Is Your Story Idea Any Good? (with SJ Watson)

15:00 EST - Oct 12, 2022

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S J Watson

S J Watson is the bestselling author of BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, which became a phenomenal international success and was turned into a film starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, and Mark Strong. He has since published two further psychological thrillers, SECOND LIFE, and FINAL CUT, and has recently set up THE WRITERS’ LODGE, which aims to help and support writers at every stage of their journey.

Like probably everybody who’s had this question asked of them, I feel like I've always been a writer, but I used to work in the health service here in the UK — so writing was my hobby.

I used to joke that my midlife crisis didn’t involve having an affair or buying a Ferrari (not that I could have afforded one) but enrolling in a writing course. Then I decided to go part-time at work and concentrate on my writing. Through the course, I met an agent and wrote the book that became Before I Go To Sleep.

Ideas, ideas, ideas

I realize that I've set the track for myself. Whenever I speak at events, one of the questions I dread being asked is, where do you get your ideas from? Only too late, I realize I've decided to spend half an hour talking about that very topic today.

But joking aside, I hope to give you an idea of how to go about getting ideas and what to do with them

I'm going to spend a bit of time talking about: 

  • What an idea is and how to spot them;
  • How we retain ideas; 
  • What we should do with them;
  • How to choose the right idea to work with; and
  • How we stay true to the original idea.

In an ideal world, we'll end up with notebooks full of many different ideas — but which of them is the one you will spend months (or even years) trying to turn into a novel? How do you know which ideas have ‘legs’ and the potential to become something exciting? 

There's more information about all of this in my Substack newsletter and, in particular, the Writer's Lodge, a community I've set up. Twice a month, I send out newsletters on various writing topics, encouraging subscribers to join in, comment, and share their work. Do take a look.

Talking about ideas

I find it weird to talk about ideas in a very specific sense. There can be a problem with sharing ideas too soon. I find an idea is almost like a punctured hosepipe: every time I share it with somebody or talk about an idea I've had, a little bit leaks out. If you're not careful, an idea can die — it can feel wrong or silly if you overshare it too soon. It only takes one person to look at you slightly strangely to make you lose confidence in an idea.

So that's just a word of warning, I suppose. Unless an idea is something you're really happy, comfortable, and content with, I would counsel against oversharing. 

What is an idea?

I came across two interesting dictionary definitions of what an idea is: 

  • Something such as a thought or conception that is the product of mental activity; and
  • A sense that something can happen, a notion or expectation.

I think ideas are everywhere. What we have to do as creative people is to stay open to them. While ideas come from all around us, it's about recognizing one. 

How do you recognize an idea with potential? 

I think it can be easy to go through your creative life thinking that all you have to do is stay open, keep your antenna up, and an idea will magically present itself. While that does happen, it can be rare.

What we actually need to do is to put the work in! We must generate ideas, and force ourselves to build an idea from nothing. The first thing I would say is: just turn up at your desk and generate ideas. Put some work in and see what happens. This is something to do, perhaps even when you don't feel like it. 

The notion of writer's block is an interesting one. When I was working in the Nation Health Service, I wasn't allowed to have an ‘audiologist block'. If I had a patient in the waiting room that needed to be seen, I just had to go and do it. If you work as a plumber or an electrician, you don't have a ‘plumber’s block’ or an ‘electrician's block’. You just have to get on and do the work! And I think there is an element of that, especially in the idea generation phase of writing, where you have to just get on and do it, whether you feel like it or not.

Product of mental activity

Let's look at the first definition of an idea — a product of mental activity.

Yesterday, I was walking down the street and saw a mobility scooter. I decided I would put what I'm about to tell you to the test. So I decided to muse on the mobility scooter. I thought, what if I wanted to write a romance that featured a mobility scooter? It could have two people who meet in a scooter shop. And that could go somewhere. (Didn't go very far with that one — probably because I'm not a romance writer.) 

So, I turned my attention to another angle: what if I wanted to write a crime story that featured a mobility scooter? What if we had a booby trap scooter? Then, I thought, well, why would someone booby trap a mobility scooter? Would it be to kill less mobile people, older people? What if I made the idea concrete? I was writing a political thriller in which somebody wanted to kill older people or people who were less able.

Hopefully, you can see that I'm not taking this very seriously. But you could see how that could lead to a story in which a body is discovered in mysterious circumstances. 

