Presumably, like all trite sayings, it's a bit of an exaggeration since a story has to be at least interesting. (I mean, it would take amazing talent to write simply about someone sleeping and make it interesting.)

But my overall interpretation of the statement is that a writer does not have to worry about looking for a "great idea" for a story, but simply focus on taking fairly interesting story ideas and making them as enjoyable to read as possible. Is that correct?

  • 1
    A story about someone sleeping can be very interesting. For example, The Wizard of Oz is ultimately just a story of Dorothy having a dream. Jul 30, 2018 at 3:19
  • 7
    @HenryTaylor You're confusing the book with the movie. In the book, Dorothy's adventures were not a dream. In fact, in later books, she moved to Oz permanently, together with her aunt and uncle. Jul 30, 2018 at 6:48
  • @Galastel, totally correct! I forgot that. Jul 30, 2018 at 14:20
  • A story about someone sleeping can totally be interesting. Maybe they are tossing and turning in their sleep because they are suffering a nightmare and in their sleep they are calling out for a lost loved one or army buddy. Or their not asleep per say, but in a coma, and their friends and family are gathered around praying that they'll wake up. If done with the right context someone sleeping can be very interesting.
    – Artsoccer
    Jul 30, 2018 at 16:18
  • 1
    Then there's Sleeping with Hinako.
    – J.G.
    Jun 5, 2019 at 11:36

7 Answers 7


a writer does not have to worry about looking for a "great idea" for a story, but simply focus on taking fairly interesting story ideas and making them as enjoyable to read as possible. Is that correct?

That is almost correct; but the question as phrased has hidden caveats.

For one, "a fairly interesting story idea" made "enjoyable to read" is what we call a great story!

Which almost makes this a tautology; e.g. "The way to write a great story is to write a great story." But not quite; the hidden definition saves it. So yes, find a fairly interesting story idea. Make it enjoyable to read. That is one way to create a great story.

As Mark Baker notes, humanity has already derived and distilled the outlines of great stories, basically all patterns of conflict, setbacks or failure, actions taken to overcome failure that succeed.

That is the essence of "story" and how we inherently choose to imagine our lives. Things stand in our way and we overcome them; whether we are saving the world or inventing a new recipe for cookies, saving our child from disease or trying to navigate law school, or wizardry school. Even if we want a house instead of an apartment, and we take steps to make that happen.

Picking one of those GREAT general plot outlines is one way of making something "enjoyable to read". Note these were never dictated, the great outlines became great millennia before the stories that adhered to them were analyzed and categorized. Consider them observed phenomena; they are the greats because they fit the pre-existing human psyche we evolved from our hunter-gatherer days before even farming existed; the stories of heroes told around campfires fifty thousand years ago, the stories themselves evolved by retellings over thousands of years into the essence of what makes a story great.

by describing the plots in greater or lesser detail, you can arrive at more or fewer number of great plots, anywhere from two to 32, perhaps even more with more detail. The number doesn't matter, all of them are reflections of the common human psyche and our need for instruction by example in how to achieve success in life and deal with defeat or failure.

Part of making a story "enjoyable to read" is the author inventing something new for the story, new plot twists, new characters, new kinds of problems to solve. Most (not all) romantic comedies follow a strict formula, but the characters are new, the jokes are new, the settings are sometimes new. The same goes for fantasy, mystery and scifi, or mashups of these.

So your "fairly interesting story idea" will still require a lot of imagination to be "enjoyable to read", it must have enough "new" stuff so that the reader is not bored and certain they know the ending.

Poetic words alone will not carry the story. The reason is simple, in order to be "enjoyable to read", the reader must always be reading to find out what happens next; like in the next ten pages or so.

Part of that is wondering how a conflict will turn out; part is interest in the character(s), the world-building, the little and big problems to be solved. Part of life is learning to navigate new environments or situations, social or physical, and your characters should be dealing with those.

Fortunately, we can take a "fairly interesting story idea" and, through brain-racking work, invent enough "new stuff" to show along the way to make that whole novel/movie compelling and fun. To pack in a variety of problems/challenges/puzzles/battles for the hero that the reader wants to follow them and see how they prevail, or fail and recover.

No matter how well your words land on the page, if the reader gets bored reading, stops wondering what will happen and stops caring whether the characters win or lose, the story will not succeed, even if it was a fairly interesting premise. You must sustain some kind of tension for unanswered questions throughout, including the biggest "finale" unanswered question, for this to be "enjoyable reading".


No, it is very difficult to make any story great. And there is a ton of thought and intention that goes into picking even the right story to tell, from the right vantage point. It is not uncommon for a writer to get to the end of the story and throw out characters, plot points, and settings whole only to reconstruct them from the ground up. And that means that the original story they were writing died to the editor/reviser's red pen.

