Storycrafting 7 — “I Have an Idea for a Book/Movie”

Posted on November 17, 2016


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Idea, Situation, Concept, Premise & Theme the Storycrafting Prequel

People say this to me all of the time “I have an idea for a story…” I bet you do, because you are an intelligent, creative person and I respect you. And I can predict how the conversation goes from here. Either you will “give” it to me because I’m a writer (who clearly has lots of free time between my own story ideas); or I will agree that you have have a great idea, but you are probably going to get mad at me because I’ll immediately start asking you questions about why other people will care about your great idea. Because turning a great idea in your head into a story takes a little, um, work. Like the pinnacle of a Gothic cathedral, it needs walls, a foundation, buttresses; a town to surround it, populate it, bring it to life. But if you have a good idea, it’s worth it, because I believe in good stories, and I really want you to write them. Grand stories. Ageless stories. These combine a high concept, with a rollicking good tale that has meaning (premise, concept, high concept, plot, and theme). Like many writers, I have a few story ideas languishing in my files that I really like, but haven’t been able to make work yet because they don’t yet have an answer to the “who cares?” question: Why should the reader care about this person and this problem?  Until I figure out a way to make the stakes personal, to make me care, those stories will stay languished.

Idea to Concept

Start with a Situation or Idea

Many people have just that, an idea. But there are several steps to moving an idea to a situation to a story. If you say “I love squirrels and I have this great idea to write about squirrels.” Then I am going to say “Okay, what are you going to say that will make me/a reader/a viewer care about squirrels?”

And don’t laugh, we all care about that squirrelish thing in the Ice Age shorts, for me more so than the movie, so it can be done. So what did they do to make that so endearing?  They took the character and put it into a situation.  “Okay, so I have this squirrel and winter is coming and it has to gather nuts.”

Meh. Come, on, this is your great idea?

Add a twist

“Okay, so I have this squirrel and winter is coming, not like in the typical winter but like a Game of Thrones ice age winter and my squirrel really has to get busy because food is super scarce, but everything in nature seems to work against him and just when he thinks he is going to get the nut, something calamitous happens. ”

Okay, now I can see some potential here. Could be comic, tragic, or even a love story.

What if + Complication/Twist = Concept

Romeo and Juliet: Two people fall in love. (Yawn). Vs. Two people on opposite sides of a feud fall in love.

An “idea” becomes a “concept” when it has:

  1. A Character (Proagonist/Hero)
  2. A Goal (Something the Hero wants)
  3. A Motivation (The ‘why’ that’s driving what the Hero wants)
  4. A Conflict (The Antagonist, what’s standing in the Hero’s way of getting what he wants)

Here’s an elevator-pitch formula you can use to begin turning your idea seeds into a fully-sprouted story concept:

(Character) wants (Goal) because (Motivation), but (Conflict)

Here’s a pretty stock concept which has fueled Ice Pirates, Star Wars, Serenity, Kill Joys, and Guardians of the Galaxy, just to name the ones which come to mind as I type (come to think of it, even Pirates of the Caribbean):

Concept: A rag-tag ensemble of ne’er do wells cruise the universe on mercenary missions.

Recognize it? It’s the Robin Hood concept. The Trickster.

According to Storyfix (where he goes into great detail on what is enough to start writing a story):

The secret of a successful concept is to move from the situational to the actionable.

From a state-of-being to a call-to-action.

From a snapshot toward a moving and evolving set of images and possibilities.

From an explanation to a proposition.

From a character to a journey.

From a story about something to a story about something dramatic.

In other words, don’t just tell a story, create drama.

We can tune it up a bit to include all of those.

Concept to High Concept

Not all stories are high concept. Modern MFA fiction most certainly is not. But I don’t care about that stuff, and I’m certainly not qualified or interested in helping you created it. (Although if you look a a list of  Nobel Prize-winning novels, I’m pretty sure you will find most of them are extremely high concept, so good literature and high-concept are clearly not mutually exclusive.)

High Concept: What if the leader of a rag-tag ensemble of ne’er do wells (including a sentient plant, a humanoid racoon, a strong man, and a hot green alien woman) cruising the universe to do mercenary missions playing his mom’s mixed tapes on an old car cassette recorder was actually the son and heir of a god but he didn’t know it?

