An agent once told a screenwriter friend of mine not to start writing a script until he had generated a dozen story ideas. The agent didn’t want to see a completed screenplay until he had a chance to review my friend’s raw concepts. “Some ideas are movie material,” he said. “Some are too small, too outdated, too weird, or just plain dull. Only when you can generate a dozen story ideas in an hour can you compete with Hollywood screenwriters.”
That agent’s message hit our writing group like a bucket of cold fish guts. Most of us had one “great” idea we were trying to nudge into a complete story, all the while guarding it from the idea-snatchers we believed were lurking. The thought of generating a dozen story ideas, only to discard most of them, seemed not only a lot of work but also wasteful.
What I learned from that agent, however, is that ideas are like grapes. With the right nurturing, they will grow, often in clusters, and pruning one batch simply makes room for the next.
Can You State Your Idea in 25 Words or Less?
A story concept presents in one line who the hero is, what the hero wants, and the conflict toward getting it. This concept is also referred to as a log line. Here’s one you may recognize:
An archeologist wants to find the Ark of the Covenant, but he must beat the Nazis to it.
That, of course, is a possible log line for Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark by screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Director George Lucas. You can find other examples every week in your newspaper’s movie section (though they won’t always be complete). See if you can identify the following concepts from popular novels and films:
- A sports agent loses all but one client and wants to take that one to the top, but his client is rude and obnoxious.
- A plain but popular college professor wants to win the heart of a colleague, but lacks self-esteem.
- A woman wants to save her son from a killer robot from the future, but the robot is unstoppable.
- A prosecutor wants to prove he didn’t murder his mistress, but every clue points directly to him.
- A storm chaser wants to record a tornado, but it’s dangerous and has never been done before.
Did you guess them all? 1. Jerry McGuire (Cameron Crowe) 2. The Mirror Has Two Faces (Richard LaGravenese) 3. Terminator II: Judgment Day (James Cameron) 4. Presumed Innocent (Scott Turow) 5. Twister (Michael Crighton, Anne-Marie Martin)
Time It: A Dozen Story Concepts in an Hour
Start by brainstorming answers to the following:
- What occupations have you held? What is your place in the family? In what cities and countries have you lived or visited?
- What skills/talents do you possess? In which areas are you totally inept?
- What do you love? What do you hate? What do you fear? What do you desire?
Name Some Characters and Project Their Goals
Choose any one of the “people” described in your brainstorm notes and give that person a burning desire, preferably a desire that’s contrary to the character’s personality, station in life, or abilities. Here are several from my own brainstorm session:
- A chaste but impatient young woman wants to experience sex.
- A young writing instructor wants to win the heart of an elderly student.
- A city dweller longs to live in the country.
- A failure at mechanics wants to drive an MG known for breakdowns.
- A squeamish horror movie fan wants to hold a séance.
Next Comes Conflict
Without conflict, you have no story.
- A chaste but impatient young woman wants to experience sex, yet her boyfriend wants to remain celibate until marriage.
- A young writing instructor wants to win the heart of an elderly student, but the student worries about what his family would think.
- A city dweller longs to live in the country, but her country neighbors are nuts and possibly dangerous.
Reducing your story to a one-sentence concept can crystallize it for you (and for the reader) and guide you to stay on track. Try it. State in one sentence:
- Who your hero is / what s/he does:
- What your hero wants:
- And the conflict toward getting it:
Make It a Daily Game
Whether you begin with plot or with character, this structural start can goose your creativity into high performance. You’ll get story ideas whirling at you from all directions.
After brainstorming ideas from what you already know, consider unfamiliar people, places and situations that spark your interest. In a single hour, you can turn out a dozen story concepts, perhaps one big idea that becomes a great story. And you’ll never have to stare at a blank page.