May 10, 2013

My Biggest Challenge: Idea Count

One of the things that always fascinates me about a great book is the simplicity of the underlying story. I mean, the characters and plot components may be super complicated, but the story itself usually boils down to a simple one-liner that's easy to take in and enjoy.

For example, my favorite book of last year, Shadow & Bone. This book is a layered, nuanced tale set in a fantastically rich folkloric setting--but the story really boils down to a girl who must choose to accept herself in order to master her powers and determine which of two men she really loves. It's a story of the heart, no matter its setting and secondary details--those bits make the story come alive, mind you, but the story at heart is simple and RELATABLE.

Here's where I come in. I have too many ideas. Upon reading that last sentence, some of you may say, GIVE ME A BREAK, but just wait--stay with me! Having too many ideas can be a problem. Secondary plot lines can add richness, or they can cloud the waters. There is a very fine line between the two states.

A typical project room wall in Product Design
I struggled with the same challenge as a designer. I recall one particularly long day in the project room rather early in my career, when I'd been sketching cell phones for hours without striking on one my project manager really liked. My sketches were hot, the lines crisp--but something about the designs just WASN'T WORKING. Finally, my project manager (a very sweet car designer with a great flair for cutting to the quick of things) took me over to the project wall for a talk. Melanie, you have too many ideas, he said. You only need one idea in each design. One design, one idea.

One design, one idea.

This notion was genius to me--and still is. Here I was, killing myself weaving three different concepts into one sketch when I could just make three quick sketches instead (which would come more easily from the lack of complication). I've been thinking about this concept in regards to writing these days, and I think the same mantra can be easily applied to storytelling:

One book, one idea.

I'm trying to let myself embrace the idea. It's much harder to risk 50 or 80 thousand words on the effort (as opposed to a ten second sketch), but every time I read an excellent book I find the same theory put to work--great books tell a great story--ONE great story. So tell your story. Tell just that story. Tell it from your unique point of view, in your unique voice, and let that ONE story shine.


  1. Lol! You want to teach a class on this one? My brain looks worse than your wall ;) But you're right. A good story has one basic idea.

  2. Clean, clear, crisp. Get the story out there. Then if it needs "accessories" you can add them. Great post.

    1. And you know what, the more I dissect the books I love the most, the most I realize how free they are of Accessories. They allow me to FOCUS on one idea and really mull it over--and of course live and die by it!

  3. Yup. I have this problem too. Thanks for this post. It's a good one.

    1. Thank you, Rosi! Lovely to see you here. Good luck whipping those ideas into line :)

  4. Less really is more! :)

    Thank you!


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