How do you know when you've got a good idea? Some of my writer friends tell me that they know they're onto something good when it inspires them to write, when the words flow almost by magic, the story "writing itself." One of my friends tells me a good idea is "the weirdest thing I never imagined I could imagine" that he's never read anywhere else. Me, I think I've got a good idea when I'm excited about the story and think I'm writing a book I'd like to read.
But...in my conversations with these very same writers, it turns out that some of these ideas that look amazingly fantastically great and brilliant for a week or a month don't actually lead anywhere. Or, we don't know where they lead and spend years trying to find out. Michael Chabon, in his book Maps and Legends, talks about wasting five years on a second novel that never panned out, because the idea wasn't enough to sustain a novel and there wasn't actually a story there, just an idea about a city. My own first novel had what I thought was a compelling protagonist and series of events, but the ideas behind the plot were pretty trite and, really, just plain dumb.
I've begun short stories with a clear image in my head of a main character, and never managed to find an actual story for that character. I've also had utterly brilliant first lines that generated prose which petered out after a paragraph or two. Sometimes, what seems like an amazing idea turns out to be very slight, and I find that I've been chasing a mirage across the desert while my story dies of thirst. Or some other, better, metaphor of your choice.
I'm sure I'm not alone in this, and that many of you have also begun writing and felt initially that you had a good, strong idea only to find that the muse was only mumbling to herself, not giving you anything you could really work with. So the question becomes how do we know when we've got a good idea for a novel?
There probably isn't a universally reliable test for this, but over the years I have developed a short list of questions I ask myself about ideas before I sit down and write. Admittedly, some of these questions are best answered by actually trying to write out the story, but one must begin somewhere in forming a methodology (for those of you who reject/are repulsed by any sort of methodology in your art, you can stop reading now).
1. Does this idea generate other ideas? Can I keep brainstorming off the initial vision and spin out more--and more interesting--ideas? If the idea doesn't give me additional ideas right away, I don't bother. Sometimes, you know, they grow into better ideas if left alone for a year or so.
2. Does this idea generate a lot of questions? The more questions the idea raises, the better for me, because I like to solve problems in my writing. If an idea leads to a dozen "what would happen if..." questions, then I've got something I can probably use.
3. Does this idea seem to go anywhere, like to a climax or other ending? If I can't work through from beginning to middle to end of a simple story using this idea, I let it lie until it grows into something more story-shaped. I used to just write out as many ideas as I could, but I don't do that anymore.
4. Does anything about the idea really surprise/shock/anger/frighten me? The stronger my emotional response to the idea, the better. If I'm not emotionally involved in some deep way, the story will end up being boring, even to me. I think it's a great idea to write about things that make us uncomfortable.
I also make notes, draw pictures and otherwise push ideas around before I commit myself to the splendid misery of writing prose. These days, a lot of "writing" takes place in my head before anything gets on paper. I've grown much more cautious as I've aged. So how about you? How do you know you've got a good idea? How do you know you've got an idea that will generate a whole book? How do you know when you don't?