Monday, May 16, 2011

The Burden of First Ideas

photo credit: MichaelConCarne
You guys all remember that first spark, right? The sudden connection of two different thoughts, opening a doorway into a new story. An deep and incredibly cool character springing in your mind, demanding your attention. Flashes of a powerful scene, gripping your heart despite the lack of context.

Powerful ideas smashing the door to our brain and forcing their way in.

Not that we complain. We love those. It means our creative mind is travelling at full speed and producing its best juice. It's exhilarating. Wild. The first step in a new world.

Our first step into a new world.

So often we want to make it part of the story. This moment caught our attention and hooked us into a story. They have to be good, right? Readers will love them.

Sometimes, though - not always - this isn't for the best. Sometimes you take a scene and work out who the people in it are, and why there's a man holding a gun to another's forehead, and why he's incapable of shooting, and as you build your story from the scene, you get new ideas.

Context, plot, structure, characters, themes... everything changes. You plan, plot, write, brainstorm. You search for the real story, and the more you do, the further you get from your first love. Before you realise it, you're on the third draft and the first powerful moment, the very inspiration for this story, well, it doesn't fit anymore.

This is hard. It's hard to look objectively at your first creative impulse and admit it no longer has its place in this story. Kill your darlings, they say. The hardest part is to admit it has gone from a great, tension-filled, epic moment to a purposeless darling.

It must be done, however. Don't let your first ideas drag your story back. If you're not sure about a scene, or a character, or a plot twist... try to consider it objectively.

What does it bring to the story? What is its mission? Is it essential, or is it a leftover from your first drafts in this universe? If you remove it, what is the difference?

(Also, keep in mind that sometimes it is only part of a scene or character that should be shot down. This is what I had to do)

Be truthful with yourself. If you have a darling on your hand, it is your duty to the story to take your shotgun out, charge it... and shoot.

It's for its own good.


  1. What a great post! And I love "Kill your darlings". Perfect advice!

  2. I tried to resist a huge plot change for ages and only made myself miserable. And as for killing my darlings, my body count is currently three ;)

  3. Oh God this post makes me feel like having a drink.

  4. Jen: I can't remember where I heard it first, but it's amazing how it applies to every aspect of writing (characters, plot, pretty sentences that derail from the rest, etc.)

    Miss Cole: Oh boy, I am NOT counting mine. It might scare me a little bit.

    Sommer: Here, I've got a great bottle of old Scotch I brought back from England. Let's drink together. ;)

  5. Good post! Sometimes you do have to thank that first spark for the story it brought, but let it move on if it's no longer needed.

  6. I love first ideas. I made the mistake of starting a trilogy with the last book. Then I started the second book. Now I'm on the third draft of my first book and I constantly have to go back and make changes to accommodate the plot. What was I thinking?

    Can I have some of that scotch too?

  7. I've always heard 'Kill your darlings' attributed to William Faulkner.

    Great point on interesting ideas that are not the right idea.

  8. Wow, it's a morning for these kind of hard-but-true posts on several of the blogs I love. If it helps, we get better at the mercy killings. It rarely bothers me anymore. But I've killed *and buried* about seven whole manuscripts, and tortured a couple more within an inch of their lives. If they can survive the harrowing I give them, they have a chance at being reincarnated. The latest stuff only tends to need slapping around a bit.

    I know, I sound like a total sociopath, a literary psycho. :)

  9. cookie: Scotch is for everyone! And has Lieutnant Hicocks says in Inglorious B., it's "damn good stuff, sir."

    Hektorkarl: Faulkner! Thanks, I have to commit that to memory. I love the sentence.

    Margo: It's for their own good. And yes, that totally makes you sound like a villain. :D

  10. Margo, I am totally basing my next villain on you ;)