When Good Ideas Go Bad
So you get an idea for a new story. It’s bright and shiny and it comes with interesting characters and a plot that might not be all the way there yet but it’s close and you can feel how good it can be. So you start writing.
Then it happens. Your characters twist and your plot turns into something Rube Goldberg would worship and you don’t exactly know what happens but instead of a nice, enjoyable story you’ve got an overworked mess.
Your good idea has gone bad.
It’s easy to do. I personally have a tendency to fall for epic with everything syndrome and throw every half-decent and half-baked concept that vaguely fits at the thing until it collapses under its own inertia. This is an ugly way to kill a story – and so far I’ve had zero success with trying to fix anything I’ve done that to.
Then there’s the Death of a Thousand Revisions. This happens when someone tries to edit (read, fix) a story to match what every person who reviewed the thing said about it, whether it applies or not. The end result tends to be what happens when anything is subjected to being judged by multiple people: what emerges in the lead is what is least offensive to the most number of people, not what is best (yes, ‘best’ is a subjective judgment, but very few really good things got that way by without offending someone. Not least because each new really good thing has to knock something else off the perch of relative fame, and the proponents of the newly demoted will usually act as though someone peed in their Wheaties). Trying to please everyone ends with stories that are most kindly described as “inoffensive”. The overly-revised and re-edited piece may be more technically polished, but the life and passion that was in the first draft is long gone, and what remains has the texture and liveliness of old gruel.
Another way a good idea can go bad is the horror that is the short story stretched into a novel. This is the opposite of the rabidly flourishing subplots and twists that characterize the epic with everything. With stretched story syndrome (which can also refer to a planned trilogy being drawn out into ten or more goat-gagging doorstoppers), there simply isn’t enough meat to the plot or the characters to fill the length of the piece, so the author substitutes relatively meaningless filler. The filler can work, if the writer’s prose is good enough, but if not, it can stifle a piece. Stretching should only be done if you can boost the character development enough or twine enough subplots through the thing to put meat on the bones. I can’t give any guidance here because I’m not good enough to do that.
All of these are recoverable. The worst way I’ve seen a good idea go bad is when the entire bloody piece pulls a face-heel turn on the author (look it up on TV Tropes if you have a few days to spare for link-hopping. That place is dangerous). It’s downright unnerving when the person you were sure was the villain of the piece not only shows depths of character you didn’t expect, the sod turns into an anti-hero or even a darker flavor of hero and you find your entire plot up-ended and turned into something you didn’t expect. It’s one of the more… interesting aspects of being an extreme pantser. I suspect it’s also because my subconscious seem to have a direct line to Evil Bastard Central, and I’ve been handed at least as many heroes (of the darker variety, since the noble kind tend not to hang around there) as villains straight from Evil Bastard Central.
Usually when I get hit by a face-heel inversion the only thing I can do is to finish the draft then figure out how to signal that the character who seems to be damn near irredeemable is actually not so horrible. That my subconscious tends to serve up characters who follow a strict moral code that may or may not resemble what we’d recognize as a well-aligned moral compass may help a bit with that.
Come to think of it, no matter what the good idea has done to metaphorically don fishnets, stilettos, miniskirt and corset then hang out behind the loos smoking and tempting the author to stray further from that original shiny notion, something can usually be salvaged by finishing the draft, then looking to see what adjustments can be made to properly foreshadow the twists, correctly signal who the readers should be cheering on, and clean up any subplot kudzu that may have crept in. It certainly takes skill to edit a good idea gone bad into something that will work, but it can be worth the effort.
And when it’s not, you’ve learned more about the craft and you might be able to fix the next one. Or the one after that.