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The Right Idea for the Story

· Advice,Writing

Inspired by this twitter exchange, I wanted to expand a little more on what really goes on in writing rooms, and one of the reasons why, I think, writing looks easy but turns out to be pretty hard. 

Lots of people have good ideas for stories. It's pretty easy to get excited about an idea. What's much harder is to turn that idea into a cohesive piece of work--a story with satisfying pacing, structure, character dynamics, deep and consistent exploration of theme, and rich, memorable writing. Likewise, lots of people can also write a decent sentence. But I've cut hundreds of terrific sentences out of work (whether my own or someone else's) because it wasn't doing the right work in the right place.

A lot of newcomers to writing on collaborative projects struggle with understanding this. They come in with ideas they are really excited about and become discouraged when they learn that no, those ideas won't make it into the game. Often I see writers (even experienced ones) fall into the trap of believing that the writing room is a competition to see who contributes the most ideas, whose ideas make it into the final product. I see writers fall into the belief that if their ideas don't get into the game, that means that no part of them does. At earlier points in my career I also fell into this trap. 

But it's not true: the nature of the writers room means that no matter where an idea originated, by the time it's in the game, it has passed through everyone's hands, been shaped by everyone's creativity, and made the better for it.

The writing room is not a competition, and any lead who turns it into one is doing her team and her project a disservice. It is much more alike to a good pen and paper RPG group. You know what a bad one is: one in which each of the players is so focused on their own character's journey that they each pull the campaign in a different direction, in which the GM is so obsessed with her own NPCs that she makes no room for the players, and everyone is at odds with everyone else, and only the person who manages to wrest the most time and attention from the others has a good time. 

But the best pen and paper advice I ever heard ("Be generous") is true of writing rooms as well. In a writing room it is not the writer with the coolest ideas who succeeds, but the writer who is the best at taking the ideas everyone brings to the table and finding ways to make them better, so that they fit together and support the story. It's the writer who can set aside the thing they're most excited about when someone proposes something that fits the story better, and who runs with another person's idea with as much commitment to making it great as they would their own.

But what does it mean to say that something fits the story? Well, there are a few criteria. The best ideas are not simply the "coolest." Instead, they do what the story needs them to do. They

  • Reveal character and push their journeys forward
  • Reveal and develop the world and setting
  • Fit the needs of the plot 
  • Are proportional to the stakes and setting
  • Resonate thematically
  • Fit the tone
  • Satisfy genre expectations (or subvert them in an interesting way that serves the goals of the story)
  • Can be told in the game and structure at hand
  • And yeah, they're cool

All of that is just to start. I'm sure you can think of more. 

And this is what's actually hard about writing. You can have dozens or even hundreds of amazing ideas and  none of them will be the exactly right one. The solution isn't more ideas; it's using your judgment to decided what you can live with, what you can't live without, which of the ideas at hand can be shaped into something that works, how to do that, and whether the goals of the story can bend or shift to match.

The person who can do this, who can identify which ideas are fitting, or how to tweak the ideas you have on the table to support the story better; or how to tweak the story in a way that still satisfies team goals and allows certain ideas to shine: that person is worth their weight in gold in the writers' room. It's easy to find people who can generate lots of ideas, and it's easy to find people who can critique and reject lots of ideas, but the person who can see how to make them all work together is the person you need in your room.

But of course, that's a huge job for just one person, which is why we do it collaboratively. We each bring our creativity to the table and make each other's ideas better: that's the goal. And the better you get at thinking through the lens of what the story needs, the better a collaborator you'll be.

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