Core Ideas

This article first began as a writer blog post on Erica Writes, Friday, April 06, 2007.

A CP (Critique Partner) and I were chatting with another CP last night, and feeling like we were browbeating her into changing her story, which is not a very nice CP thing to do, except we meant well because we were afraid the premise was unsalable.

I could tell our CP was getting frustrated (as naturally she would be–I was in her shoes earlier in the week and felt exactly the same way) which made me remember McKee’s talk about the story’s core idea. (Others have had similar concepts, but his version came to mind.)

The Core Idea is the thing that made you want to write this story. The one single character/element/situation that dilated your pupils and had you scrambling for a pen/keyboard. The reason your story exists.

So I asked my CP what hers was, and she knew right away (duh, but I’ve seen people not remember the very first idea they had for their story) and so I said, whatever you do, don’t change that. That’s the part that got you excited about the story.

Here’s an example from my personal experience. (Of how this goes bad.)

The first story I wrote to completion (~95k) featured a hero and a heroine who didn’t recognize each other for the first 3/4 of the book. Think You’ve Got Mail and pop it into Regency England. I sent the first chapter to a few contests, and managed to final in one. So the writing didn’t completely suck.


Just because the writing doesn’t suck, doesn’t mean the story doesn’t suck. Subsequent to my first contest final, I thought I was Hot Stuff and immediately found myself a (local) CP. I barraged her with manuscript pages, expecting eyes shining with admiration, and got… skepticism.

“Uh…” she began. (Probably not–she’s pretty direct. She might’ve slapped me.) “Hero doesn’t recognize her for 300 pages and he’s a spy?”

“Aargh!” I responded. (Probably not–I have a few other words I use when I’m ticked at myself.) “Crap, that makes no sense.”

The problem was, just like craft articles advise a good writer to do, all the action in my story was based on character motivation, and every scene was caused by the previous scene. So, by changing that one little detail–spy smart enough to figure out heroine is in disguise–I would not only have to change every page of the story, the whole plot would have to change.

So, we sat down at Borders and put in several long hours until we’d hashed out an all-new plot, with new characterization, tightly woven character arcs, etc, etc, etc.

I never rewrote that story.

Not because I’m lazy! I’m actually extremely self-motivated, and wrote 3 complete novels in the year or so following that day. Just not the one we’d re-plotted.

The problem was, we’d deleted my Core Idea. Which was: “hero and heroine who don’t recognize each other”. Without that, I was no longer excited about the story. Him being a spy was a subordinate element.

Rather than go back and make him a better spy (which is what we plotted that day), we should’ve gone back and made him NOT a spy!

We should’ve figured out a way to tell the story I wanted to tell, which was a story about two people who think they hate each other, but when they can put their prejudices aside, they fall in love, even if they don’t realize it, and then of course they’re shocked to discover blah blah blah chaos ensues, followed by HEA.

So, I thought I gave up on that story. After all, I never wrote another masked Regency. Every now and again I lament that Core Idea’s demise.

But then, I got to thinking…

It’s still my Core Idea! Virtually every story I write has some version of that at its root. To wit…

Too Wicked To Kiss: Hero is a broody recluse with a secret past Heroine knows nothing about.
Heroine is a closet psychic, with secret abilities Hero knows nothing about.

Love, Lust & Pixie Dust: Heroine is a tooth fairy. She doesn’t necessarily keep this info to herself, but since hero is a normal, logical Earthman, he doesn’t believe her, so it’s for all intents and purposes a secret/mistaken identity.

Fate, Fire & Demon Desire: Hero is a demon from hell. And this man *does* keep his day job to himself. Heroine doesn’t find out for a long time. But that’s okay. She’s not a Regency government spy–she’s a small town politician. That’s why it works.

Some authors find themselves always writing about families, or the healing powers of girlfriends, or redemption of bad boys, or strong women who must learn to break free of those who would subjugate them.

Me, I write about people with secrets, who have to learn that there’s somebody out there who will love ALL facets of their true selves, even the parts they’re afraid to share. Heroes and Heroines who have to learn to trust enough to let another person truly get to know them. Because contrary to what they may believe, they are lovable, and worthy of love.

This article first began as a writer blog post on Erica Writes, Friday, April 06, 2007.

Erica Ridley