[GUEST POST] Robert Jackson Bennett on The Danger of Cool Ideas

Robert Jackson Bennett‘s 2010 debut Mr. Shivers won the Shirley Jackson award as well as the Sydney J. Bounds Newcomer Award. His second novel, The Company Man, is  the winner of the Edgar Award and the recipient of a Special Citation of Excellence from the Philip K. Dick Award. His third novel, The Troupe, is available now. He lives in Austin with his wife and son. He can be found on Twitter at @robertjbennett.

Science fiction and fantasy is one of the hardest genres to write well in. Seriously.

You probably wouldn’t think it from reading what people write about the genre itself: according to some, our prose is stilted, our characters weak, our sequels interminable, and our plots flimsy. I disagree with a lot of these – like anything, anywhere, of any kind, this all depends on where you look – but none of these acknowledge the real pitfall inherent in any science fiction or fantasy novel: cool ideas.

Cool ideas are dangerous. And I don’t mean that in a “if this fell into the wrong hands…” kind of way. I mean that cool ideas beg you spend more and more time on them, because, well… they’re cool, of course. And you don’t see more cool ideas anywhere else than in SFF: the genre is full of twists and distortions and enhancements of our own world, of our own reality, and most of the time they’re at the crux of the story itself. These are the “what if” ideas that form the unspoken prompt to the plot.

For example, if you ask, “What if English magic had been real, and had its own place in history?” then you might get Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

If you ask, “What if a person could experience all the parts of his or her life over and over again? Would it make any more sense?” then it’d prompt Slaughterhouse Five.

If you ask, “What if someone could calculate future history on an enormous scale? Could they put a plan in place that could guide all of civilization?” it might bring you to the Foundation series.

But here’s the thing: though in some ways these cool ideas are the catalyst that starts you down the road to a story, they’re also liabilities. Because they’re also rabbitholes – you could keep following them, further and further, a chain of events and probabilities and explanations that could really just keep going, if you thought about it hard enough.

You could do that. A lot of the time, you might want to, as a writer. But that’s not good writing.

A good rule of thumb in writing is that every scene – and I do mean every scene – has to develop some larger aspect of the book. Each scene must contribute to the plot, character, or theme in some manner. Some writers – like Christopher Nolan – edit their work so that each scene has to contribute to at least two of those aspects – anything less, and the scene has to change, or it gets cut. And then again some aspects, like character and setting, are less important to some people than others.

For myself, as a writer, I find myself asking about each scene, “What does this say?” If I have something happening, then it must be saying something: it satisfies no reader to think that any development in a story is random, with no connection to plot, character, or theme. And a development’s relationship to any of these aspects forms the voice and heart of the story.

We say of powerful stories that, “This really speaks to me,” so we have to ask: what is it saying?

And cool ideas are often the most treacherous tools in an SFF writer’s toolbox. Because we sometimes feel that a cool idea justifies itself. A marvelously crafted, brilliantly complicated conceit should be justification in itself, right? It doesn’t have to really say anything: it’s like a machine, sitting there functioning away, and we can just all sit and marvel at how well it works – can’t we?

Except not. Simply describing the cause and effect of one idea offers all the satisfaction and fulfillment a tedious research paper.

An idea has to relate back to the basic elements of the story. You might think examining a cool idea makes good reading, but odds are you’re actually just spinning your wheels.

And I think the best cool ideas are, underneath it all, metaphors: the way the idea works is the same way the story works. The idea almost serves as the instrument through which the author examines the characters, or plot, or theme, or whatever they choose.

And I can’t think of many writers who do this better than Terry Pratchett. Neil Gaiman once said that Pratchett, despite the trolls and dwarves and magic, is really a Science Fiction writer, because he’s tinkering with the rules of a universe and watching how they play out. But each time his tinkering – his “cool idea” – acts in parallel to the plot and character of his story.

In Feet of Clay, he essentially said, “What if automatons wanted to be free, and own themselves?” and he somehow managed to play that out into an examination of authority and an argument for moral atheism. That’s a hell of an accomplishment, I think. He said a lot with that one cool idea.

But if Terry Pratchett isn’t a serious enough example for you, just look at David Foster Wallace, whose novel Infinite Jest is lauded by the literary elite, but is loaded with speculative elements. Written in the early 90’s but set in the near future, one “cool idea” that seems tangential actually speaks directly to the theme of the book: the innovation of the video phone. In a brilliant bit of satire, Wallace describes how those who use this new technology will:

  1. Spend their time watching themselves on the camera, rather than listening to the person on the other line
  2. Grow increasingly insecure about their own appearances
  3. Suddenly begin purchasing masks of their own faces, adjusted so they look prettier in the cold blue light of the video phone
  4. Eventually begin preferring their phone mask to their real face, and wear the mask outside at all times, or refuse to go outside at all, until
  5. Everyone decides that video phones weren’t a great idea after all, and go back to normal phones, content to be invisible.

Infinite Jest has many themes, but you can see how this cool idea distills how technology and entertainment make us increasingly disaffected, isolated, and self-involved. It’s a cool idea that does something. And that’s a lot harder than it sounds.

When I started writing my novel The Troupe, I realized that the cool idea at the heart of the story – “If God sang the world into existence, what happened to that song? What if you sang it again?” – would need to do more than just hang within the story, being interesting. A song, after all, is like any piece of art, and must be interpreted: like all the books I’ve listed above, one must ask of it, “What are you trying to say?”

And this question, when placed against my cool idea in the story, started gaining momentum at astonishing speeds.

Cool ideas are what make Science Fiction and Fantasy the cool stories that they are. But they don’t make the story: they can’t exist in a vacuum. You’ve got to throw things against them, stuff them in jars with other ideas and characters and shake them up.

After all, every novel is in some way an experiment: and that’s where most of the fun comes in. Both in their writing, and their reading.

5 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Robert Jackson Bennett on The Danger of Cool Ideas”

  1. Thanks, Robert.

    I do think (as in the personage of what I just finished reading), a writer can be so love in with cool ideas that the rest of the work suffers, sometimes badly.

  2. Interesting. I recently added a little list of suggestions for writers to a collection of short stories I put out (The League of Almost Superheroes) and I wrote about something very similar:

    Great Story Ideas™
    • Great ideas for stories are useless unless you can add compelling characters and great writing.
    • Crappy ideas can make great stories if they have great characters and/or great writing.
    • People who have a “great idea” for a story are the bane of writers. They always want to tell you all about it: “You’re a writer? Well, have I got a great idea for you!” The frequent offering of “great ideas” by complete strangers is one of the reasons I rarely tell anyone I write fiction
    • I don’t know why particular stories are compelling to me, but if your ideas aren’t, it doesn’t matter how great they are. If you think you have a great idea, go write the story yourself. But stop bothering me, because I’m just not interested. I don’t lack ideas, I lack ideas I care about enough to spend an enormous amount of effort writing down. And you are unlikely to come up with an idea that I find compelling, because the ideas I find compelling are often so unlikely to make good stories that you would never come up with them or think they were “great.”
    • “Great Story Ideas” that strangers want to regale you about are also almost always about the “furniture” of a story (see “It’s Not About the Furniture,” below).

  3. A great perspective on a common problem. I think it’s important that you provided a significant tip even within the construction of the argument. By asking “what if” you are automatically leading to thinking about a story. You are not merely stating, for example, that there is a world where automatons want to be free, and own themselves. The simple suggestion of wonder can be enough to ignite narrative.

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