When Bad Ideas Sabotage Killer Concepts

Also known as, “The Attack of the Whopper Coincidences.”

Or, “Four Plot Points and a Funeral.”

Or, “Dancing with the Deus ex Machina.”

A good story is very much like a romance.  Not terms of genre – what you’re about to read applies to all genres – but in the sense that the relationship between concept and execution, as well as writer and reader, is a love story.  

It’s about initial attraction and chemistry.  Gratification, fascination, and soon, a deeper meaning and purpose. 

It always starts out so… well.

Then, ultimately, it becomes about something else, too.  Like, living together.  The pursuit of harmony.  Always the intention, rarely the case.  Because the deeper you go, the harder it gets.  The deeper you go together, the more it relies on work instead of the hormones that got you into this.

And that’s where the wheels come off in many stories.  But you don’t see these stories… because they don’t get published.  Not matter how sexy the original idea.

There are so many ways to mess up a great idea.

The first is to actually try to turn an idea into a story… before you turn it into a compelling concept.  Maybe your idea arrived fully cooked as a viable concept, but that rarely happens (which begs the question, can you tell the difference?). 

You can plan or you can pants, but the search for story is an inevitable part of the romance between you and your original idea.  Skip that courtship phase and you’re likely to end up with a broken heart.

A story is never built on a single idea. 

Launched, perhaps, but the ensuing exposition is nothing if not a series of subsequent and subordinated narrative ideas – decisions – along the way. 

Each one is a chance to make or break the whole dramatic enchilada.  Thus…

The second realm of story death comes with the inevitable challenge of making those ideas work.  It’s a qualitative thing, the very essence of art (and you thought art was the sum of all those pretty sentences)… the difference between superstar authors and the rest of us.

This is where so many writers trip up, falling victim to the siren song of the original idea (which, you soon realize, was only in it for the money from that first sizzling glance across a crowded room…).

The mechanics of exposition can kill your concept.

Because this is where writers get desperate.  They are in a corner (one into which they have written themselves) and they know it… so they jump the shark.  They change lanes from credible to unlikely, from necessary to eye rolling.

Happens all the time.  I know this because I read unpublished stories for a living.  And I’m here to tell you, it’s a deal killer.

An effective story needs to change along the way to the climax.

It needs to evolve.  Hidden things need to be unearthed.  Old assumptions need to be overturned.  Surprises need a door through which to enter the narrative.  

Your hero needs to discover things.  Find out stuff. 

This is the machine of your story.  The backbone of dramatic exposition.  Every story is a machine, and it is the concept that defines the scope of what the machine needs to accomplish along the way. 

Each story beat is a connection, a weight-bearing moment of forward-motion. 

And too often, writers make those connections using the prize from a Crackerjack box or a page from an old comic book instead of a finely calibrated fire-forged, finely milled, ingenious steel bolt welded solidly, logically into place.

They contrive.  They force.  They insert a concocted solution – a means of changing the story through discovery or disclosure – in the hope the reader will buy it.

They hatch and then implement a bad idea.  Or a weak one… which, make no mistake, is a bad idea.

And, like a computer virus or a deadly bacteria, the otherwise healthy and promising story concept is now infected.  Infections grow, they inhabit and destroy otherwise healthy tissue of the host. 

Bad ideas create a string of cause and effect, a domino theory of dramatic disaster. 

A Murderer’s Row of Bad Ideas

Some stories are more exposed to this trap and others. 

Time travel tales, for example, always need to address one unsolvable problem – they need to present and explain the impossible (the actual means and rationale for traveling through time).  It just can’t happen in the real world.  But it must happen in these stories, and so the writer is left to throw something against the narrative wall and hope that we’ll buy it, within a world of their creation. 
Time travel stories have tried everything to facilitate this critical connection, from looking at an old coin to closing our eyes and wishing real hard, to the old standby of climbing into a contraption that looks like a set piece from Jules Verne movie.  And we buy it, just like we buy the notion that the BCS (or the Electoral College, pick your unpopular analogy) is fair and relevant. 

We have to, or the whole thing won’t fly.

But for pretty much everything else in the realm of fiction, readers are unforgiving in these moments.  Fiction often demands more crediblity than real life.  And thus, the seductive song of the ridiculous.

