Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ideas: What do you do with a Great Idea?

by Deren Hansen

What do you do with a great idea?

First, a reminder: one idea isn't enough to carry a novel. Long-form stories are best understood as a complex molecule made up of great idea atoms.

So, what do you do when you have a number of ideas in intriguing relationships?

Like any good evil genius, you turn to science!

Kuhn, 1962 (from Wikipedia)
More to the point, you turn to the history of science. Thomas Khun, a physicist who also studied the history of science, wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. In that book, Kuhn challenged the notion that science was steadily progressive and argued that it is in fact episodic.

The two key ideas I want to introduce here are the alternating phases of revolutionary and normal science that make up an episode in Kuhn's model.

Revolutionary science is the time when a breakthrough throws the field wide open. Like settlers pouring into newly open territory, scientist rush from one discovery to the next as they map out the new landscape of possibilities.

Once the early leaders in the revolution have discovered the extent of the breakthrough, the discipline settles back into normal science mode. Normal science is far less glamorous than revolutionary science because it's about the careful work of confirming the initial findings and filling in the details.

"That nice for historians and scientists," you might say, "but what does it have to do with writing or creativity in general?"

A great idea is like the breakthrough that triggers a period of revolutionary science. But that's only the beginning of the job. In order to develop a novel-length story, you must do the literary equivalent of the work of normal science.

What do I mean by that?

Let's say you've just had an epiphany: the world will end when pigs actually start to fly--it's the Flying Pig Apocalypse! Tingling with excitement, you sit down to write ... and immediately run into questions: how do they fly? Levitation? Wings that grow because a mad scientist wanted bacon-flavored buffalo wings? Lighter-than air gas bladders? Do they flock or are they loners? Do they cause the apocalypse by flying, or is the fact that they take flight a sign of the impending apocalypse?

My point is that a "great" idea isn't ready to become a story until you've done the detailed, far less thrilling work of thinking through the implications of the great idea.

Like science, which we tend to think of only in terms of revolutionary breakthroughs, creativity is more about the normal work of thinking carefully about the "great" idea than the revolutionary work of having the idea in the first place.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

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