Storytelling

Five Common Pitfalls For Stories With Deep Ideas

Starfleet and Klingon ships facing off in Star Trek: Discovery

Where are your Federation ideals now that the murderous space cannibals are here?

Storytellers love to add deep ideas to their works. A well-crafted adventure tale is fun in the moment, but it’s the thoughtful piece on the nature of human existence that will be remembered. This is a healthy instinct, and audiences do love a deep idea presented in a complete and thoughtful manner. However, audiences also hold such stories to a higher standard. A story of superheroes punching each other in the name of great justice can be enjoyed despite its errors, but mistakes in a piece about what it means to be mortal are grating indeed.

It would be impossible to count the number of ways a deep idea story can go wrong, but some pop up again and again, with neophytes and veterans alike. They are the first obstacle a storyteller must be on the lookout for when crafting a story to blow the audience’s mind.

1. The Idea Is Obvious

A Moclan woman from the Orville episode About a Girl

When The Orville was first screened for critics, the powers that be chose the episode About a Girl, probably in an attempt to demonstrate the show’s progressive credentials. The episode is about an alien species that has rid itself of women, considering them weak and inferior in all ways. Don’t worry, the protagonists are here to argue that women are not in fact genetically inferior, and that they should have the right to exist. Yay?

The problem with this episode, and others like it, is the idea it’s so proud of is obvious. It’s not bold to claim that women aren’t worse than men. That’s the bare minimum we should expect. It should go without saying that one gender is not superior to another. Believe me, there’s still plenty of room to argue about gender. Lots of people who believe men and women are equal still end up with really sexist ideas.

Of course, no matter how obvious an idea, there will always be people who doubt it. There are people who do think women are inferior to men, just like there are people who believe the Earth is flat. But stories that seek to openly engage with these people will not change their minds. Instead, those stories end up legitimizing the very position they seek to discredit, by showing it as something worthy of debate.

For anyone who already understands the obvious idea in question, the story will be boring at best. Few people are interested in watching a story about how the sky is blue. At worst, the story will blunder into even more harmful territory trying to make its obvious idea interesting. That’s certainly what happened with About a Girl. Instead of a feminist triumph, the episode ends up playing into transphobic tropes about gender being determined at birth by a child’s anatomy.

How to Avoid It

The best way to avoid crafting a story about an obvious idea is to keep up with the literature in fields that interest you. You don’t need to be an expert; even a cursory knowledge will go a long way. If nothing else, it’ll give you a sense of when you need to do more research. One doesn’t need a master’s degree in feminist theory to know that an episode about the question of male superiority wouldn’t go well. Just reading the occasional Everyday Feminism article will tell you that the conversation has moved on to far more interesting topics like intersectionality and what even is gender anyway?

If your goal is to persuade people who still doubt obvious ideas, the best option is to simply show that idea in practice rather than calling it into question. The best remedy for the belief in male superiority is a story where women do cool things and no one thinks it’s weird.

2. The Idea Is Cliché

The three main characters of Ex Machina

The critically acclaimed film Ex Machina is all about one question: Is Ava human? Or at least, does she have human levels of intelligence? Of course the characters have no way to objectively test this, so they spend most of the movie questioning how we even know humans are intelligent and whether Ava is intelligent because she acts like a human.*

Does that sound familiar? It should, because this same plot has been playing out since the beginning of science fiction. I mean that literally. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, often considered the first scifi novel, is all about the question of what makes someone human. Since then the topic has been explored over and over again, both in prose and in pop culture flagships like The Next Generation and Battlestar Galactica. The presentations are remarkably similar: a robot acts like a person, but does that make it a person?

When an idea is so well trodden, it becomes cliché. That doesn’t mean it has no place in stories, but it won’t work as the main action of the plot, because anyone with a background in the genre already knows how it goes. Without this question, all Ex Machina has is a story about an evil robot who tricks a human into helping her then kills him for no reason.

If being boring weren’t enough, stories that focus on cliché ideas can feel contrived too. It’s weird to watch characters argue over a question that science fiction stories have already gone over a million times. Have the Ex Machina characters never seen Star Trek? They should know that if it walks like a human, talks like a human, and seduces Hollywood’s male-centric version of a human, then it’s a human.

