An Idea is Great, But it Ain’t a Story… Yet.


Don’t you just love the feeling when a thought or concept tickles your mind in the right way and the longer you contemplate it, the greater the potential it has for existing as a piece of writing? And it always blindsides you, doesn’t it? On some idle Thursday whilst you’re hip-deep in work or chores and too preoccupied to be overly critical of it. And in its purest form, untested by experts, it’s a thing of beauty–this idea of yours–but as the title of this post suggests… it doesn’t even live in the neighborhood of being a story.

So, despite the fact that you were clever enough to have jotted the idea down on paper–preventing it from pulling a Papillon-esque escapeand attempted to workshop it somewhat, tacking on the odd bits of reality to make it less ethereal, in the end all your efforts amounted to were pages of writing that eventually found their way into a file folder or a desk drawer.

That’s because you haven’t moved your idea into the development stage yet. What you’ve done up to this point is commonly referred to as seat-of-your-pants writing. It’s all fun and loosey-goosey and noncommittal and some writers are actually able to complete stories in this fashion with nary a problem. The rest of us, however, tend to run out of steam, write ourselves into a corner, or worse yet, discover that our idea lacks staying power.

The workaround is to create an outline for your idea. This is where some writers begin to whinge that outlining is boring, it locks the brain into rigid thinking, it creates too much anxiety, and makes your story sound just plain silly. If you’re that writer, there’s nothing more I can offer you here other than a good luck handshake and a pat on the back. I wish you well.

For everyone remaining, before we get to the outline, I’m going to tear a page out of the screenwriters’ bible and suggest you create a logline (for more details see: At Loggerheads With Loglines) which in this case will be a single sentence synopsis of your story’s plot with an emotional hook to stimulate interest.

Why a single sentence? I think Albert Einstein summed it up best, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” It’s really not that hard once you get the hang of it and to prove it to you. I’ll create loglines right here on the spot, from the first three ideas that pop into my head, so that you can better understand what I’m talking about:

“After her parents die in a tornado that destroys her isolated small farm, an agoraphobic girl struggles to survive in the harsh wilderness as the frost approaches.”

“A wife returns home from grocery shopping and finds that her husband is married to another woman and her own children no longer recognize her.”

“A twenty-something virgin with a week left to live races to fulfill her dying wish to find true love in her small town.”

These representative concepts aren’t the best, granted, but they serve their purpose in showing how your idea would look explained in a concise manner that would plant recognizable images in your audience’s mind.

The first concept sets up not only the tragedy but also the protagonist’s weakness and the ordeal she must overcome in order to survive. The second is more in the speculative fiction vein, as normal events take a sharp left turn and create a reality-bending mystery for the protagonist to solve. And the third, while seeming a bit unrealistic and extreme, introduces the notion of a ticking clock which implies a sense of urgency.

You’ll notice that character names and details are missing from the above sentences, and that’s because they have no place here. Your goal is to introduce the protagonist (by gender and sometimes following an adjective and/or job title if absolutely essential to the story), establish their goal and set up an obstacle, preferably with a hook to answer the unspoken yet ever-present audience question, “Why should I read this?

If your initial attempts fail to net the desired results, rework the sentence, and keep reworking it until your idea sounds like a solid story. Once you’re satisfied, you’re ready to begin the precursor to building an outline by examining the overall structure of your story. The easiest way to accomplish this is by answering:

  • Who is the protagonist and what is their goal?
  • Who is the antagonist and what is their goal?
  • Who are the supporting cast and what are their main wants.
  • What are the major events and sequences and in what order should they appear to properly convey the story?

With these answered, you can safely move onto plotting your concept by applying the five stages of dramatic structure (see: Climbing the Freytag Pyramid), which are:

  1. Exposition – Where you introduce the setting of your story, the characters, their situation, the atmosphere, theme, and the circumstances of the conflict.
  2. Rising action – Difficulties arise that intensifies the conflict while narrowing the possible outcomes at the same time.
  3. Climax – The turning point of your story, where your protagonist has changed and their hidden weaknesses are revealed.
  4. Falling action – The conflict finally unravels and your protagonist either wins or loses to your antagonist. Also where the final suspense is usually located when the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.
  5. Dénouement – The satisfying ending to your story in which the conflict is resolved—or not.

The great thing about this stage is you don’t have to fill these stages in any particular order. Not really sure what your rising action is yet, but have a lock on your dénouement? Jot it down. In fact, feel free to move around and provide details as they come to you. And give your inner critic a little free reign as you get in the habit of asking yourself a ton of questions because each answer you give is a baby step towards fleshing the whole megillah out.

After that’s done, congratulations, your idea is now a plot. In order to turn it into a story, all you need to do is…

Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

PS. For anyone still reading this that felt the off-the-cuff writers got short shrift in this post, allow me to apologize and offer this one quick piece of advice:

Start your story off with that touchstone moment–a powerful situation–something that thrusts your character(s) into the deep end of the problem pool of an injustice or imbalance, something that possibly pisses you off in real life (allowing your rage to carry you through to the end), something that signifies there’ll be plenty of conflict and tension coming down the pike. And deny your character(s). No easy solutions. Let them wrestle with the problems in their own unique manner. And toss additional problems in their path for good measure.

(This is where you accept the good luck handshake and pat on the back).

I wish you well.