Good writers know* how to find good stories, and they know how to change what they have until it fits what they are writing. (*) And by know; I mean they or their team sometimes spots problems that points them in another direction.

I think it is less likely that a good author can make any story great than that good author's are just better at sticking to the things that work.

The average number of books it takes to get published (among those who make it) is supposedly 10 [cite anecdotal podcast evidence]). That means they found at least 10 long stories that were no good, revising the last one into something else. And it is not uncommon to work on a project and fail, even after you are published. Failed books go in a spot that gives them their name: the trunk. Trunks are full of stories that good authors couldn't make work. Because ultimately there are foundational elements that allow stories to work their magic and some stories don't do those things, even in the right hands.

  • Jim Butcher would like to have a word. Jun 6, 2019 at 14:57
  • @sesquipedalias Breaking a rule of mine here. The only Jim Butcher story I read was middling TO ME. And I believe he (or at least people who read him) express a level of dissatisfaction with his first few works (but love his later works). Selling a story is not evidence that it is great or without flaws. This whole thread is a bit wobbly since everyone has a different definition for great.
    – Kirk
    Jun 6, 2019 at 15:01
  • What rule are you breaking? My point isn't that Jim Butcher is the best author ever or anything like that. But he basically wrote the Codex Alera series specifically on a dare to show that you can tell good stories based on a bad idea (in this case, pokemon meets the lost roman legion), if you are good at the craft of storytelling, and we can debate how good those books are in general, but I think they are undoubtedly good enough for him to win that dare. Jun 6, 2019 at 16:26
  • Found a reference to this story, posted it as an answer... Jun 6, 2019 at 16:39
  • I don't think there's anything implausible about writing a good story involving two already interesting ideas. But there are lots of ways to still write a bad story
    – Kirk
    Jun 6, 2019 at 19:53

By and large, yes. thought it does depend on what you mean by story. Every story is unique. It is a particular set of words that tell a particular tale about particular characters, and it is the total immersive experience of the reading that make it great, not some particular twist of plot or eccentricity of character.

At the same time, there are only a few basic story shapes. Man vs man, man vs nature, boy meets girl, Pinocchio, maturation, the quest, crime and punishment, etc. We tell these same basic stories over and over again. People never get tired of them because they are somehow wired into our psyches. These basic stories seem to afirm basic thing we need to believe about the world in order to stay sane and happy.

These basic forms exist in endless variation, but they are easy to perceive in stories the world over. What really differentiates the great versions of these stories from the mediocre, therefore, is not the tale but the telling.

It is not about inventing a brand new story shape, therefore. It is about having a vision of life that can be expressed through a particular telling of one of the classic story shapes, the ones we want to hear over and over again. It is the quality of your vision and your ability to execute on that vision that will determine the success of your story.

But this is not quite to say that the writer does not need to focus on finding a great story idea. All stories adhere to one of the basic types, but to be successful, you have to enflesh one of those basic types with characters and incidents and language that will draw people in and enthrall them. You have to give particular life to the classic story shape and that most certainly requires a set of very specific story ideas that put very specific, consistent, and attractive flesh on the standard story bones.


To (once again) quote Delany (supposedly) paraphrasing Emily Dickinson, "nothing survives but fine execution." Good ideas are plentiful, but fine execution is rare, and thus prized.

With that said, you arguably need both --fine execution of a worthless idea can be an impressive waste of time --but the point is that it's less definitive to find the first than is typically thought. It's often pointed out that Shakespeare's plots were rarely if ever original, what made them shine was how he wrote them.

However, I think you've erred in your interpretation of this concept. It still takes more than finding "fairly interesting story ideas and making them as enjoyable to read as possible." There needs to be a marriage between you and the idea. You need to make it wholly your own, and to reinterpret it through your own lens. It's not just a case of taking something okay and polishing it up. It's true, however, that the idea that eventually becomes "your* great idea may not be one that initially appeals to you, or that is quick to display its strengths.


When the printing press was invented, books were rare, literacy was low, and writing (I'm not talking about what we call writing; I mean functional literacy and being able to write legibly) was a skill that could provide a lifetime career. The longer the printing press existed, the more common and cheap books became and the more common literacy became as well. Nearly universal literacy became common in the developed world before the digital revolution, but with the advent of the microchip, the second great technological revolution occurred; probably equal in magnitude to the printing press itself. Now, a vast population equipped with universal literacy is empowered with digital publishing tools that are so cheap they are universally available. What this means is that what someone wrote about just needing good execution on any old story in the 19th century is hopelessly obsolete today.

Good execution is dirt cheap. It is meaningless to have a boring story that is well written. We are literally flooded with written content every day of our lives and nobody has time for flawlessly written, non-riveting stories.

So it is all about the story. Execution is secondary.

