One of my least favorite teachers in high school once told me that there are no new ideas. New ideas were impossible. We just put new colors on old ideas. After all we had computers now. What else could we make?
Of course, years later, surrounded by rumors of the Higgs Bosen, with a computer in my pocket and a robot on Mars, that seems even more ridiculous than it did then.
That’s not to say that new ideas are easy. New ideas are about the hardest thing in the world, especially if you need one right now. In writing they’re also not enough, but writers will still lean hard on them, hoping they’ll carry the story.
It seems like this is always easier in earlier forms of genres. For instance, in early epistolary novels the very idea of peering into people’s personal correspondence was enough to sell books. Characters in these novels, like those in Coquette, one of the earliest examples of romantic-entanglement novels of this kind, tend to be pretty flat and the plot is fairly predictable.
But, as genres expand and grow, and writers experiment more, genres becomes mulch-faceted and deeper fairly quickly. Every once in awhile I come across a story that tries to get by on a neat idea. Heck, I’ve written a few myself.
The fact is that the heart of a good story can lie in a good idea, but having an interesting machine or complex magic system is like a guy saying he should have a girl friend because he’s a nice guy. That’s great, but this story is a nice guy and can also play guitar. He’s going to win every time. Having a good idea is the least you can do.
You also need powerful characters, strong language, flow, excellent dialogue. It’s only when we have all these things together that we can create really powerful stories.
Sometimes this can seem overwhelming. It reminds me of learning to ride a horse in a show. My trainer would stand on the sidelines and yell, “Head up! Chest out! Heels down! Sit back! Thumbs up! Check your reins! Inside leg!” All these suggestions were for a single goal, riding the horse well, but trying to comply with them all at once made me feel pulled in a million directions.
That doesn’t mean that you have to possess all these skills all at once and immediately. These are things that no writer every perfects. You can only expect to get better at them over time. Try writing a story that focuses on dialogue, then one that focuses specifically on language. Practicing each skill one at a time will help them come easier when you are focusing on a different skill. Eventually you can bring them all together naturally.