I'm not about to write a story about a booby-trapped mobility scooter, but what I am trying to show you is that you can take something that isn't particularly promising as an idea and generate something from it.

And if you get in the habit of doing that regularly and keep asking yourself:

  • Why might that happen?
  • What could that mean?
  • Where would that take you?

These questions could take you to some interesting places. Next time you're outdoors or even right now, if you spot something unusual or something that strikes you as interesting, spend two or three minutes musing on it. Where could it take you? 

It doesn't matter how silly your ideas are, no one's ever going to see them. Just play with them and see where they might take you.

Before You Go To Sleep

Another thing that I've found really helpful (although this is slightly harder to do) is being half asleep. I've generated some of my best ideas when I've been half asleep. When you are sleeping, and when you are dreaming in particular, the brain amplifies the part of itself that is responsible for linking things or making connections between seemingly disparate topics. It also diminishes the activity from the areas of the brain that censor.

So, when you're half asleep, what you're essentially doing is putting lots of random things together, finding connections, and not censoring yourself. If you can muse on an idea without focusing on it, that’s great. And then write down what you've come up with. The question then is what you do with raw material.

Just be more open to musing, being playful, and jot things down. 

Retaining ideas

This is a particularly good time to remind ourselves not to self-censor, not to only write down things that we think have the potential to turn into novels, but to write down almost anything that strikes us as interesting.

Hopefully, as writers, we all carry some form of notebook. It doesn't really matter whether you have a digital notebook or physical notebook, whether you have scraps of paper that you shove in a folder when you get home, or if you have a highly indexed archive system for all of your notes.

Because what I have found over the years is that it's actually relatively rare that I go through my notebook or the notes on my phone. It's just the activity of writing the note down.

It's the activity of making that physical effort to retain something that seems to imprint it into my brain. It kind of plants the idea in the soil. So, I think the most important thing is just to get yourself in the habit of writing stuff down.

It can be worth trying to do this every day. If you have a moment of just sitting down in a coffee shop or wherever you might be, and just jotting down things that you notice —  anything that catches your eye, a habit that you observe, or clothing that people wear, just anything that sort of strikes you, you'd be surprised at how retaining this information can kind of shift it to a part of the brain where you will work on it subconsciously and kind of nurture it. It will process and rock down into something better. 

You'll also be training your brain to be more observant. We can't produce work unless we take the material in. So I think it's important to just go out there and observe the world, and you'll find that many ideas will come to you once you get into the habit of doing that.

You are far better off having notebook after notebook, full of stuff you'll never look at again, than missing the one killer idea you have.

Can it sustain a long piece of fiction?

To answer this question, it's worth returning to the second of those definitions of an idea: a sense that something can happen; a notion, or an expectation.

Sometimes an idea comes to us out of the blue, almost fully formed. The idea for Before I Go to Sleep came from an obituary I read. It was of a man who suffered for all of his adult life with very severe amnesia from an operation he'd had in his twenties.

As I read, I just thought he must have, even towards the end of his life, thought of himself as a young man because he'd been unable to form any new memories. Literally in a flash, I had this vision of a woman thinking that she was young, that she'd had a one-night stand, who would look in a mirror and not recognize herself —  seeing someone much older.

Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, sat at a breakfast table
Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth the film adaptation of Before I Go to Sleep (image: StudioCanal)

So, this story idea came to me pretty much fully formed. Obviously, I still had to work on it, as it’s not something that in itself could sustain a whole novel. But I instantly felt it had potential. That's what we're really looking for here —  an idea that seems to open doors and invite different directions that we can go in.

I think you can sense when you interrogate your ideas, which ones seem to open up a world, or invite characters or invite conflict. Conflict is at the heart of every story on some level. You can usually get a sense of which ideas invite conflict, where you can see a potential for conflict and for an antagonist and a protagonist.

But not all ideas come as fully formed. The idea for my second book, Second Life, was much more gradual. It came from two places. 

I used to read a blog by a woman who lived in London. She would talk about various cultural things that she'd done, restaurants she'd visited, operas she'd seen, etc. She had a very interesting and beautiful way of writing, which is why I read it. But after a while, I realized how much of herself she was giving away and how somebody with less than good intentions could quite easily pretend to be her ideal love match or even her friend by pretending to have the same interests. That was one of the ideas that fed into Second Life.

It was an idea that I felt had potential, but it still wasn't fully formed.

