This for some reason makes me think of the ideas I get for stories and how my mind puts them together. An idea, I find, is generally composed of several equal parts that combine together to form what is (supposedly) a unique idea. This is why creativity is probably best defined as the ability to make connections where others hadn't seen them before, to get your chocolate in their peanut butter and HOLY CRAP reesie cups. My ideas are usually more the "floor wax AND a dessert topping" kind of ideas, though.
Probably the most frustrating thing about this process is how I will most of the time find I only have, say, three out of the five pieces I need for an idea to work. The first three pieces are awesome and I want to write the damn story. But I'm missing stuff that happens, or the twist, or both, and I'm just stuck with a cool concept.
This, to me, is the difference between an idea and a concept. I think too many sci-fi stories are mostly concepts, not really ideas. I think this was especially true of a lot of the stuff that came out in the 60s. People remember a lot of it fondly but a lot of it was a concept in search of something to make it more interesting. Here's a concrete example from a book I picked up in the Book Nook bargain bin based solely on the trippy cover and the title - The Quincunx of Time.
Concept: A machine that uses quantum mechanics to allow instantaneous communication across vast distances also essentially allows you to see the future.
This is a cool concept, sure. But the reason I didn't post the book on here and I won't is because it was a lame book. The whole point of the book is a pointless story leading to the reveal that, holy crap, you can see the future. And, holy crap, the people who have it use it to make sure that NOTHING CHANGES THE FUTURE. Wow. If you can't tell, I thought this was pretty lame. Unfortunately this is all too often the case, that the kind of writer who grasps quantum mechanics well enough to base a story idea on it, who knows words like "quincunx", are also lame writers. They hated the "mindlessness" of the pulp scifi of the previous generation (which was crap, most of it was hardly mindless) and they created stories that read like something that was on the required reading list for a graduate-degree-level seminar.
So as a free service to this guy (I won't put his name on here just because it seems wrong to insult the dude by name so much in relation to his book), here's the Idea I came up with after a minute or two of looking at that concept:
Idea: A machine that uses quantum mechanics the allow instantaneous communication across vast distances also essentially allows you to see the future. When Latko Wankus, inventor of the Wankus Quantum Communicator, discovers this, at the same time he learns the Earth is doomed! Can he stop it? Even when you know the future it's not always certain.
Oh yes. DIRECTED BY MICHAEL BAY, STARRING WILL SMITH AND .... EXPLOSIONS!
Thanks, quantum nerd. I just took your very interesting concept and made it into a house in the Hollywood Hills.
Okay, maybe not, but I hope that gets the point across. A concept just sits there on your coffee table doing nothing, but it's interesting to look at, as one might do if they are relaxing, smoking, listening to jazz, you can pick it up and contemplate it.
Ideas demand action. You have to go one way or the other. That thing that was sitting on your coffee table is now walking around, talking to you. Is it annoying or interesting? Does it want to take you on an adventure or want to kill you?
Sometimes I can perform this little exercise on my own concepts and it works. Other time, I've got nothing and it goes back into the collection until I get whatever it is I need from wherever it might come from to finish putting that idea together.