At Loggerheads With Loglines? Try These Trusty Dusty Tips…

Even if you’re not familiar with the term logline (or log line) you’ve undoubtedly come across them when looking at TV listings or surfing movie info sites. It’s simply a brief summary of a television program or film often providing a synopsis of the program’s plot along with an emotional hook to stimulate interest.

White House Down: A Secret Service agent must fight to protect his daughter, the President, and the country from an attack on the White House.

In ye olden days of Hollywood, the studios stored their screenplays in script vaults and readers wrote a concise one line summary of what the script was about on the title page, allowing studio executives, producers, directors, and actors to scan a great many scripts quickly while searching for a project that met their needs. Loglines were also written on the spine of the script, allowing people to read the summaries of scripts that were stacked without having to unstack them.

Oblivion: In the future the world is decimated from an alien invasion. A drone repairman, one of the few remaining humans on Earth, finds another human who holds secrets that will put the repairman’s faith in humanity in question.

A competent logline–I shy away from using the word good because that’s so incredibly subjective–should contain the following parts (though not all do):

  1. The set-up. Where your story takes places and possibly in what time period. It also includes the inciting incident (the thing that forces the protagonist into action), and may set up your main character (but doesn’t necessarily have to).
  2. Protagonist introduction. Where we meet your main character and the physical/mental/emotional/internal challenges they face.
  3. Antagonist/conflict introduction. Where you establish the major action, conflict and/or antagonist in the story (essentially what your main character is up against).
  4. The goal. You’re not giving the story away, merely hinting at the climax.
  5. The hook. The answer to, “Why should I watch this?” Give ’em something juicy to whet their appetites. You should also work in your story’s genre and tone.

Elysium: In a future where the wealthy elite live on a ring-shaped space platform in the skies above Los Angeles, a slum-dwelling guy struggles to find his way there, first to save his own life but later to bring hope to all of humanity.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Well, the truth of the matter is most writers find the act condensing their screenplay/teleplay down to a single sentence that still maintains the the story’s raw emotion and power to be nigh-impossible. That’s because they put off writing the damned thing until the end, when it’s no longer about fleshing out a concept, but whittling a fully formed entity down to its skeleton.

But that doesn’t apply here, does it? Because you, being the smart person I know you are, will construct your logline waaaay before you even think about typing FADE IN: on Page 1 of your script… and I’m gonna walk you hand-in-hand through the rest of the process (who sez I ain’t a proper gen’leman?). In addition to the five points listed above, here are a few more helpful tips:

  • No need to get personal. Keep character names out of your logline, they serve no purpose here. What you should do is use an adjective and/or job title (only if it’s relevant) to add a little character depth.
  • Put the protagonist’s main goal front and center. Your main character’s action drives the logline and its the key ingredient in your story pitch.
  • Give the antagonist equal time. Same rules apply as with the protagonist but in less detail.
  • Make sure your main character is a pro. No, I don’t mean making them the best at what they do (that’s all on you, if you choose to go that route). I mean they’re your protagonist so make them proactive. They are the driving force of your story and this needs to be communicated in your logline.
  • Time and pace wait for no man. Add a ticking clock, if at all possible. Nothing speaks to urgency like an action that must occur by a deadline.
  • Brevity is the soul of wit… and a proper logline. Do not crowd your logline with unnecessary details. You’re not telling the entire story soup to nuts here. Your goal is to sell the story. Pique the crowd’s interest and leave ’em wanting more.

And there you have it, all the basics needed to begin tinkering with your own loglines. Remember, practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to jump in feet first and craft a few cringe-inducing logs until you get the hang of the process. I know I said it once before but it bears repeating: Your logline is a crucial element in the selling your screenplay and most often, along with the title, is the first thing a studio, prodco or acquisition exec will read, so make it as brief and mind-blowing as you can.

In case you’re interested in further studying the structure, here are some additional loglines of films released this year:

The Great Gatsby: When Nick Carraway moves in next door to Jay Gatsby, he is introduced to a world of affluence and lavish parties, and ends up striking an odd friendship with the charismatic and mysterious individual.

Frances Ha: An aspiring dancer moves to New York City, and becomes caught up in a whirlwind of flighty fair-weather friends, diminishing fortunes and career setbacks.

The Hangover Part III: While taking Alan to a psychiatric facility, the wolfpack is side-trekked when a mysterious man kidnaps Doug and forces them to track down Mr. Chow, who stole $21 million from him.

Epic: A troop of brave bugs march off to save a garden, where they encounter an evil spider queen and must summon the mythical Leaf Men to save the day.

The Internship: When their careers begin to sink due to the digital age, two salesmen land an internship at Google where they must compete against brilliant college students for a shot at employment.

The Purge: In the near future, a family hides in their home on the one night of the year when all laws are erased and people are allowed to murder without consequences.

Olympus Has Fallen: A Secret Service agent must rescue the President after a group of North Korean militants storm the White House, take hostages, and demand the United States remove military forces from the Korean Peninsula.

World War Z: A United Nations employee traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself.

Lone Ranger: Spirit warrior Tonto recounts the adventures that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into The Lone Ranger, an outlaw of justice.

Pacific Rim: In a future where malevolent creatures threaten the earth, the planet must band together and use highly advanced technology to eradicate the growing menace.

Sally forth and be writeful.