Big Ideas, Small Ideas and Shoebox Ideas

I am your Muse. Give me your shoebox ideas.

I have more ideas than I know what to do with. I have sci-fi ideas, fanstasy ideas, romance ideas, mystery ideas, UF ideas. I have ideas that are about situations, or people or themes. I have idea for scenes, I have ideas which leap off suggestive sentences, I have ideas about worlds and magic systems.

But these ideas are not all one in the same. There are, in fact, a range of ideas. I’ve named them, for conveniences sake: big ideas, small ideas, and shoebox ideas.

Most of my ideas start as shoebox ideas. They are fragments: a “what if” here, a character there, a fragment of a magic system, a “wouldn’t that be cool”. They’re shoebox ideas because while they are ideas, and they could become a story, at the moment they are just fragments. Little bits and pieces that could become more, but aren’t.

Occasionally these shoebox ideas will come together to create other ideas. Sometimes the modification of a shoebox idea makes it something more. But until that moment, they are just shoebox ideas.

J. K Rowling sat on a train and got an image of Harry potter on his way to magic school. That is, in my mind, a shoebox idea. It’s just a fragment. When you add in “dead parents, horcruxes, magical politics and Voldemort” it flits off out of the shoebox and becomes another type of idea.

These other types of ideas are: big ideas, and small ideas. They’re quite striaghtforward to identify and separate. Small ideas are just a ‘what if.’ That’s it. What if they person did this. What if the world was like this. What if….

Big ideas have an “and” in there.

“What if the dark lord won”, is a small idea. You could write a short story about that moment in time, about the dark lord wining. When you change that to “what if the dark lord won and then someone tried to steal something from him.” You’ve got a bigger idea. “What if the dark lord won, and someone tried to steal from him, and a, b and c happened?” There’s your novel. These are your big ideas.

“And” complicates things. So do multiple characters. So does combining multiple small ideas. “What if someone stole something” could be a perfectly respectable short story. “What if someone stole something and that something was a genie lamp.” That’s now a big idea. It implies more – more space, more in the way of characters, more wordage.

As such, if follows that if you understand this, you can use it. Want a short story? Try and avoid the word and, try to avoid more than one idea or too many characters. Want a longer story? Combine things, chuck an “and” in there, see what happens. It’s really quite straightforwards when you think about it.

Picture taken from flickr, under creative commons, attributed to Ehsan


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