Can Ideas Die?

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No one has really figured out how to explain to “non-writers” how writers “come up with” their ideas. But an idea is an idea. Entrepreneurs, inventors—there are plenty of forms an idea can take. Explaining how ideas “come to you” isn’t as important as what you do with the ideas you do grab hold of.

As far as stories go, ideas are just part of the process. Sometimes you don’t realize how many you come up with in a given period of time, but when you do, you certainly rarely find a reason to complain about it.

But once you get an idea—is it a forever companion?

Ideas are abstract, but it’s possible to better understand the process of creating and constructing when you use a metaphor. Here, we think of ideas as “born and developing.” It sounds a bit odd at first, but it makes more sense when you break it down.

Ideas have a sort of “growth cycle”

Often, out of nowhere, an idea spontaneously forms in your brain. We’re not scientists, so we just call this magic. And it really can be quite magical, that moment you realize something has appeared in the deep, mysterious depths of your mind that wasn’t there five seconds ago.

Ideas form, and ideas grow. The more you nurture them, the more they develop and mature before your eyes. This process continues even after your original idea becomes a finished product—let’s use a published book as an example. That book started out as just an idea only you could access. Now it has become something sharable with anyone who wants to enjoy it.

Not every idea you have will grow to its full potential 

This is, in a sense, just part of life. Not every story idea you have will make it all the way to a published book. This is where the steps of the process get a little fuzzy.

There are some ideas you will try to nurture and just don’t have what it takes to make it very far in the cycle. This might mean laying aside a project you’ve already put a lot of time and effort into—but don’t get discouraged. It does not mean you are a terrible writer, or a failure, or that your idea was “bad.”

Some ideas just try to move through the cycle in a way that isn’t working right now, either because you need to give it more time to develop, or because your idea has begun to form—but there’s a smaller piece of it that’s trying to get your attention while buried under other fragments. 

What does “giving up on” an idea really mean?

“Giving up” isn’t the best way to think of the process of re-evaluating your ideas. There’s just an overly negative connotation there, one that often makes writers feel like every project they start that just isn’t working somehow makes them less of a success.

Instead, think of setting a project aside as “giving it time to settle.” When we reach out and encourage you not to give up—what we really mean is, don’t lose faith in the great ideas you do have. Let’s return to something we wrote above.

Sometimes a great idea forms—but along with it come everything you unintentionally associate with that idea, like movies you’ve seen or books you’ve read that remind you of it. That’s always going to be there. And sometimes what stops us from being able to write a promising, original piece is the fear that we are copying someone else’s work too closely.

Strip that idea down to its roots. Separate it out into its smaller fragments. You might have a story idea about a teenager who loses his only parent and goes on an adventure in search of the other. Not so original, right? But is there another element underneath that’s really the intended focus, such as him avoiding college applications because he doesn’t want to follow in either of his parents’ footsteps?

Outline your story, if you have to. Find the part of your idea that’s really reaching out to you. It might be the missing inspiration you’ve been searching for.

So now we return to our initial question: can ideas die?

The answer: no. Like us, they get exhausted. They get worn out and distorted. Sometimes we try to manipulate them so much into becoming what we think we want them to be, their true identities seem to disappear.

But you can bring them back. Even if it means putting your current story aside and giving it time to rest, and remind itself what it really wants to become.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Should You Write a Prologue and Epilogue?

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Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s a finite order to this regardless of the order you write them in (some write their ends first: no one will ever know the difference, really). The beginning always comes first. The end always comes last.

What about the beginning of the beginning? And the end of the ending?

Prologues and epilogues are style features. There are no rules that say a certain story or genre of stories have to include them to make them “whole.” While a prologue can serve as an isolated way to pull a reader into a book, an epilogue gently guides them back out, tying off loose ends and (hopefully) leaving them relatively satisfied with their decision to read the story from cover to cover.

They work with some stories, and not others. Deciding whether to include them in your story isn’t as easy as deciding to write a beginning, a middle and an end.

If you’re debating whether or not to include a prologue and epilogue in your book, here are three questions you can ask yourself to help guide you to the right decision for your project.

Q: What is the relationship between past, present and future in your story?

Prologues are typically used to introduce a reader to events that happen before the actual story begins—days, years, maybe even centuries before the narrator meets you at present. Similarly, epilogues often follow a gap between the end of the present and skip to the future, to show how the book’s events shape its characters later on in their lives.

A: If your story takes place in the “present” (whether it’s in present tense or being told in paste tense in chronological order) but needs some exposition to get it going and wrapping up at the end, a prologue and epilogue might work in your favor.

Q: How much is your narrator willing to open up to his/her audience?

We love creating broken characters. We enjoy setting them up in the aftermath of a bad situation and helping them work their way through it. Just like IRL, characters facing tough circumstances might be in denial about past events or reluctant to open up to their audience (your readers) about what they’ve been through. At least, at first. 

A: If your narrator starts out a little closed off, reluctant to share information and/or shy, skip the prologue and use a final chapter to settle things at the story’s close. If your character is taking this opportunity to share past events with your readers in reflection, a prologue and epilogue can do wonders for your character’s “credibility.” More on that later. Probably.

Q: Does your story have a definite beginning and end? 

This might seem like a dumb question. Obviously a story starts somewhere and ends somewhere else. But imagine a story that plays with tenses, shoving you forward and pulling you back from start to finish. Or one that starts at its end and works backwards to show the reader a beginning? Then you have your trilogies, where book one can start with a prologue but certainly can’t end with one.

A: If you’re going to get fancy with time, it’s probably best to leave a prologue and epilogue out of the mix. This method can get too confusing if you’re not careful; sometimes letting the reader dive straight in is your best bet. If you need to give a character a chance to explain a few important points before the story, and you want to let them come back in at the end to finish things up, prologue and epilogue yourself out.

Those are not verbs. That’s fine. Pretend.

Each story you write will have its own flow: there are no right or wrong answers to any of the above questions. The most important thing you can do is trust your gut (and your brain) and let the story unfold the way it wants. If you write the entire thing and feel something is missing, try adding a prologue and epilogue to see if that solves the problem.

They won’t work for every story. But sometimes, they have the power to change them for the better. 

Now get to writing. Give yourself some loose ends to tie up later and go from there.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.