Odds are that, within your narrative, your hero is searching for something: information, solutions, safety, a person, the past… whatever.  Your job is to bring them closer to finding it, step by step over the structural arc of the story, with compelling urgency and credibility.

But sometimes you hit a wall.   A paradox.  You find yourself in that corner.  Nothing seems all that credible.  And because you  are so immersed in the Big Picture of your story, and you must solve this problem to move the story forward,  so you jam something into that moment of connection and then move on.

Here are a few I’ve seen recently.

The hero is looking frantically for a lost loved one.  Can’t find her.  And then, while sitting in a coffee shop, the waitress happens to know where the missing girl can be found.  Never met the waitress before… she just knows.  Heard some guys talking.

Bad idea.

A woman seeking clues to her past receives information in a dream from her dead grandmother.  And this isn’t a paranormal story. 

Bad idea.

Hero leaves town.  Needs to clear his head.  And discovers, one thousand miles away, that the person or thing that will solve his problem is in an RV just across the road.

The teen hero of a YA novel is trying to prove the complicity of a city official in a crime.  The cops are in the pocket of the city official, and the teen can’t get anywhere.  So our prepubescent hero hacks into the police database to learn things.  Or breaks into the police station evidence locker to find clues.

Dreams and computer hackers are everywhere in stories that get rejected.  What a quick and easy way to get information into a protagonist’s head, right?  Don’t rely on them for your narrative connections. 

Always a bad idea.  

YA is a great and fertile ground for such credibility leaps.  Teens who outsmart the police, the CIA, and win hand-to-hand street fights with trained killers and armed military specialists.  One kid takes down a battalion of alien warriors.

Here’s an example of a weak idea, rather than an overtly bad one: the hero is stumped.  Then, one night, bolts upright because he remembered something. 

The adjectives that describe these mistakes are: contrivance, unlikely, lucky, impossible, ridiculous, convenient, OMG, less than credible, gifts from God, gifts from the dead or other non-humans.

They’re almost always deal killers.  Not just in the moment, but very soon after they are put in play from the narrative domino effect that ensues.

Contrived, unlikely story beats are like lies. 

They almost always come back to bite you.  And they smear your credibility in the process.  They render your Great Idea impotent the moment they hit the page.

Don’t let your great concept go down because of a weak connection, a flimsy narrative beat or an eye-rolling moment.  Put on your cynic hat – or rely on someone who will deliver an acid cynic test to the story.

Sometimes you’ll find that the culprit here is the concept itself.  Because there’s no other way to make it work than to assume the powers of David Copperfield or Jesus Christ himself.

A great concept is like a new-born.  So full of promise and potential.  So demanding of your best, most honest self. 

Don’t let it grow up to be a liar or a con artist.  Or even a magician.

Your story runs on connections.  On the creative decisions YOU make in building it.  Make them work, before you hit SEND.


If you’d like to see if your story is teetering on the precipice of credibility abyss, click HERE.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

18 Responses to When Bad Ideas Sabotage Killer Concepts

  1. This is such a great post, Larry! I especially liked that hidden things need to be unearthed. Old assumptions need to be overturned. Surprises need a door which to enter the narrative.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom :-))


  2. Thanks. This helps. Hovering in a story at about page 150 for, 3 months? It IS like a romance, only too often it U-turns into a romance with myself, a story All About Me. I wonder if the temptation to contrive comes from this realization, and an attempt to run away from the self that drives this story. All stories. Anyway, I’ll comb for unlikely coincidences, and then keep trying doors. Or maybe just go hire a talk therapist! Great, inspiring post.

  3. Love the post. Full of truth.
    It’s hard sometimes to be honest enough to face the flaws in our work. It means re-writes, throwing away work we believed in at the time. But it’s the only way to make a story worth publishing, worth all the effort. Too many times we sell ourselves and our stories short, not realizing that we’re guaranteeing it will end up in the recycle bin.

  4. Larry, great post.

    I earn my living as a computer software engineer in the area of database security (I work for IBM, and I work on the back end of a database security product) — and I have to tell you, hacking is alive and well.

