I spent the better part of this morning and early afternoon working on my personal writing (screenplay rewrite, short stories, et al), and trying to decide upon a topic for today’s post. During that time, I was thinking about new directions to take superheroes and heroes in movies in general, because I think they’re very overdone. And as I was doing that, I thought about an idea I had a while ago. It wasn’t a good idea, it still isn’t a good idea, but I’m amused by it nonetheless.
My idea was that there was this person who had the power of imagination, and he could will anything into existence. That was his superpower. Pretty silly, right? Well it gets better. He was part of an elite team of superheroes, all who had this awesome superhero. Of course my idea had a fatal flaw: It was all about how cool these superheroes would be. There was nothing about a plot, or an antagonist, or semblance of a good idea whatsoever.
So what’s my point? Why tell you about a bad idea? Because that’s the topic of this post: Bad Ideas.
Everyone has bad ideas when it comes to writing. I’m sure even incredibly amazing writers that have been doing this for decades have bad ideas. Harlan Ellison probably has bad ideas. And what differentiates a good writer or at least a decent writer from a bad writer? Knowing which ideas are bad, and being smart enough not to go through with them. A bad idea in literature, screenwriting, comic book writing, etc, is the equivalent of eating month-old meatloaf that’s been sitting out on the counter for two weeks and has so much mold on it that it looks like a shih tzu. You’re going to regret it later, and it might kill you. Now bad ideas in writing kill you, at least not literally. But they can kill your career. And that’s just as bad. You don’t live through being killed. But you have to live through having your career killed.
Now am I talking about bad ideas in terms of my taste? No. I personally hate the Twilight series with an undying passion. I think they’re some of the worst books and movies ever made, but they aren’t bad ideas. The proof that they have made millions upon millions of dollars is proof of that. They connect with people somehow. Granted, the people they connect with are mostly just girls between the ages of 12 and 18, but that’s a good demographic. Now would Twilight be making more money if it wasn’t so badly written? Yes. Look at the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling is richer than God, and her books are both better written and appeal to a far larger audience.
Another “bad” film that was badly made (and perhaps badly written) but was a good idea, was James Cameron’s Avatar. It was one of the few films to take such a gigantic monetary risk and actually made money. The film cost nearly five hundred million dollars to produce and promote, yet it made more than two billion. It was the very first, and to date the only film to make so much money. So was it written well? Did it have a great plot and compelling characters? No, on all counts. But was it a good idea on Cameron’s part? You bet your ass it was.
Now we’ve established what I mean when I say a bad idea, so let’s get cracking. A bad idea is something that happens all the time, and sometimes they masquerade as epically awesome ideas. Ideas that make you stand up and shout, “THIS IDEA IS FUCKING AWESOME!” But if you let them sit and stew long enough, your shout of epic proportions eventually changed to “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all.” If you let it stew longer, it will eventually become, “This idea is stupid.”
Bad ideas are always ideas that have a kernel and nothing else. They are the idea about making a stalwart hero of the land who kills bad guys with a glare, and kills everyone with his massive sword that’s three times larger than a moose. It’s the idea about making the lovable yet flawed heroine who is so beautiful that the earth stops spinning, and she wins everyone with her heartfelt laughter and rainbow-like smile. These ideas are stupid. Very stupid. And why is that? It’s because there’s nothing else. A hero who has already reached his peak has nowhere to go but down. So making a movie about how awesome he is is going to be like riding along the Bonneville Salt Flats. It might go fast. It might be fun for a short while, but eventually it gets boring because it’s very flat and never changes.
Now creating a story about a hero who has hit his peak and then making your story about his downfall would be great. That’s what Sophocles’ Oedipus The King is. Oedipus has reached his peak. He’s beaten the Sphinx and all the other battles of his life, and the only way left to go is down. He ends up finding out his wife is his mother, she ends up killing herself and he ends up digging out his eyes and then the story ends. It’s certainly not the most uplifting story in the world, but it works. And that’s the main difference between a good idea and bad idea. Good ideas work. Bad ideas don’t.
So how do you tell that you’ve come up with a bad idea? Take a week to think on the idea after you’ve thought it up. If it still sounds just as good, then think through the plot. Who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? What’s the underlying plot? If your idea has NONE of these, then create some. If you can’t create them, or when you create them they just don’t work well, then you have a bad idea.
Now good ideas? Well good ideas work. So after you’ve thought on it for a week, and been able to come up with your protagonist, antagonist and underlying plot, it still sounds just as good. A good idea works, and it works well enough that it just feels good. And those are the ideas you want to write down and pitch to your friendly neighborhood Creative Executive.