, what’s the big concept I’m trying to examine in this novel? It’s not just about office politics. While that’s all fine and good, Jill was looking for a big idea like love, loss, redemption, self-discovery. Oh boy, did I get worried. I did not want to write another love story. Don’t get me wrong, I love to write about love, but I also want to challenge myself to move beyond my usual box of tricks.

But then, Jill said, “What about hope? This character, she’s a big cynic. Can she maybe be hopeful too?” Bingo. That was it. Wouldn’t you know it that I talk about hope in the very last scene of the book. Can I make that a theme -- a big idea -- that I weave throughout the story? You better believe I can.

I don’t know how I’ll pull that off yet, but that’s okay. I know I need that layer, and that’s a big step. I’ll figure out how to make it work somehow. At least I hope so.

So what's your story’s big idea?


  1. I always think it's better to know the end part as you go - at least, what you want to say (the "big idea") by ending the book however you do. Then you can better weave in things throughout that you will either payout at the end or not, depending on the situation.

  2. The big idea in my WIP is learning to let go the past to be able to accept love in the present.

  3. Frank, I think my writing style is the complete reverse of yours. It's like bizzaro world! I’m just not enough of a planner (when it comes to writing, at least) to know what I’m getting myself into ahead of time.

    Linda, you wrap up your big idea so succinctly. It sounds just perfect!

  4. Great post, Lisa!

    In my experience, we (the author) don’t always see the big picture until the end of the first draft, or if we’re lucky maybe halfway through. Sure, we can aim to create a theme, but oftentimes these things happen organically. Like you, for example, had the “ah-ha!” moment when Jill asked you about hope. Right away you recognized why hope was in the big picture all along. Now you just need to do some work to emphasize that theme, which is perfectly doable.

    Like Frank said, if we know how we want it to end, we can steer it in that direction from the start. But if we don’t sense it fully until we see how the character has developed from start to finish, that’s okay too! Everyone has a different path to completing a novel and whatever works, works. But I think you’ve found something valuable in this experience and because of your post, we’re getting some value from it too. Thanks!

    By the way, thanks for visiting my blog. I responded to your comments and questions over there at Pop by any time!

  5. @Lisa, Well, different strokes for different folks. It's whatever works best for each person.

    @Lori, I agree, 100%.