How to Avoid It

Figuring out which ideas are cliché will always require some guess work. You can’t know for certain which ideas have permeated throughout cultural awareness and which are just common in your social circles. But you can get a good idea by staying on top of popular media in your chosen genre. If there have been multiple TV shows exploring an idea in the last couple decades, chances are you’re dealing with a cliché. I know, I’m telling you the solution is to, gasp, consume speculative fiction media. How horrible!

If you think your idea might be cliché, not all is lost! You can always use the idea as a set piece for something else in your story. You could tell the tale of a robot who must save the world while humans debate their sentience. Or you could subvert the cliché by putting your own twist on it. Perhaps in your setting, there is an objective way to measure intelligence, and your robots are working overtime to meet that requirement.

3. The Idea Doesn’t Fit the Story

Netflix’s Altered Carbon is about a world where people can switch bodies at will. That’s a neat premise, and at first the show seems to support it. The protagonist is an Envoy, a resistance fighter who can switch from body to body without suffering the mental damage most people would endure. There’s even a plot about how the ultra rich have achieved immortality by growing clones of themselves to download into when their old bodies die.

But that’s not really what the show is about. The show’s main action is gunfights, sword fights, fist fights, and any other kind of fight you can think of. That would be fine, except the writers still seem to think they’re doing a deep investigation of body switching and its effects on society. At least, that’s how the characters talk, with long monologues on human nature and what it means in this day in age. It’s laid on especially thick in flashbacks to the protagonist’s backstory, where his mentor goes on and on about how special they are as Envoys and how that makes them good at kung fu somehow. Then it’s back to bloody murder fights!

When the plot and the author’s deep idea pull in different directions, it leaves the story feeling scattered and unsatisfying. The character’s philosophical rants have nothing to do with what’s going on in the story, so why should the audience care about them? Alternatively, if your idea is the more interesting part, then audiences must sit through unrelated action and plot sequences before getting to the story’s meat.

In my capacity as a content editor, this is something I see all the time. Authors start with a deep idea that fascinates them. But when they write the story, their ideas aren’t able to carry the plot. They can’t bring themselves to cut their original ideas, so they end up with a mess. Of all the entries on this list, I’d say this is the most likely to strike new authors, since the discipline needed to cut beloved story elements takes a long time to learn.*

How to Fix It

In certain circumstances, it’s possible to meld a big idea with seemingly incongruous plot elements. The Matrix is a prominent example. That story is all about the big idea that we’re living in a simulated reality, but the characters spend most of their time doing kung fu. This works because the kung fu is used as an illustration of the character’s mastery over their simulated reality.

If you can’t make your divergent story elements meet, then it’s time to cut one of them. In most cases, when the choice is between a big idea and the story’s main action, the idea is what should go. Big ideas are great, but they can’t substitute for plot structure or a throughline. If you’re going to keep the idea, then you need to find a new story that can support it.

4. The Idea Is Disingenuous

Burnham at a party in Discovery.

Star Trek: Discovery’s first season* is a dark exploration of war between the Klingons and the Federation. What depths will both sides sink to in this morally gray conflict, and how will that reflect on the Federation’s utopian ideals? Or at least, that’s what the writers want us to think Discovery is about.

In reality, the conflict in Discovery is even more black and white than that of Star Wars. The Klingons could not be more evil if they tried. They are bent on conquest without provocation, they torture prisoners to death, and then they eat them. The Federation is literally in a war against murderous space cannibals. So when the characters bemoan the evils of war, it rings more than a little false. War isn’t evil in this situation; the Klingons are!

A disingenuous story often comes from a storyteller’s not wanting to fully commit to their idea. They leave themselves an exit so they can walk everything back, but to the audience, that exit is nothing but a gaping hole in the story. This seems to be the case in Discovery. The writers want their super-dark war story, but they don’t want the Federation to actually do anything questionable. That way they can still link their series back to the more optimistic future of previous shows. They do the same thing with protagonist Michael Burnham. Other characters claim she was responsible for starting the war when nothing like that occurred.

Disingenuous conflicts can also arise from a misunderstanding of the subject matter. If you haven’t studied wars and why they happen, it might seem reasonable that both sides are at fault no matter the circumstances. If you’re looking to critique optimistic futurism but don’t understand it, you might think a war is just the ticket, even though there’s nothing in the Federation’s ideals that says you shouldn’t defend yourself against murderous space cannibals. This is the storytelling equivalent of declaring victory over feminism by asking who will open jars when all the men are dead.

