Writing Lessons: Finding The Idea
Writing is like cooking. When you love both, you quickly notice the similarities. They involve assembling the ingredients, tasting the concoction, trying it on friends, offering it to a wider audience. The difference is the imposition of the publisher in the process of writing, who helps to refine the recipe.
But in cooking you don’t have to tell people why they’re going to love the dish. Hooks do that. The high concept hook was invented by Hollywood for its blockbuster movies in the 1970s. It started with ‘Jaws’ and lasted for around twenty years, but now it’s making a comeback…for books. And it’s often in the book’s title, like ‘Girl on a Train’. Mark Gatiss points out that crime novels were once hilariously blunt about their contents, citing 1930s novels like ‘They Called The Police’.
But it does help the writer if they can find the idea and succinctly sum it up. Most of Stephen King’s novels can be neatly summarised in a short sentence. The problem for crime writers is that describing the contents in this way, as if the book is a tin of beans, means that you have to give away the twist. Mysteries involve the slowly revealing of information, therefore it’s the situation that must be concepted, not the solution, and that’s much harder to pull off. By far the best thing about the distinctly average ‘Girl on a Train’ is that it sells a situation to which we can relate.
So what do you do when your book’s set-up is deceptively commonplace but its twists are powerful? Then you must stop getting too bogged down in describing the plot and describe an image from the book instead, so that ‘Low Visibility’, say, could be a good title for a crime that takes place in fog. Sometimes the title comes first, and I think these are the easier books to write.
I’ve finished a stand-alone thriller, and am absolutely stuck for a title. I’ve been thinking about it for more than a year now, watching as books starting with ‘The Girl…’ came and went. But by the time a bandwagon passes you’re already too late to jump on it – it’s better to come up with something that’s true to your work and original to you. It must speak to the reader but not be bland, be original but not off-putting. Communicating a complex idea in a few words is never easy, but you always know when you hit the right one.