    And one of the biggest causes — the simple fact that most people don’t protect their data. Most people choose easily-guessed passwords. That makes it very easy for the unscrupulous to gain access to data.

    Need your character to gain access to someone’s private data? Simple — have the other guy scribble down their password and tack it to their bulletin board — or worse yet — don’t have one at all.

  5. @Margaret — you’re right of course, appreciate this view. I think, in our fiction, that if hacking is an out-of-the-blue solution, then it’s clunky… but if it’s set up (a character IS a skilled hacker, or knows one, and if you’re not suggesting they hack into the CIA of NASA), then it’s viable as a story beat, as you say. I just see it as a quick and easy fix to story problems, too often, which is my caution. Needs to be set up right. Thanks again! L.

  6. Very interesting and helpful post. This suggests that planning beforehand is rather important to the story writing enterprise, or at least if not planning everything first, then being prepared to work really hard to move the story along plausibly. Same approach applies to my romance short stories. Think its time I bought your book! 🙂

  7. Great post and, as always, thank you. I’m interested in hearing thoughts on dreams in paranormal or horror genre novels. The project I’m revising right now has a lot of dream, probably too many. My intention was to *haunt* the main character and torture him with symbolic meaning. When is it over the top?

  8. Larry, thank you for this insightful post on a not-often-mentioned problem.

    I’ve been stuck for a while on how to let a major character learn some meaningful information about her birth. My original idea wasn’t satisfying me—my solution was possible but not probable, even unlikely. Coincidences do happen in real life, but in stories, they can seem contrived. I kept trying to ignore that and forge on, but suddenly the teacher (you) struck my desk with a pointer and said, “[You know better. You need to create] a finely calibrated, fire-forged, finely milled, ingenious steel bolt welded solidly, logically into place.” Thank you for that nudge. Back to the drawing board!

    BTW, I admire your alliteration: “Bad ideas create a string of cause and effect, a domino theory of dramatic disaster.” You do have a way with words. 🙂

  9. @Lake — good question you ask. Tough one, too. Because this is a subjective call. In Part 2, when your protag is responding to the FPP quest, then dreams can work IF they are established as an integral voice in the story. What doesn’t work is when one just pops up as a means of covering a conventient base that would otherwise be problematic. And in Part 3,when you’re hero is on a pro-active attack, dreams tend to rescue when the hero should be doing the rescuing. Haunting is always good, but when the hero is a puppet of the dreams, then the line has been crossed. IMO.

    @Nanne – thanks for that comment. “-“

  10. Pingback: Friday Features #30 - yesenia vargas

  11. Pingback: Writing Blog Treasures 11~10 | Gene Lempp ~ Writer

  12. Heidi

    Hi Larry,

    Great post as usual. Of course, I felt like you were talking to me about my story without using my story as an example.

    Question though – Upon your advice I watched The Island with Ewan McGregor and Scarlet Joho. Their characters are supposed to be the intellectual equivalent of a 15 year old without any world view (having grown up underground). *Potential Spoiler alert * Therefore, was that not jumping the shark by having the resolution turn out as it did?

  13. Which is why when our fearless heroine needs a knife in the big act 3 battle I make sure she organically acquires in in act 1.

  14. @Heidi — yeah, Michael bay is famous for jumping the shark in his third act. Big time. That wasn’t why I wanted you to see it… I wanted you to notice the clear and powerful Plot point and contextually-driven four parts of the story, as well as the empathetic nature of the villain’s motivations. The first three quarters of the story is both a structural and character-arc model… hope you saw all that. L.

  15. Heidi

    Thanks Larry, for clearing that up for me. It was very powerful, especially the part with Michael Clark Duncan’s character. I had immediate empathy for the plight of the characters. *Potential spoilers, again* Especially when they ernestly believe that going to the island will fulfill all of their hopes and dreams.

  16. Good post Larry, as always. I hope to raise my newborn to not be a liar or a con artist and if it must be a magician, hopefully it’ll be a good one. Of course we all have high hopes for our babies. Be well, Mindy

  17. Pingback: Link Feast for Writers, vol. 29 | Reetta Raitanen's Blog

  18. Pingback: Monday Advice from Editors and Agents: Is Your Plot Contrived? | Tangled Words