How to Avoid It

If you want a big idea in your story, you have to commit to it. Going halfway will only annoy audiences. They can tell you’re hedging your bets, and if you don’t take your big idea seriously, why should they? Once you’ve committed, it pays to do some research on whatever topics your idea relates to. In most cases you don’t need to be an expert. Even a cursory reading of WWII history will teach you that very few people consider defending themselves against a violent aggressor to be a morally questionable act.

It’s also important to be honest with yourself about your idea. Do you really believe your story’s stance on your big idea, or are you just trying to force your own commentary through? Put yourself in the story and imagine how you’d react. Would you really agonize over the need to defend your country against murderous space cannibals, or are you just trying to critique Star Trek’s optimistic futurism?

5. The Idea Is Unclear

Kino from Kino's journey.

Kino’s Journey: The Beautiful World is a show that certainly seems like it’s trying to talk about big ideas, at least in the early episodes. In one episode, Kino visits a country where murder is legal, and yet it’s the picture of idyllic small-town life. In another episode, she takes a cruise aboard a ship so large that it hosts a permanent population. The ship is falling apart and will soon sink, but no one wants to fix it because they trust the robots in charge.

Those both sound like deep ideas about how society is run, but watching the episodes, it’s difficult to tell what the idea actually is. Is Kino’s Journey really trying to explore what would happen if a society didn’t outlaw murder? If so, the idea is woefully underdeveloped, as the episode spends most of its time focused on a minor antagonist who has it out for Kino. In the second episode, are the writers trying to comment on how people will ignore problems that are hard to solve? If so, then why is the ship run by robots whose motivation is supposedly to keep their citizens safe? It seems like the writers just threw whatever ideas they could conjure onto the screen and called it a day.

I went to a liberal arts college, so I’m well acquainted with the notion that a storyteller doesn’t need to have an idea or message in mind. The audience will decide for themselves what the story means, after all. Just let the story flow, man! This idea is as wrong headed as it is common. Yes, audiences will always put their own spin on your story.* But if you don’t have an idea worth putting a spin on, audiences gain nothing from consuming your work. If a story is only a random collection of scenes and dialogue, audiences can get the same value by going to sleep and interpreting their dreams.

Unclear ideas have little value for the audience, and they usually come across as pretentious. This is especially true in a show like Kino’s Journey, where obtuse and impenetrable dialogue abounds,* but it can happen in any story. When an author presents big ideas in an unclear manner, it annoys the audience. Instead of mulling over the story’s meaning, they have to spend brain energy figuring out if the story even had a meaning.

How to Avoid It

Know what you’re trying to say, and then say it. Your characters don’t need to lean through the fourth wall and spout the message in all caps, but you should have a plan for how to present your ideas. You need to follow an idea to some kind of conclusion, not stop halfway through and leave the rest for the audience to figure out. If your goal is to present the audience with a question, that works too – as long as your story actually raises the question. Characters might discuss the question, or the main conflict of the story could be about which answer is best.

The only way to know if you’ve succeeded is to send your story through beta reading. If your readers get a different message from your story, that’s probably okay. Unless they’re finding a harmful message, you should expect audiences to put their own interpretation on your work. But if your readers come back scratching their heads over whether your story meant anything at all, that’s an issue. If they know you’re trying to say something, but can’t put their finger on what, that could cause problems when you publish.


Adding deep ideas to your story is a challenge. You’re inviting people to critique your story as a philosophical work, not just a piece of entertainment. If you find you can’t navigate around the potential pitfalls, it’s okay to put your deep idea aside for a later story. Better to wait than rush it before it’s ready. But if you can avoid the obstacles, your deep-idea story can keep people talking long after publication.

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Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    Useful article. Point 3 especially.

  2. Laura Ess

    “Without this question, all Ex Machina has is a story about an evil robot who tricks a human into helping her then kills him for no reason.”

    Uh, she was no doubt aware of what her fate would be if she FAILED the test, as we see the previous model being used as a menial and sex bot! It was clear that the creator had NOT created Ava in a purely altruistic way, but for his own ego and purposes. Killing him shows that at the very least Ava was intelligent and could predict a likely outcome of events.

