How to Tell If Your Story Idea Is Mediocre—And How to Improve It

by Royce Bair / via Flickr

by Royce Bair / via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is adapted from The Writer’s Advantage: A Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre by Laurie Scheer (@mediagoddess213).

So you think your idea for a new vampire novel is a good one? Think again.

Nine times out of ten, your idea is really quite mediocre and has been done before, actually a number of times and in a number of different ways. And there’s also a possibility that an even better version of your idea already exists.

Sorry to have to burst your bubble, but agents, managers, publishers, folks who work at production companies, and any type of potential buyer does not want to be bothered with material that’s just ordinary. They have seen it all. They have read manuscripts that didn’t get made—often for good reasons—and they have heard pitches, read loglines and synopses and treatments for thousands of ideas. These folks are not practicing their game—they are playing hardball. They want to win in this competitive market and they are looking for material they can win with.

They are not interested in anyone who is writing as a hobby. They want to work with talented, informed writer/creators who know where their material is going to fit in the marketplace. They want to broker a deal with you to make money for themselves, their company, and you.

Do not waste time pitching a mediocre idea—pitch an authentic idea that will complement and perhaps even change the course of your genre.

So, if you are going to sell your work in today’s competitive marketplace, and if you want to stand out within that marketplace, you need to think like they think. You need to know what they know.

Three Questions

Development execs and editors all ask the same three basic questions when evaluating material to be published or produced, and those questions are:

Why make this?

Why make this now?

Who cares?

Often the difference between an ordinary idea and a selling idea are found in the answers to the above questions. In other words, you’ll need to be prepared to answer these questions—and answer them efficiently and with confidence.

1. Why Make This?

Every idea will be evaluated for its own merit. Why make this movie? Why publish this book? Why make this TV series? Yes, the basic answer is “because readers/viewers will like it,” but that’s not enough.

What is it about your idea that makes it unique, compelling, and authentic compared to all other competing ideas in your genre?

2. Why Make This Now?

You will find that knowing the history of your genre and current trends will assist you in answering the “now” question. For example, if in 2013 you were on the verge of pitching an idea for a western immediately in the wake of The Lone Ranger movie fiasco, then clearly the “now” factor comes into play. Because that movie experienced colossal financial loss for its studio and bombed with both critics and audiences, it will be quite some time before studios begin looking at westerns seriously again. It does not matter how good your script is, you’ll need to give it a little rest and let it sit on a shelf for a while. The “now” element can kill an idea if the marketplace is just not right at the time you pitch it.

3. Who Cares—Really Cares?

Finally, the question “Who cares?” Yes, it sounds crass—it sounds like I’m asking you to just disregard your idea, but I am seriously asking. Who really will care about your material? Remember, they need to care enough to want to purchase it—whether it be a book, a download, a box office ticket, or the time spent watching TV. This is not just about the group of fans or a group with a particular affiliation, this is about who will pay, with their precious time and money, to consume your material.

Think about this.
Think about this closely.

“Baby at 43” Pitch

Let me give you an example of a pitch and how the “now” and “who cares?” elements fall into place. As someone who has developed a great deal of programming for women’s audiences, I have heard an eternity of pitches featuring women as victims, survivors, single mothers, etc. If someone pitches me a story about a 43-year-old unmarried woman who has had a successful career in advertising or law or pharmaceuticals or whatever, and decides at the last minute that her biological clock’s ticking and she wants to have a child … I will wait for the writer to tell me the rest of the story.

And there is no rest of the story, because in their mind, that is their story.

To which I say, “Who cares?” Seriously, who will care about that storyline? No one. We have seen numerous stories about women wanting to have children later in life. I could produce a list at least two pages long consisting of books and movies with this plot line.

However, if one of the main characters is a 43-year-old single businesswoman having her first child and, at the same time, her 22-year-old niece is also having her first child—because the niece does not see the benefit of having a career and only wants to be supported by a rich husband—I suddenly see some conflict here. I see that there could arise an interesting plot as the two women proceed through the experience of having a child and discover many realizations about themselves, each other, and life in general. Now I can provide an answer to why make this movie now—because there are many women experiencing these scenarios in today’s contemporary society.

I can also provide an answer to the “Who cares?” question, which is that a good number of viewers will care—both those in the Gen X and Baby Boomer segments and Millennials alike. This is an idea that spans generations and therefore captures a larger viewership. The idea now works on a number of levels and provides a topic that reflects basic human needs and wants. This is an example of an authentic idea.

Authentic Ideas

It is all too often that a writer pitches an exact idea that has been done before. All ideas have been executed before in some form, but not all writers are aware of how the idea has been executed, and that fact often leads to an element of naivete on behalf of the writer.

The fact that all ideas have been seen is actually a good thing. Why? Because you have something to base your work on, something to compare your work to. You can do your research and see how an idea such as yours has been executed by other creatives who have tackled the subject matter previously. This helps with your own processing of your idea and ultimate end product. I’ve seen way too many writers develop, write, and pitch ideas that they shouldn’t have even started. Their idea was doomed from the very beginning, and mostly because they decided to write with blinders on. They didn’t study the history of their genre or embrace the marketplace they intend to enter.

The Question You Shouldn’t Ask

Agents, editors, and development people all work within their specific arenas, with their specific genres, and will sometimes list what they are looking for in general. I repeat: IN GENERAL. Don’t ask them “What are you looking for?” That question aggravates them. And besides, you already know the answer. The answer is that they are looking for the next huge mega bestselling book, blockbuster movie, or acclaimed television series that will have viewers binge watching over and over. They want the next big thing, the next mega-piece of pop culture, the next franchise. That’s always the answer; now that you know it, let’s keep moving forward.

