Cheaper by the Dozen
by Mark Ury
Ideas are not a dime a dozen. They’re closer to $0.0001. That’s because they’re commodities. Everyone has them, everyone can think of them, and, as a culture, we’re saturated with them. Like most raw materials, ideas are worthless unless you turn them into something else, something of greater value.
How do you add value to ideas? With other ideas.
The concept of wit—one of our most enjoyable forms of ideas—is premised on taking one cliché and combining it with another to make something unexpected and remarkable.
An arrow pointing right is a cliché for a courier company. But burying it between the negative space of the “E” and “x” of FedEx makes it new. It makes the image memorable, if not surprising, and the idea valuable.
“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks” is the written equivalent of the FedEx logo, as are many of Dorothy Parker’s best quips. “Take care of luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves” and “It serves me right for keeping all my eggs in one bastard” whip two lazy ideas into shape and keep them marching for decades.
The economics of wit are 1+1=3. When your ideas are competing for a publisher’s or reader’s attention, those are valuable numbers to have on your side.
How do you create wit? The simplest technique is to tinker with clichés since they contain recognizable patterns that your audience can latch onto. For example, the cliché “ideas are a dime a dozen” gives you three things to mess about: ideas, money, and—thanks to the word “dozen”—eggs. If you were drawing, you might play with the notion of ideas as light bulbs and then substitute them for the eggs in a carton. You now have a new image to play with and the shadows of a scene. Who needs ideas? Inventors. But why cheap ones? Well, perhaps this inventor is down on his luck. Can’t you see him there at the register, digging into his empty pockets looking for a dime? Around him are other wealthy inventors, buying cartons of the stuff. But he can only afford one bulb for his last, terrible experiment…
The key to playing with clichés is to think visually AND conceptually. Sometimes the images line themselves up, like the example above. Other times, the concept is unlocked through narrative interplay. For instance, you might start with the visual of ghosts, creeping around in a mansion and scaring people. But then you flip to the narrative pieces and start toying with their DNA: the ghosts aren’t the antagonists. The ghosts don’t know they’re ghosts. The audience doesn’t know they’re ghosts. Before you know it, you’re in Spain with Nicole Kidman filming The Others.
In fact, if you want to study the blending of routine ideas into something fresh, Hollywood has a not unsuccessful record. Alien is the fusion of the shark thriller (Jaws) and outer space (Star Wars). Mad About You was pitched as thirtysomething, but funny. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Village—many of M. Night Shyamalan’s films—rely on flipping everyday ideas to produce entertaining new ones that “unpack” their meaning as you watch.
That’s the benefit of folding two ideas into one. The audience experiences it in reverse: one idea unfolds into two and the brain has the joy of connecting the dots to find the hidden meaning.
Don’t worry about great ideas. Look for everyday, unbankable ones. If you invest and repackage them, they’ll outperform your reader’s expectations.
That’s my two cents.
Mark Ury is the co-founder of Storybird.