Every book featured in The Big Idea has a big idea behind it — heck, it’s implicit right there in the title. But how does one discover that big idea — and when one discovers it, how does one nurture it along so it becomes an actual book? Novelist and screenwriter Greg Taylor is here to let you backstage to that process, at least as it involves him and his latest book, The Girl Who Became a Beatle.
During the course of my career as a screenwriter, and now as an author, I’ve had maybe a handful of what I would call Big Ideas. I’ve been writing for over twenty-five years, so that averages out to about one every half decade. Not many, in other words. One of my rare stop-me-dead-in-my-tracks ideas came to me when I was raking leaves in the backyard. Another on a day when I gave myself an assignment to sit at my desk and not get up until I had written down five new ideas. As for The Girl Who Became a Beatle… I don’t remember exactly when that idea dropped into my head. But I was certainly excited when it did.
What I’m referring to when I say Big Ideas actually started out as what’s known in the film business as a high-concept idea. The high-concept, in turn, is defined as one that can be summed up in a single sentence. I realize these kinds of stories are not held in high regard in some quarters, often for good reason. If all a story has is a high concept that is not supported by compelling characters and an interesting and involving plot… well, that’s a formula for a pretty superficial literary or cinematic experience.
But done right, I believe the high-concept story can be as thrilling and involving and emotional as any other kind of idea. I’d better believe that, considering those are the kinds of stories I tend to write. I’ve tackled some character based stories over the years, but I always seem to gravitate back to the high-concept. For one thing, I appreciate the anchor a high-concept provides as I develope my story and characters. For another, I simply love these kinds of stories.
For a high-concept to work, however, at least as far as one of mine is concerned, I need to heed a simple rule. If I don’t, the concept will die on the vine, won’t evolve into that all-important Big Idea. I don’t claim my rule is profound or original. I’m just saying it works for me. Let’s take The Girl Who Became A Beatle as an example. I mentioned earlier that a high concept story is one that could be summed up in a single sentence. Here’s the sentence for TGWBAB:
A girl wishes she were as famous as the Beatles, then wakes up the following morning to discover that her band has replaced the Beatles in history and that all of their classic songs are attributed to her.
It wasn’t the idea of a girl – whose name is Regina – wishing she were as famous as the Beatles that made me stop and scrutinize this particular idea, but the notion that all of the Beatles songs are attributed to her. That was the A-HA moment for me, the thing that made this particular idea not only “high-concept”, but worth pursuing. Immediately I began thinking about what Regina would do with her newfound – and very bogus – success.
Just as immediately, the high concept started to become personal. During the endless hours I spent developing and rewriting and polishing TGWBAB, the more personal the story became to me. I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, so it was an easy decision to have Regina live in the Northeastern United States. For the past thirty years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, so bringing Regina to Los Angeles to attend the Grammys in her wish-come-true world felt like a natural progression in the story. Not just because I live in LA and would know what I was writing about, but because I was able to express some of the ambivalence I still have about LA after all these years, the love/hate relationship I’ve developed with the city.
Most important though – as far as developing the story and characters were concerned – was the connection I gradually formed with Regina, the narrator of the story. Even though she’s 16 years old, and I’m much older than that, she and I share many of the same characteristics, the same loves (the Beatles, of course, being one of them), the same dislikes and insecurities. In general, the same way of looking at the world. Perhaps the key moment in the story for me comes after Regina reads the lyrics for an original song that Julian (her secret crush) has written. Here’s an excerpt:
“They’re very good lyrics, Julian.” I wasn’t just saying that, either. They were personal and dealt with being an artist and how vulnerable that makes you feel but how you can’t help choosing the creative life. It chooses you.
“You really think so?” Julian asked tentatively. It was like he didn’t believe me. Julian’s response made me wonder if creative people ever get over their insecurity.
And there it is, that last line. Do creative people ever get over their insecurity? I know I haven’t, even after all these years. That might have something to do with that fact that writing is such a solitary profession, and one that opens a person up to criticism in a way that many other professions do not. But one of the compensations writers receive in return for the solitary life is the often mysterious way that characters can become real to them. That was certainly the case with Regina. She became very real, and as such a conduit for my feelings about, among other things, the importance of music in one’s life and how difficult it can be being a teenager and the often charged relationships between teens and parents.
Don’t get me wrong. First and foremost, I wanted The Girl Who Became A Beatle to be a fun ride, one that hopefully people will find to be an original twist on the classic wish-come-true tale. But without the connection I developed with Regina, without making the story as personal as possible, it would have been a hollow writing experience for me, and I believe for the reader.
And that’s my simple rule for turning a high concept idea into a Big Idea. Make it personal. When I’ve done that, things have tended to fall into place for me. When I haven’t, the high-concept didn’t take off, didn’t develop into anything I ultimately wanted to hold up and say, “Read this!”
Now that The Girl Who Became A Beatle is being held up to the reading public, it’s time for me to get back to work, back to panning for that kernel of an idea that just might evolve into another Big Idea. If past experience is any indication – one every five years – I might be at it for a while.
So where to start? I read that Agatha Christie came up with some of her best ideas while washing dishes. Raking leaves worked for me once. Why not washing dishes? That new idea just might present itself in the suds. Even if it doesn’t – and it probably won’t, because ideas tend to come when you least expect them – I know my wife will appreciate the end result.