Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Shakespeare and the myth of the idea

with 6 comments

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had an experience like this. You’re at a party, making small talk about what you do for a living, when a bystander pipes up: “You know, my friends always tell me I should be a writer. I’m always coming up with great ideas for stories.” At that point, if you’re lucky, you can nod politely and move on to another subject, but some writers aren’t so fortunate. Isaac Asimov complained that he’d frequently be approached by strangers at events or conventions who gave him some version of the following pitch: “I’ve got an idea for a bestselling novel. If you like, I can give it to you to write, and we can split the profits.” His response was usually something like this: “I’ll tell you what: I’ve got a better plan. I’ll come up with an idea, and you write the book.” According to Asimov, no one ever took him up on the offer. And although it’s easy to smile at this, it gets at a common misconception about fiction—and about what writers do—that clouds the way many readers regard even our greatest authors.

Ideas are the easy part. Give me a few hours and a stack of magazines, and I can come up with half a dozen perfectly legitimate ideas for short stories. Not all of them will be turn out to be viable, but they’ll all look equally plausible, and some of them may even get published. There’s a reason, though, that I write maybe two short stories a year at most, and it isn’t just an issue of time. Coming up with an idea is child’s play compared to the laborious work of constructing a plot and peopling it with convincing characters, a process that can feel less like the result of inspiration than an excursion into no-man’s land, in which a gain of ten inches can pass for a victory. I’m as guilty as anyone of stumbling across an interesting idea, thinking that it would make a great movie, and then promptly forgetting all about it, but I know better than to try to tell this to someone who actually writes and sells screenplays. Ideas are cheap; execution is what counts, and it’s what separates a true writer from a spinner of daydreams.

The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

We all know this, of course, but conflating ideas with the resulting stories is a mistake that you see even among professional critics and academics. It’s a critical commonplace, for instance, that Shakespeare wasn’t much of a plotmaker, since he lifted his basic ideas from existing stories and historical texts. It’s tempting to buy into this argument, since it helps restore a god of poetry to more human dimensions, but unfortunately, it isn’t true. A glance at the primary sources of Hamlet or King Lear reveals how inventive Shakespeare really was: he often takes as inspiration only a sentence or two from a much longer work—something like the logline of a screenplay—and transforms even this gossamer premise beyond recognition. Nearly every scene in Hamlet is an original invention, as is the double plot of King Lear, to say nothing of such crowded, ingenious original stories as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline. (Shakespeare’s Game by the playwright William Gibson, which I just finished reading, does a nice job of reminding us how artful the construction of the plays really is.)

Shakespeare, in short, was as good at plot as he was at everything else, and diminishing his achievement simply because the bare bones of the story were already there is to deeply misunderstand what a writer does. (It’s interesting to note that many of Shakespeare’s cleverest plots, like The Merchant of Venice, arise from a fusion of one or more existing stories. Here, as in almost everything, creativity arises from combination.) It’s one thing to lift a few incidents from Holinshed, and quite another to create Falstaff. And while it may seem that Shakespeare, of all writers, doesn’t require defending, there’s no better place to draw the line between idea and story, if only because he provides other writers with such a sensational model to follow. As T.S. Eliot points out, it can be dangerous to imitate Shakespeare’s style, but in the tactical elaboration of his ideas into character and action—in which we catch him thinking in a way that we can’t in his poetry—he’s practical and instructive. Taking ideas and turning them into something more is exactly what professional writers do, and Shakespeare, along with so much else, was the ultimate professional.

Written by nevalalee

May 15, 2013 at 8:59 am

6 Responses

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  1. This was an excellent read. Thank you.


    May 15, 2013 at 9:35 am

  2. I had a friend who wanted me to write her idea and split the profits – and I’m not even published! I told her I’d write it for $10,000 up-front and she could keep the profits if there were any. She didn’t go for it. :-)

    Tara Seguin

    May 15, 2013 at 10:02 am

  3. @ilamont: Thanks so much!

    @Tara Sequin: If you’re good at something, never do it for free.


    May 15, 2013 at 8:43 pm

  4. I liked this because I, too, am a fiction writer and hear this deflating comment so often. I look forward to using Isaac Asimov’s response…thank you.

    Jet Eliot

    May 16, 2013 at 2:18 pm

  5. Actually, I had a hearty laugh at Asimov’s retort. I may not be much of a writer but I agree with each and every word there, that “excursion into no-man’s land”.


    May 17, 2013 at 12:10 pm

  6. @umashankar and @Jet Eliot: Asimov is really the best. I highly recommend his memoirs—it’s just story after wonderful story.


    May 18, 2013 at 10:32 am

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