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.

21 thoughts on “When Good Ideas Go Bad

  1. Step one: design an intricate gameworld for an RPG based around a really cool idea.
    Step two: realize that throwing players into such a meat grinder would be no fair, and no fun.
    Step three: think “at least I can use the setting for a novel”.
    Step four: realize that no potential protagonist could survive long enough to start understanding what’s really going on.
    Step five: think “maybe as a sequence of short stories”.
    Step six: realizing that slogging through fifteen or more short stories for the reader to “get it” isn’t really marketable.
    Step seven: shelve it, and work on something else.
    Step eight; trying to bribe Myrtle the muse. “Look, I’ll do a short story or two after I finish what I’m trying to work on, as both a palette cleanser and a reward. Over time, it’ll add up”.
    Step nine: realize Myrtle isn’t really into negotiation.
    Step 10: whine about it on the internet.

  2. If I at least execute this current mess before considering it a failure I’ll have made progress. I’ve got to kill some more stories before I get the experience I need to produce more reliably. And I’m still early enough in the design stage that I can trim out some of the kudzus.

  3. Apropos, I think, from Drudge Report today:


    “… It can be hard for a team of humans to sort through overwhelming amounts of information, such as audience surveys and critical reviews, to understand just what makes a commercial or movie a hit. Feeding all of that information into a machine equipped with artificial intelligence — and programmed with a huge database of successes — can yield surprisingly prescient suggestions.”

    When your script is going to cost $300 million as a finished product, and you can’t afford to f- it up.

    Or, more likely, when your studio is competing for eyeballs in the new streaming universe, and the crappy television being cranked out by your team of tired hipster hacks is tanking in the ratings.

    Answer? Fire those hacks and buy an IBM!

    I predict much money will be lost.

    1. So you’re saying that if I proposed to use machine learning to extrapolate fighter designs from the F-22 and F-35, you would not be interested in investing? Or to restructure TV writing teams around agile? I bet someone has a genetic algorithm based poetry generator.

      I don’t think future people are going to be so eager to save storage space that they use one of those for their poetry needs. Imagine some poor schlub, living on a deserted planetoid for years using a committee and program designed optimal survival kit, trying to stay sane, and each day trying a new computer generated poem to see if it means anything.

      1. “…machine learning to extrapolate fighter designs from the F-22 and F-35…”

        All the machine will be able to do is spec a better aircraft, mostly by making decisions based on human performance/endurance data, physics and materials science instead of political considerations.

        Without the pork, the aircraft will never be built and I will lose my investment.

        Show me an AI that can sleaze worthless bullshit through Congress/Parliament by calculating maximum pork-osity. That would be worth investing in.

        1. Too true.
          The F-16 and F-15 already exceed the abilities of the human body by a significant degree.
          There’s no real reason I can see that refining and updating their avionics isn’t preferable to the F-35 fiasco.

          Heck, Rutan’s Mudskipper would be better for the Marine Corps than the F-35. At what, one percent of the cost?

      2. I’m pretty sure a pure AI approach would not yield an ideal aircraft design either.

        Why? Navier-Stokes equations have not been proven to always be solvable. So in practice the computer solvers (CFD) should be watched by a human expert, and then tested against the real world if the task is delicate, unusual, and important. The exact aerodynamics of a fighter are fairly important in making sure that the design of the controls will let someone actually fly the thing.

        So, I would want to see good results from some fairly specific experiments before I expected anything but an automated lawn dart designer. On the other hand, I can think of some folks who might be a little interested in those experiments. On the gripping hand, I think they may already have all the saner more achievable experiments that they can handle.

  4. “Your characters twist and your plot turns into something Rube Goldberg would worship and you don’t exactly know what happens…”

    You mean like EVERY DAY when I sit down in front of the computer? Yeah, it can be a bit much. I -never- know what the solution is when I sit down. Sometimes I don’t even know what the problem is.

    Like today. Alice Haddison and Valkyrie Nike meet Kali the Destroyer at the local coffee joint. There she is, eight arms and all, looking for a fight.

    What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Where’s that going?

    Well, I don’t have a clue. But it seems odd that Kali would show up for coffee, you know? So I’ll run with it and see what happens.

  5. I’m a pantser . . . but sometimes outlining that finished draft can show where I went wrong. Pulling out the Hero’s Journey and seeing how the story maps to it’s points can help. And sometimes mapping out the Bad Guys’ journey works.

    1. I can’t pants. i at least need to write down background information extensively so i can refer to it.

      Of course, sometimes writing down that information in enough of a form to be useable later eats all my will to write


      1. That’s the beauty of series. World is built–and you can search prior manuscripts if you need to double check. Sometimes the same characters–and again, a quick search will turn up their eye color, and so forth, if you forget.

  6. Well you could have my wife’s problem. I gave her a perfectly good short story idea, with characters and plot and such. Now I keep adding little bits of filler. Just another thing/character that fits perfectly. She is trying not to let me turn this into a novel. I did that with a short about a little pixie with a great big gun. Actually I turned it into a trilogy. This could be an open ended mil-sf series. There is the reason I am called the Evil Muse. Cedar still loves me though 😀

    1. I’m just hoping my first novel length project doesn’t die in the middle of feature creeping into a goat gagger trilogy.

  7. Is it bad to have plans for the story that turns into 11 volumes?

    My work in eternal semi-progress is purposefully very deep backstory (at least 400 years, if not 600 prior) for what I want to actually write. I want to get those million words of practice out of the way before telling the story I want to tell.

    There is a lot of in-fill potential in 400 years. If it starts selling, there is no shortage of places and times to set stories in the same universe.

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