Beyond the Great Idea

SPOILER ALERT If you are unfamiliar with the movie Sleepless in Seattle, you may wish to run out and watch it before reading this post.

Jeff Arch wrote the original story that became the movie Sleepless in Seattle. The film was released in 1993 starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and is included on many lists of Best Romantic Comedies. Oddly enough, the film is successful not because it follows a tried-and-true structure, but in spite of the fact that it breaks the basic rules of romantic comedy structure. Rather than the conventional boy-meets-girl set-up, the central couple never actually meets until the film’s final scene. This goes against every basic truism of romantic comedy structure, and by doing so, creates one of the quintessential romantic comedies.

Fortunately, Jeff Arch never doubted his idea, and trusted his writing. Here is an excerpt of an interview with Jeff Arch that can be found here:

This is going to sound arrogant, or something like arrogant if not exactly that—but the night I got the idea, the story sort of all dropped down into place piece by piece. And then, the minute I thought of the title, I knew it. I remember thinking to myself, if I pull this off it’s going to be a monster. I just had this really strong sense that the right people were going to come along and steer it, and that also the wrong people were going to show up too, but the thing would be strong enough to shake them off. And that if any negative elements remained, they’d be like barnacles on a ship—a hassle, and something that needs to be dealt with, but nothing that can stop the momentum.

Reading that quote, you can’t help but imagine that Arch had never been disappointed in his work or had a failure before he wrote Sleepless in Seattle. Only someone new to writing could have such faith that things would come together.

But that’s not true at all. Arch had been through plenty of failure and disappointment before the night he began writing Sleepless. He had been so disappointed by previous failures he had given up writing for years. He once said in an interview that before writing his breakout screenplay, “I’d already failed in every way possible.”

Is this a formula for success? Lots of failure followed by an idea that defies all the rules of its genre? Not necessarily. But what propelled Jeff Arch to success wasn’t what happened before he had the idea for Sleepless in Seattle, but what happened after he had the idea.

Lots of people have great ideas. Lots of great ideas never become anything more than ideas. Here is what set Arch’s Sleepless idea apart:

He trusted his idea. Despite its rule-breaking structure—or maybe because of it—he had faith in the story’s power.

He did the work. He took his idea and he gave it life on the page. He tested it, and proved it could work. He didn’t sell a concept; he sold a script.

He followed through. When Arch wrote Sleepless in Seattle, he was far from a “Hollywood insider.” He was an English teacher in Virginia. He put in the work required to get his story into the right hands.

There are lots of good ideas. In that same interview, Arch says the night he had the idea for Sleepless, he looked up through his skylight and told himself, “for every star in the sky there’s a good idea.”

Don’t get me wrong—I value good ideas! To a writer, a good idea can be life-changing. But not because of the idea alone. Because of the idea and everything that comes after it.

I’d love to know your thoughts—Do you think a strong, original idea guarantees a successful story, or do you think the execution of the idea is the most important part? Is it a combination? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


7 Responses to Beyond the Great Idea

  1. Marc Vun Kannon May 19 2014 at 6:53 am #

    You’ve said everything that neds to be said here, Julie.
    I’m sort of a poster child for the ‘A Good Idea is Not Enough’ club. I have lots of ideas. My method of writing, the execution of those ideas, results in books and short stories that are as creative and unusual as one could wish. I have a lot of faith in my stories. I know that I have a great Rankin-Bass style holiday special, and a great one-act farce.
    Unfortunately, the publishing business, the entertainment business as a whole, doesn’t wish for all that much creativity (they wish for guaranteed ROI), so most of my work is too far from the norm for them.
    Worse, unlike Jeff Arch, I’m not big on the ‘follow-through’, as you called it. The standard model of query and synopsis just doesn’t work for me. I suppose if I planned a built a story like a contractor builds a house it might, but I just plant that great idea and grow a great sprawling garden hedge out of it. I can tell you where the root is, and tell you the shape I trimmed it into, but there often is no main branch to follow.
    I agree completely with everything you said, because of all the ways I have failed.

    • Julie May 19 2014 at 9:57 am #

      Hi Marc! I can see you really connected with this post – and I hope you will be inspired by it! Thanks for sharing your comments!

  2. Marc Vun Kannon May 19 2014 at 10:09 am #

    Not sure what it’s supposed to inspire me to do. Ram my head against a brick wall some more?
    I have an idea for the next query attempt. “Every once in a while a story comes along that defies description. Every once in a while a story comes along that’s written by me. These events are not unrelated. Ghostkillers have been exterminating mankind’s errant fragments for half a millenium. John Smith , the first Ghostkiller, is over five hundred years old. These facts are not unrelated either.” And so on, except I have no idea what the ‘so on’ would be. It wouldn’t work, but it would be more fun to write.
    I’d consider self-publishing, except then I’d be stuck with the marketing, which is also something I’m no good at. I create stories because I must, but short of just giving them away, as I am at the moment with my fanfiction series, they’re just so much litter on my hard drive.

  3. Alexa S. May 19 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    I’d like to think it’s a combination of both these things! Great ideas are always a starting point for me, as I’ve got tons of them (and a lot that show up at random too, mind you). But execution is equally, if not a teensy bit more important – because the ideas won’t go anywhere if you don’t let them or shape them into a new form. Really enjoyed this post AND the tidbits about Sleepless in Seattle!

    • Julie May 19 2014 at 1:40 pm #

      Hi Alexa! So glad you liked the post! I was really struck by Arch’s comment about ideas – that there’s a good idea for every star in the sky. When I’m struggling to find a good idea, I feel like the idea is all that I will ever need, but like you say, execution is important. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Chris Bailey May 19 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    An idea and its execution are codependent. However, an weak idea will go farther with brilliant execution than a brilliant idea with weak execution.

  5. Hamed May 22 2014 at 2:28 pm #

    I don’t think there is a difference between having a magnificent idea, the way the writer executes it and even trying so hard nursing it to an indelible piece of art. They are all steps of the same building. In a well-executed house all the steps are the same height and length and they lead to the same place.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.