The French term "le mot juste" translates literally to "the right word," but, with a wonderfully Gallic sense of understatement, actually means something closer to "the perfect phrase for that exact moment."
You know when somebody cuts you down to the quick with a verbal pantsing, and in the moment you go, "Oh yeah? Well takes one to know one?" Then, a few hours or even days later, usually in the shower, you suddenly shout "Eureka" (and if you're the type of person who is prone to shouting nerdy Latin words in the shower, may I also suggest, "Excelsior") and suddenly you've got it? The perfect, damning, ego-destroying rejoinder? That would be a mot juste.
There was an entire episode of "Seinfeld" about the concept, when George, while eating a plate of seafood, is ripped to shreds by a office mate who says, "The ocean called and they said they're running out of shrimp." After days of trying to re-create the exact same situation, George finally replies with what he thinks is a soul-crushing, "Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called and they said they're running out of you!" But of course, the real mot juste belongs to his adversary, who's able to respond not just once, but twice in real time. (For those who really may not have seen this twenty-year-old show, the second riposte was "I don't know why. You're they're all-time bestseller!")
One could imagine, I suppose, a similarly understated term, like, say, l'idée parfaite for a story or concept whose time has come. "Gone With the Wind" tore up theaters in the '30s the same way "Titanic" did in the '90s. HARRY POTTER, sure it was well-written and universal in a lot of ways, but something about the concept "a normal boy finds out he gets to go to wizard school" must have struck people just so upon its release to blow up the way it did.
Sometimes ideas strike me as a forehead-slapper. I don't know sometimes how I didn't come up with the concept behind the recent movie "The Belko Experiment." "Office drones are forced to kill each other or die" is the sort of thing that practically writes itself, at least in my head. I felt similarly about "The Purge" a few years ago.
The funny thing is I've been bashing my head against the wall for the last few months trying to come up with an idea, a perfect idea. I obsess about this with each new project. I hate to write about a subject unless I can put a new spin on it. BRAINEATER JONES was an almost perfect example: a zombie who must solve his own murder. HUNTER OF THE DEAD was particularly challenging, because it feels like everything that could possibly be done with vampires has already been done. When I see something like "The Belko Experiment" or "The Purge" it can be upsetting because it feels like somebody else struck on the idea I've been tying myself into pretzels trying to coax forth.
A friend of mine believes (perhaps metaphorically) that all ideas come from a sort of dreamworld, perhaps something like Lovecraft's Kadath. Thus, when multiple people around the world seem to be capturing same zeitgeist, they're actually tapping into the same source.
The ancient Greeks believed ideas came from a series of angels or low-level gods called muses. There was a muse for epic poetry, a muse for song, and so forth. The muse came to give you your ideas. Modern writers still speak often of the muse. Once in a great while the muse blesses you with l'idée parfaite. It happened to me last night (I think.) But no more on that until it's too far gone for any of you to steal it from me (unless you're all tapping into the same level of Kadath as I did.)
What about you? How do you come up with the idea you need to write something new? Do you not care and just go with good enough? Do you wait around until it happens? Have you found a way to force it? Let me know in the comments.