Friday Evening, 32°F and cloudy
Listening to The Nice, She Belongs to Me.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but those story ideas you have for your upcoming, as-yet-unwritten novels? They’re worthless. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, is buying up ideas for novels. Go ahead, Google around and see if I’m wrong. I’ll just wait here.

The good news is, if you’ve been wasting energy hoarding your novel ideas, you can relax. The dollar value of your great idea is $0.00. Nobody is angling to swipe it from you. Even if they did, it wouldn’t matter.

Yet I keep seeing comments like these in writers’ groups:

“I avoid social media pitch events like ass herpes because writers are lurking around hoping to steal my ideas.”

“Whatever my current idea is, I guard it like a state secret.”

“I flat out refuse to even tell my editor what the story is about until I’ve got the first draft finished.”

Now, there may be some good reasons to not share your story ideas, but “people are going to steal them” isn’t one of them. The value isn’t in the story idea. It’s in the story’s execution.

Story Ideas Examined

Here’s a great idea: A young hotshot is facing an important competition. A curmudgeonly former champion reluctantly agrees to come out of retirement to train the hotshot.  The hotshot disappoints the former champ a few times, but learns a crucial lesson or two and makes progress in his training. At the competition, the hotshot’s fiercest competitor surprises him with an unfair advantage. The hotshot responds using wisdom or skill from a crucial lesson, and wins despite his competitor’s unfair advantage. This humiliates his competitor, thrills his friends, and earns him the respect of the former champion.

You probably recognize this “mentor and student” story idea as the plot of The Karate Kid. But the value isn’t in the idea, it’s in the execution of the story, the character development, and the details. If it was executed with flat characters in an incoherent story world, it wouldn’t be a household name.

Keep the story idea and change the execution, and you have Grand Torino.  Swap the heartwarming ending for an unhappy one and you’ve got Million Dollar Baby.  Put the happy ending back in, swap humans for cars and you have Cars. Swap the cars for surfboarding penguins and you have Surf’s Up. We could go on like this all day with stories based on the student/mentor trope. At the end of the day, we’d still have a zillion other popular trope ideas to play this game with.

If you’re tempted to argue that those stories are all pretty different, that was my point. The story ideas there are basically the same. It’s the execution that develops the value of the idea. Without execution, story ideas are worth nothing. And execution is where the work of writing a novel lies.

Quit talking and get building

Think of it in terms of building a house. If you have an idea for a house, it’s not worth anything. If you’re an architect and draw plans, that’s worth something depending on how good of an architect you are. But it’s still not worth anywhere near as much as the house will be when properly constructed. Likewise, story ideas really aren’t worth anything. An outline is worth something, but not nearly as much as a complete, well-constructed novel.

If you have a great idea, good for you. Go on and develop its value by writing a story based on it. If you can create an engaging story with well-rounded characters and a satisfying ending, you’ll have something of real value that no one can take away.


Photo credit: Nick dePartee via Unsplash.