• “Ideas are cheap; execution is everything.” Chris Sacca
• Execution means stories with the same basis will turn out wildly different depending on the author.
• Even awful ideas can be made into amazing stories. Ask Jim Butcher.
• Some of the greatest series are just combinations of tropes we’ve all already seen. What makes them is great is how they’re put together and the execution in writing.
• Every idea, no matter how great or small, can be made into an amazing story.
Ideas are cheap, execution is everything.
The above quote is from Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist who invested in the likes Twitter, Uber, Instagram, and others. His net worth is over 1 billion dollars. The advice sounds remarkably similar to George R.R. Martin who in a Rolling Stones interview (http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/news/george-r-r-martin-the-rolling-stone-interview-20140423) said: “Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important. I’m proud of my work, but I don’t know if I’d ever claim it’s enormously original.” One the most famous YouTubers, Casey Neistat, has said, “Ideas are cheap. Ideas are easy. Ideas are common. Everybody has ideas. Ideas are highly, highly overvalued. Execution is all that matters.” I could find a lot more similar quotes from Brandon Sanderson, other authors, creatives, entrepreneurs, and others. Almost everyone agrees: ideas are cheap; execution is the most important.
But are they right?
Earlier in my writing career, I used to think ideas were precious, that each one could be turned into an amazing book, that I had to protect my concepts with all my might so I could keep them mine. The longer I’ve been writing , however (with about five books under my belt in one form or another), the more I realize the profoundness of this advice.
Execution is King But execution varies
One particular story that jumps out to my mind is a blog post I read years ago. I can’t remember the name of the author but the gist of the article was he’d previously shared a unique story idea and someone commented and said he shouldn’t share that information publicly.
His response? He pointed out that even two people who started a book with the same idea would come up with wildly different stories, simply because execution is different between people. He didn’t worry about putting his ideas out there because if someone attempted to write that story, it’d turn out infinitely different from his own. His actual ideas were safe.
Proving the Point Of Pokémon and Romans
This concept was really hammered home when I heard a story about Jim Butcher. In an online workshop, potential authors and others were divided on whether a skilled author could make a great book from a dumb idea or whether you had to have a great concept to make a great book. Butcher asked a challenger to give him two terrible ideas, for which he would write a great book. He was given Pokémon and the Lost Roman Legion. And BAM, the Codex Alera series was born which now houses 6 books, all of which have sold well (the actual interview with Butcher is fascinating so I recommend reading it here: http://www.fantasyliterature.com/author-interviews/jim-butcher/).
The point Butcher’s making isn’t to show how great of an author he is. It’s to point out that execution is so much more important than ideas, even really cool ones.
A friend and I were intrigued by this idea and used it when we joined an online critique group.
I don’t remember what I gave him but he gave me, “Malibu Barbie and the Great Wall of China.” Well, that was interesting and disparate. But it got me thinking. What’s behind the wall? Well, monsters of course (or some other threat). Ok cool. What about Malibu Barbie? How does she fit in? Well, what’s Barbie about? Beauty, dress up, etc. That got me thinking about a cult that worshiped beauty, some shadowy organization that was somehow tied to the monsters behind the wall. Now I was rolling! But I needed a plot and a character.
For years I’ve wanted to write the fall of Anakin story. When I first watched Star Wars Episode III, I was on the edge of my seat, wondering how they were going to turn Anakin into Darth Vader. There was little time left in the movie so it was going to be epic, something to talk to my friends about for ages to come! It was such a cool idea but when it happened, it was utterly disappointing. The execution was horrible, and I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth. I’ve been wanting to see that story executed well ever since.
So why not throw it in? Now I was really cooking. The plot–the fall of someone from good to evil. The setting–a cult of beauty and a wall keeping out monsters. And thus my book was born out of two terrible ideas that had no relationship to each other.
Where Ideas Come From Stringing together banalities
I really like George R.R. Martin’s quote above. He goes on to say, “In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own.”
And that’s where the uniqueness comes from–bringing together different ideas in a new way. For a great example, look at Harry Potter.
Is there anything truly unique about that entire universe? Let’s check. Are witches and wizards unique? No. Is magic school unique? No. Is Voldemort unique? No. His rise to power? Selling off his soul to gain strength? No and no. Being a half-blood of a marginalized group while being a racist purist? Nope. Hitler was that (or at least rumors about Hitler). A boy becoming the chosen one? Not unique. A boy coming from tragic origins? Nope. Elves, giants, centaurs, giant spiders, giant snakes, any of that? Nope, nope, and nope. A heavy focus on sports in a secondary school? Again, a big old nope.
But let’s look at that last one and see if it becomes unique when it’s combined with something else. “A heavy focus on sports in a secondary school” + “A magic school.” That, I propose, is unique. I hadn’t ever read about something like Quidditch before. It was amazing! It was intriguing. And it makes so much sense. Why wouldn’t a magic school have sports? But more importantly, what would a magic school’s sports look like?
And that’s where the uniqueness comes in. Harry Potter is loads unique because of how it strings these ideas together. It’s in the execution of how J.K. Rowling wrote. All those individual ideas are cheap and have been done before. Some other writer could have taken all those elements and come up with something completely different. But it was Rowling who combined them all into one of the best series ever written.
Kernels of Potential Turning ideas into diamonds
For me, this is a message of hope, that I can take an uninteresting idea (like Barbie) and turn it into something I love. If I can execute it well. And that’s something I can learn. Even if I stink at generating new ideas, I can take a bunch of old existing ideas, and pull them together.
There’s something else here to say about the precious ideas you hold onto. Sometimes we feel we can’t execute well enough to make our ideas into something great, something they truly deserve. I’ve certainly had those feelings, and they’re difficult to shake.
But ideas are cheap. Someone, somewhere has probably already done something similar. So let your ideas go; let them be free. Put them on paper (or a writing program) to the best of your ability and move on. The worst thing that can happen is it doesn’t turn out as well as you want, but you’ll have grown a ton along the way. And you can always come back later and do a complete re-haul if necessary.
There’ll be other ideas. There’ll be new concepts to explore that excite and inspire.
I had a recent experience with a friend where we analyzed the TV show Black Mirror for story ideas. They simply take one aspect of technology and push it to the extreme or ask one of two questions: “what would a society based on this technology look like?” or “how could this technology be creepy?” That’s it. Simple ideas, but masterfully executed. For example, they look at a society completely based on social media updates and likes; they look at a society based on spin bikes that provide electricity; they look at how a technology that records everything in our lives could be creepy.
My friend and I picked a different technology and asked these same questions. We came up with 3 or 4 ideas that would each make great stories. They were cheap but they had lots of potential.
And that’s the important thing–ideas are cheap, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of growing into something incredible. You can take the simplest of ideas or the silliest of ideas (Pokémon+ The Roman Lost Legion; Malibu Barbie+The Great Wall of China) and turn them into something impressive and meaningful. It doesn’t have to take a great idea to make a great story. It certainly helps, but’s it’s not necessary.
Hopefully, this has been uplifting. For me, the concept that ideas are cheap is wonderful. It means I can write my precious ideas and not overly protect them because I’ll have more later and I can always come back; it means I can learn to execute well and turn lamer ideas into great stories; it means I can take common tropes and combine them to form new and exciting concepts; it means there are more stories out there waiting for me than I can possibly write. And it’s freed me from considering my work more important than it is.
Ideas may be cheap, but they can all become great. Here’s hoping you find the right execution to make them become such.