Later on, a friend and I talked about alcoholism and various forms of addiction. She said to me, ‘addiction's a very patient disease.' I also wrote that in my notebook — at the time I wasn't sure why, but those two ideas seemed to go together.

Some ideas are drawn to each other

Something to be aware of is that some ideas are magnetic: you'll find them drawn to each other. It won't be obvious why, but they'll just be somehow speaking to each other. You can feel doors opening up when an idea gathers momentum and begins to hook other ideas. They're the ones to really work on and muse over. 

One of the ways that you can tell whether an idea is good enough is to ask yourself, is this an idea that you can walk away from? Sometimes, if you are lucky, you'll have an idea, and it'll feel like you have to do this.

I'm in the middle of this at the moment. I have a book that I'm desperate to write and a book that I'm writing, and they both feel like such good ideas that I'm desperate for one to be over so I can work on the next. 

Interrogate your idea

Sometimes, an idea will just excite you. If you're very lucky, you can ask yourself, why is no one else doing this? Feels like such an obvious idea!  But it can also be worth asking: 

  • Does this idea excite you? 
  • Can you see a protagonist in it? 
  • Is there a main character? 
  • Is there a character that has a goal?
  • Are there one or more obstacles between that character and their goal? 

You always have to consider whether the stakes are high enough and if there are potential problems and setbacks along the way.

For example, wanting to rescue a kitten from a tree isn't necessarily going to make a novel or even a short story, whereas being stranded on Jupiter might. So, how big is the idea? How many stones can you throw at your character? It's also worth thinking about — can the problem be made to feel relatable?

You might have a character stranded on Jupiter, but can you give them a compelling reason to get home that other people readers can identify with? Maybe they are missing the birth of a child or learning that a loved one is terminally ill. So, can you make it relatable no matter how far-fetched it might be?

I'd also say, don't second guess yourself. There's an excellent YouTube video called, ‘Everything is a Remix’. It's definitely worth watching. I think that you can fall into the trap of always looking for an original idea, and no idea is really original. What you can do, though, is take other people's ideas, and you can transform them, combine them, and essentially remix them into your own thing.

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In many ways, Before I Go to Sleep is 50 First Dates crossed with Sleeping with the Enemy, or it was made by Alfred Hitchcock. There's nothing wrong with that. You can take other people's stories or stories that have been done before and make them your own. 

What to do if you feel your story drifting 

Suppose you had this idea of writing about the guy stranded on Jupiter. Then you find that you've written 20,000 words, and your story is nowhere near Jupiter, it’s somewhere else. What do you do in that situation? I think the important thing there is to ask yourself, is it drifting in a more exciting direction? It can also be worth asking, does it make you uncomfortable? 

A quote about creativity that I really love is by David Bowie. He said, “Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don't feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you're just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

I take from that that it's not supposed to feel comfortable. If it feels comfortable we're probably not deep enough. We're probably not in an exciting place. We're treading water. So, if you found your story drifting, but it's exciting and scaring you where it is, it might be worth continuing down that path.

However, it can also be worth spending a bit of time returning to the spine of your story. What was the original idea? What was the original thing you saw, that you heard, that you felt — what was the tingle that made you think this could turn into a novel? Can you and should you return to that spine?

It can really help to boil the spine of the idea down to a line or two really early on. So, for example, Before I Go to Sleep was about a woman trying to work out who she is. Now, that story did drift. But it never drifted too far away from that spine. As long as you stay true to the story's spine, you can see any drift as being an exciting thing. It can be something that is inspiring. It might be the work telling you where it needs to go and wants to be.

So, once you've found your idea, try and boil it down to (ideally) just a sentence. Think of that as the spine of your story, and keep on checking that you're staying true to that. If that shifts too far, you've moved away from your idea, and you need to consider whether you've moved to a better place. Then maybe you need to scrap the original idea.

As long as you're staying true to the spine of it, I think you're on the right track. 

To summarize, just remember:

  • Ideas are everywhere.
  • Retain as many as you can, even less-than-promising ones.
  • Just daydream and spend a bit of time toying with them. No one's going to see the results of these daydreams, so just go as wild and wacky as you can.
  • See if any of the ideas seem to be magnetic. See if any of them seem to attract each other or give you other ideas.
  • If any, in particular, excite you, then go with that.

If you can't believe you're the first to have thought of this idea, then you know you're onto something! Especially if it has a sense of opening things up. 

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