This question about story idea versus execution comes from UK reader Adele:
I recently heard someone on the radio ask a famous business entrepreneur (James Caan from the UK version of Dragon’s Den), “What is more important: the idea, or the execution?” His response was that, in business, ideas were a dime a dozen but the execution of the idea was the deciding factor in whether it would turn into a business or not. So when it comes to a book – what is more important, the idea or the execution?
I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and I’m so glad Adele landed in my inbox to give me a great launching pad (or, you know, soapbox, if you will).
Books Are All About Carrying A Story Idea To Execution
I could pitch editors fantastic, high-concept ideas until their ears bled, but if the actual manuscript didn’t live up to the promise of the great story idea, none of my enthusiastic, great-idea-but-don’t-read-it-just-trust-me-that-it-rocks manuscripts would result in a sale. Because the idea is just the first step in a long writing journey.
In my experience of writers (and my own experience as a writer), there are often idea people and then there are execution people. I’m an execution person. The few times I’ve had idea manuscripts, I didn’t execute them as well as I could’ve. Some writers have both fantastic, commercial ideas and then know how to take them to the next level in terms of writing and storytelling (execution). Those are the writers I want to work with.
I Always Ask To See Writing
If a writer came to me and pitched me the story idea of, “A group of kids locked in a death match, playing as the political pawns of a crumbling country,” I would be electrified to see it. But would it be done as well as THE HUNGER GAMES? I’m sure there have been similar ideas written and pitched in the world, but most of them remain in drawers and on hard drives because Suzanne Collins took this dynamite, dystopic idea and really gave us a world to immerse ourselves in, characters to care about, and unbelievably high stakes, written like an action-packed thriller.
That’s why I always ask to see writing when I hear a pitch. Many ideas sound fantastic when pitched to me at conferences. But that’s just the story idea. How does the writer carry that idea to execution? I can’t decide anything until I read the manuscript.
Snakes On A Plane!
In stark contrast to this, I’ve heard that a lot of people in Hollywood don’t read (this is not an insult, Hollywood people themselves always seem to brag about this). They’re all about ideas. Pitches fly around the room and the ones that sound the most awesome are frequently the ones that turn into fast-tracked blockbuster action flicks that have a great premise, but usually aren’t nearly as satisfying as the movie that bloomed in your head after you heard the story idea. Why did the movie Snakes on a Plane get made? Not because of its brilliant art house execution, let me tell you (which still didn’t stop me from going to the midnight showing…ahem). It was because Samuel Jackson heard the title (which implies the idea of the movie) and, without reading it, greenlighted the project.
Idea + Execution = Great Writing
Not so in books. In your writing, you should strive to have the kind of story idea that would make a Hollywood board room sit up and take notice, but you also have to deliver on the promise of the premise and write a killer book. Would THE HUNGER GAMES have ridden on the coattails of its great premise to the kind of worldwide success it has enjoyed if the writing had been flat, the pacing slow, and the suspense mild? No. So you can’t rest on the laurels of a great idea, either. You have to carry the idea to execution.
This is why I’m still baffled by people who wonder, “How do I copyright my writing?” before submitting because they’re afraid agents will steal their ideas. If ideas were all that mattered, I’d probably make a nice living off of stealing other people’s ideas and selling them for a lot of money. But the ideas aren’t the hard part. It’s the execution. When I read slush, my biggest complaint is, “What a great story idea, I wish they’d made it work.” So to make any money as a plagiarist, I’d have to spend years of my life stealing great ideas and then coming up with my own execution for them since the original writer couldn’t. That kind of labor-intensive theft suddenly starts to look a lot less likely.
What Would You Rather Trust Your Life To?
I will leave you with one more example of this point: ever since humans realized they were earthbound, they’ve wanted to fly. Drawings for flying machines can be found in Leonardo da Vinci’s journals, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first to have that particular lightbulb flare on. But it took a very long time for people to carry that idea to execution, and even longer to make that execution commercially viable and safe for constant use (and, I hope, snake-free). So what would you rather trust your life to? Leonardo da Vinci’s great idea for a flying machine? Or an airplane as executed today?