If you have a good enough story, the writing only needs to be adequate. Case in point: the original Harry Potter book is not particularly well written. Dialogue is stilted, characters are pretty flat, descriptions are verbose. It comes across as an amateur writing effort. I found the dialogue especially egregious. Does that matter? Not at all.

A great story will carry not great execution, but great execution will not carry a not great story. This is the economics of the era we live in.

  • You are equating execution with writing. As far as writing (the ability to put together pleasant and coherent sentences and paragraphs) is concerned, I would agree. But the execution of a story idea, putting flesh on he bones of story, is a very different thing.
    – user16226
    Jul 30, 2018 at 19:27
  • @MarkBaker nope, I totally disagree with you. Plenty of halfway-literate attempts at storytelling become viral memes on social media every day. We live in an era where the absolute importance of having a compelling story trumps execution.
    – JBiggs
    Jul 30, 2018 at 23:05
  • And what makes a story compelling, if not execution? The half literateness is beside the point. It is not about the execution of the prose, but about the execution of the story. Viral memes may mislead on this, because they tend to obliterate everything else, and they don't pass through the filter of literacy that any good story in the past would have to pass through on the way to publication. But the a viral meme is a one in a million thing. Something has to set it apart to go viral. Most are essentially sentimental, even trite at heart. Their brilliance is always in the execution.
    – user16226
    Jul 30, 2018 at 23:13
  • So according to you, execution of prose and execution of story are different, and that proves that story isn't that important, but you readily admit that compelling stories are paramount, you just want to call it "execution of the story" instead of "a good story". Does that pretty much sum up your position?
    – JBiggs
    Aug 1, 2018 at 17:21
  • not remotely. Yes, execution of prose and story are different. No less a light than Robert McKee makes this point very forcefully. Lots of people can write good prose. Few can tell good stories. But story is not the plot outline; it is every living fibre of the the tale. It is about the totality of what you tell and how you tell it and the order you tell it in. Yes, this comes out through the words, but it is not about prose style, it is about storytelling.
    – user16226
    Aug 1, 2018 at 17:30

There's a nice little story about this...

from http://www.fantasyliterature.com/author-interviews/jim-butcher/

Q: How did you come up with the original idea for CODEX ALERA? We’ve heard rumours that it involved a bet on whether you could combine the Roman empire and Pokémon… is that true?

A: The bet was actually centered around writing craft discussions being held on the then-new Del Rey Online Writers’ Workshop, I believe. The issue at hand was central story concepts. One side of the argument claimed that a good enough central premise would make a great book, even if you were a lousy writer. The other side contended that the central concept was far less important than the execution of the story, and that the most overused central concept in the world could have life breathed into by a skilled writer.

It raged back and forth in an ALL CAPITAL LETTERS FLAMEWAR between a bunch of unpublished writers, and finally some guy dared me to put my money where my mouth was, by letting him give me a cheesy central story concept, which I would then use in an original novel.

Me being an arrogant kid, I wrote him back saying, “Why don’t you give me TWO terrible ideas for a story, and I’ll use them BOTH.”

The core ideas he gave me were Lost Roman Legion and Pokémon… Thus was Alera formed.

p.s. it goes without saying that I think the Alera books are at least good enough for Jim Butcher to have won that dare...


No, there are some stories that are inherently dull and have no legs; "the cat sat on the mat, the end" no-one can do anything with that, it is complete and leaves no room for creativity. However in general yes execution matters more than originality but that doesn't mean that any old idea will do as the basis of a story, you do need something compelling and you need engaging and relatable characters to tell the tale through.

  • Well, the way you tell it is boring. It sounds like the opening and ending line to a wonderful children's book about a cat that sat on a mat and refused to move when it's owner asked it too. Desperate, the cat's owner calls someone to come and help and that person tries all manner of ridiculous attempts to get the cat to move, only to get flustered and call another crazy character, who does even crazier things and this process repeats for several pages as each picture is more complex, bizzare, complicated, and wild. Finally, someone decides the cat likes sitting on the mat+
    – hszmv
    Jun 6, 2019 at 19:10
  • +And everyone goes back to doing what they love and learn a valuable lesson of letting one enjoy doing things they enjoy, even if you do not undertand why they enjoy it. And once they all left, "The Cat Sat On the Mat. The End have the cat finally smile after showing no emotional reaction to all the people throughout the story
    – hszmv
    Jun 6, 2019 at 19:13
  • @hszmv No it is a complete story in and of itself you have told a much more interesting story using some of the elements of the tale of the cat in question, doubtless your embellishments are far more interesting but that's what they are, embellishments to make the utterly dull relatively interesting by the time a couple of other authors have done the same the mat will be made of gold and the cat will be a 20 foot tall lion and yet the basic story they're drawing on will be no more interesting.
    – Ash
    Jun 9, 2019 at 17:05

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