How to Move from Mediocre to Magnificent

Wonderment is that indescribable essence of your favorite book or movie or TV show. Wonderment is necessary in all forms of writing. It is what speaks to you alone as you read the book or view the film. It is that energy that connects our collective consciousness. It is what takes you out of your own world and transports you to the world you are experiencing. Most texts that stand the test of time or resonate have this element of wonderment, and that is what makes them different.

Think about adding wonderment to your material — what is it that the audience will get from experiencing your idea that they ordinarily would not have the opportunity to experience?

Answer this and you are halfway toward moving your idea from mediocre to magnificent.

Writer's Advantage by Laurie ScheerThis post is adapted from The Writer’s Advantage: A Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre by Laurie Scheer. I highly recommend taking a look if you’re writing genre or popular fiction.

Posted in Guest Post, Publishing Industry and tagged , , , , , .

Laurie Scheer is a former vice president of programming for WE: Women’s Entertainment. She has worked as an assistant, development girl, and producer for ABC, Viacom, Showtime, and AMC-Cablevision. She has also been involved in producing digital-based forms of entertainment. Laurie has been an instructor at numerous universities across the U.S. from UCLA to Yale. She is the author of a book about working in Hollywood, Creative Careers in Hollywood and her DVD How to Pitch and Sell Your Screenplay has been a perennial favorite at screenwriting events. As a professional speaker, she appears at annual industry conferences. She has served as a judge for numerous screenplay competitions, film festivals, and the International Emmys. She is part of the faculty at UW-Madison’s Continuing Studies Writing Department and the Director of their annual Writers’ Institute. In 2013 she became the Managing Editor of The Midwest Prairie Review Journal.

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[…] How to Tell If Your Story Idea Is Mediocre—And How to Improve It. […]

Marcy Mason McKay

A really smart, thought-provoking post, Laurie. I especially like how you’ve boiled the evaluation process down to 3 simple, but not easy questions to answer. You clearly know your ‘stuff.’ Thanks so much.

laurie scheer

You’re welcome and thanks to Jane too! Thanks for your vote of confidence. I’m certain that when you answer those three questions per the projects you are working on, you’ll find you’re in a better position to get them pitched/queried and sold. Good luck to you and onward!

Marcy Mason McKay

Thanks, Laurie. I’m saving your post for future reference to take my manuscript from BLEH to YEAH!

Logan Mathis

Very good article. I like it because it was honest especially the “Baby at 43” part. I feel we all have a story that is close to our hearts but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be close to everyone who reads it.
It’s funny because this is how I feel about a lot of my friends posting on Facebook. I love them dearly but I don’t care about every little detail of their life. Does that make me a bad person? lol

laurie scheer

Thanks for the kind words about my excerpt and thanks to Jane also for sharing it. You’re right about being so random on Facebook…and it would be a disaster to do the same with a pitch! And no, it doesn’t make you a bad person –

Edit Write Services

Smart post indeed. I have read many mediocre stories online. With this article, I get to stay clear of that path. Thanks!

laurie scheer

thanks for the kind words Edit Write Services and I bet you’ve read your share of mediocre stories…nice to meet someone who knows how to weed them out!

[…] by Royce Bair / via Flickr Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is adapted from The Writer’s Advantage: A Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre by Laurie Scheer (@mediagoddess213). So you think your idea for a new vampire novel is a good one?  […]

Lexa Cain

Thanks for all the awesome tips and explanations, Laurie. It’s super hard to come up with anything “high concept.” SInce you divided the info into three easy-to-understand topics, at least I know what to shoot for now.

Cheval John

This is really a gut wrenching post here. It does makes a person think really hard about how to write their book.

[…] I read stuff like this (thanks to my friend who posted it and runs this amazing blog- you’re welcome Hazel […]


Dammit Laurie, I said I wasn’t going to buy any more books! : ) Looks good!

[…] new project? Lynnette Labelle lists 8 things to do before you write a new book, Laurie Scheer shows how to make your mediocre story idea great, and K.M. Weiland discusses story concept vs. story […]

[…] cold potatoes, ditto. But every once in a while, amid the cacophony of advice available to writers, comes a message that may not be exactly new but really […]

Vicki Weisfeld

This was a really “aha!” moment post. I’m so glad Laurie included the example, as the not-going-far-enough trap is an easy one to fall into. I used this post (mentioning her new book!) as the basis for my own blog ( today–inspired!

[…] How to Tell If Your Story Idea Is Mediocre—And How to Improve It Laurie Scheer challenges you to consider if your story is not up to the standard needed for publication, and talks about how you figure out how to give it an edge. […]

[…] Scheer presents How to Tell If Your Story Idea Is Mediocre—And How to Improve It posted at Jane […]

[…] Our own Laurie Scheer wrote a guest post for Jane Friedman’s blog:  “How to Tell If Your Story Idea Is Mediocre – And How to Improve It”.  You can check it out here. […]

[…] I read stuff like this (thanks to my friend who posted it and runs this amazing blog– you’re welcome Hazel […]

Rachael Lefler

This is where I think being well-read and familiar with not only the most popular works in your genre, but the most common tropes and cliches in your genre, is fundamental. For example, if you want to write romantic comedy. That’s great but no one is going to buy a movie script with the same plot as ‘Pretty Woman’, and audiences are pretty sick of certain tropes in that genre, so you’ve got to do your research and know what audiences want in that genre. Rotten Tomatoes is a good indicator because it has audience scores. The box office figures… Read more »