    • Melanie

      I was about to say the same thing.

      A while ago, a group of friends and I debated on this movie, and the people who thought her actions were understandable vs. the ones who didn’t ended up nearly evenly divided by gender.

      Ava was a prisoner, and one who was well aware that she had no rights and autonomy. Her only way to be free was to pass as a human. How was she supposed to leave with him, when he could see her as his property and control her with that knowledge? With both men dead, Ava had no masters. From the perspective of a being whose entire existence has been the knowledge that she can be treated like a thing, and that her only way to survive was through manipulation, of COURSE she killed him.

      Intentionally or not, Ex Machina is just as much about men owning women as it is about robot sentience.

      • RVCBard

        A while ago, a group of friends and I debated on this movie, and the people who thought her actions were understandable vs. the ones who didn’t ended up nearly evenly divided by gender.

        I had a very similar experience reading reviews for Ex Machina. The people who saw Ava as a monstrous AI femme fatale and the ones who saw her as a prisoner using her wits to escape a gruesome fate were fairly split along gender lines too.

        (Honestly, I find Ex Machina to have more in common with Bluebeard than with Frankenstein.)

        • SunlessNick

          Is she the Bride or the Forbidden Door in that analogy, to you? (I could see a case for saying the guy who’s just been brought to the compound is the Bride).

          • RVCBard

            A few things. Mainly, the whole setup.

            There’s this woman being held in a beautiful prison with a wealthy man who maintains something analogous to a bloody chamber made of the chopped up remains of women.

            Ava, in this case, is the third wife who manages to escape through guile.

          • SunlessNick

            Cool.

  3. MikeRM

    “Day and age”, not “day in age”.

    Speaking of cliches.

  4. Gabriella L. Garlock

    Way to hit EVERY LAST ONE of my deepest, darkest fears for my story! Yes, I, too, went to a liberal arts college–studying writing and literature–so grinding out a genre-perfect plot with all the correct beats but not much depth is simply out of the question for me.

    But then I’m left with. . .see all of the above.

    I could whine on, but I’ll just say instead: VERY nice piece! Thank you for offering solutions just when I’m sitting there feeling all exposed by the possible gaffs I’ve written.

    AND: yes, the final and best solution is a beta reader. I’d like to add: it’s a good idea to preface your story with a practice pitch or SOMEthing that gives a clue to what you HOPE to accomplish, and they can tell you if you do.

    But even if you don’t, a very fine beta reader can do wonders extrapolating your intent and helping you pull out and emphasize the places you can achieve it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The Liberal Arts College Writers Support Group will start next week! I’m glad you found the article helpful, I’m glad the advice kept you from feeling like there was nothing that could be done.

  5. Sonia

    Good article, however I disagree with point #3. I think you can explore ideas that are cliche or overused as long as you have something new and insightful to add to the discussion. The reason why these ideas, ideas like “what makes something human” or “what is the real meaning of love” are so over-explored is because there isn’t one single way to approach them and they can be explored from an infinite variety of angles.

    For example, Death Note explores the idea of justice and whether it actually exists the way we think it does. This idea has been done to death even since the time of Ancient Greece, and so one might consider it a cliche. However, Death Note itself manages to avoid being cliche or boring, because of the interesting ways it explores this theme. Each main character in the series represents a different brand of justice and has a different opinion what justice actually means, and we don’t actually get a clear-cut answer to the question. It forces us to question whether there even is a universal standard for what justice is and what it means. The angle from which Death Note approaches the topic is something I’ve rarely seen in other media that try to tackle the same topic, which allows Death Note to remain interesting and fresh despite the central idea being a cliche.

    I liked the article overall, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the subject

    • Sonia

      Whoops sorry, I meant #2 not #3

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I agree that old ideas can be explored in new ways with cool results, I just don’t think Ex Machina does so. To me it’s exploring an old idea in an old way. I tried to make that clear in the conclusion of that section but it seems I could have done a better job.

    • Laura Ess

      If you DO explore something that’s become a cliche, then the opportunity is there to “play against type” and the expectations of the audience. In either case, it has to be done really well, or critics of the story will tear it apart.

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