It becomes obvious if you write,
but perhaps not if you don’t:
ideas are not stories.
Before I wrote or, at least, before I finished a novel, I didn’t grasp this fundamental fact because ideas, when they come (and I’ve no idea where they come from) are so exciting. They’re the fuel; the energy; the surge; the thrill; the I’ve-got-an-idea-so-now-I-can-write part of writing.
But an idea is just that: an idea. It can be written on one line or told in a few seconds. It’s the elevator pitch. It’s not the story.
Stories are born, often during protracted years of labour, from the idea but the story fleshes out the idea through characters whose lives intersect and whose personalities make them do what they do and fail to do what they fail to do. Characters who love and hate and dither and wait. Characters who work and lie and comfort and die. Characters who misunderstand and hesitate and plunge in and necessitate … other characters to react. As Hilary Mantel writes in The Agony and The Ego:
If you make your characters properly they will simply do what is within them, they’ll act out the nature you have given them, and there – you’ll find – you have your plot [p38].
The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.
I’ve been re-discovering this while writing my third novel: I’m about to begin again … .
And this month’s thing I’d love to have made in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite is: the Biblioteca Jardim in the Estrela Gardens in Lisbon.
It was built in the 1920s, fell into disuse but was resurrected and it’s such a fine idea: there’s a choice of 1,000 books to borrow as well as magazines, newspapers and games. There’s shade to read them in and no need to weigh yourself down with your own book(s) or newspaper(s) while you walk. Just sit and surprise yourself with what you might read one sunny afternoon in the Estrela Gardens.