Happy Thanksgiving, all! I hope you're spending time with friends and family and a great deal of food. First off, I want to mention my publisher's Kickstarter campaign. It ends November 26, so time's running out. Support us. Tell your friends.
There are a lot of awesome movies coming out this holiday season. Lots of great books, too. Some of them have some excellent ideas behind them, which I would even characterize under "awesome". However, I feel like these interesting ideas can hinder a story instead of help it. They become "gimmicky" and the story never is able to move past them.
What do I mean? Let's look at several children's movies. The first is Hotel Transylvania, a movie about a hotel where monsters can go to feel safe from humans. I thought it was a cute movie, but when I left, I said, "I wish they didn't use so many monster gags." I felt like the whole story was only a frame to hang jokes about ghosts, skeletons, Frankenstein, mummies, etc., on. The movie was a string of jokes and references, leaving plot and characters to be underdeveloped. I'm not saying they weren't there, but they didn't shine. Plot was simple and predictable, and characters felt flat and equally predictable. The idea was clever and the movie, riding on its gimmick, was okay. But it could have been more.
I want to compare this to films like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and the recent Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph. These three movies (note that 2 of them are Pixar) have unique and clever "gimmicks" as the frame for their stories: toys are alive and move around when you're not looking at them, monsters scare kids because it's their job and they're actually scared of children, and arcade game characters are doing a job and may not like what they've been programmed to do. These movies do make references and jokes about the gimmick, but what sets these movies apart is how compelling the characters are.
What it comes down to, what it always comes down to, is the characters and how they interact. The "gimmick" of the frame is clever and intriguing, but the story digs deeper. The story is no longer about the gimmick, but about the characters. The "gimmick" may be prevalent, but only as a way to display the characters and their motivations. For example, Toy Story is more about jealousy, shown by a favorite toy's (Woody) fall of popularity by a new, fancy toy (Buzz Lightyear), and friendship, as shown when Woody and Buzz get lost and have to find their way home.
The gimmick is not the focus of the story; the interactions are. I guess the rule of thumb here is: can the same story be told in a different setting, with a different frame, and still be interesting? If not, it's relying on a gimmick. Toy Story would still be interesting because the draw is the relationship between Woody and Buzz. The same goes for the other films.
What does this mean for writing? Come up with a fantastic idea, something unique and compelling. Something other people don't think of. We're writers; we're creative. This is our job. But don't stop there. Figure out how the compelling idea would mold compelling characters, and then tell their story. It will be much more interesting.