This meets Jeff Lyons principles of High Concept:

  1. High level of entertainment value
  2. High degree of originality
  3. Born from a “what if” question
  4. Highly visual
  5. Clear emotional focus
  6. Inclusion of some truly unique element
  7. Mass audience appeal (to a broad general audience, or a large niche market).

Now, this is a lot more interesting. But it’s still  not a story.

High Concept to Premise

A concept is an idea; a premise is the outline of the plot.

Premise: What if the leader of a rag-tag ensemble of ne’er do wells cruising the universe mercenary missions was actually the son and heir of a god but he didn’t know it until his band went on a quest to acquire one of several powerful jewels which had the power to rule the universe and he was cast into his true destiny?

Premise to Story

This is where the rubber meets the road so to speak. Even if you can sum up the premise of your story in a single sentence, and it’s high concept, you are just beginning. The idea may be compelling, the concept may be high, and the premise may be very clear in your mind – in fact, I would council that all of these things must be in place for a great story – but the story still remains to be told. It’s by no means automatic that you can go from the premise to lay out the whole beginning, middle, and end of your Heroes Journey, which I have discussed in depth. (Storycrafting 1 – The Hero’s Journey, Storycrafting 2 – Assembling a Story, Storycrafting 3 – Comparing Various Versions of  the Hero’s Journey)

  • How does it start? What was the hero’s before world?
  • What was the inciting incident which upset the status quo?
  • What will ultimately get the hero to take up the challenge?
  • What obstacles and characters need to be overcome?
  • What event will try and eventually change the hero?
  • What does the hero’s new world look like?

This is your story. This is why you cannot give your idea to me or anybody else, because the same idea can be many stories and you have to be able to put all of the pieces together for it to have any value.

Here is the back-of-the-DVD blurb for Guardians of the Galaxy from IMDB:

Brash space adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finds himself the quarry of relentless bounty hunters after he steals an orb coveted by Ronan, a powerful villain. To evade Ronan, Quill is forced into an uneasy truce with four disparate misfits: gun-toting Rocket Raccoon, treelike-humanoid Groot, enigmatic Gamora, and vengeance-driven Drax the Destroyer. But when he discovers the orb’s true power and the cosmic threat it poses, Quill must rally his ragtag group to save the universe.

We can run this against the  Helping Writers become Authors checklist:

  • Protagonist? Check. (Peter Quill.)
  • Specifics about protagonist? Check. (Brash adventurer.)
  • Set-up? Check. (Orb is powerful.)
  • Antagonist? Check. (Other marauding band of ne’er do wells he used to work for.)
  • Goal? Check. (First get the stones, later save the universe.)
  • Obstacles/conflict? Check. (Being chased)
  • Bonus: Supporting character(s)? Check. (All of the characters of the Marvel universe all working on the same Infinity Stone Problem.)

Theme to Literature

The one last thing that I think all good works and certainly all great works should have is a theme. I may not always be able to state my theme when I start, but it becomes clearer as I write and then helps guide and develop the story. The theme is the lesson, the takeaway from a story. Things like good versus evil, everlasting love, tradition. Most writers have a few favorite themes they explore. I tend to talk about personal honor a lot. Redemption. I don’t think a theme is all that necessary, I would dare say that  while most best selling novels may have some theme you could dig out of them, that isn’t really the point of them. I think the Jack Reacher’s iconoclastic lonerism is more a character trait than the take away message for the reader. I dare say, though, that any true time-tested story or literature will have an obvious theme that rivals the plot for importance. Mabe like concept we should talk about thematic stories and “high thematic” stories. Certainly, the theme of love lost plays out larger in Romeo and Juliet than in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

When I write I certainly will pass up many ideas to pick the one rollicking good story with at theme.

I think once you have that, if you say “I have an idea for a movie/book” I’d be very inclined to believe you.

In Non-Fiction

In non-fiction, you have similar parallels where the premise is the event and the concept is the slant on the event. One day my ex and I were trailering a horse from Oregon back to Washington. She had been trailering horses all over the West for decades. Dozens of horses. We were a bit perplexed when the state patrol pulled us over and asked for a “stock certificate,” which we’d never heard of. In this context, it’s a piece of paper you get from the state that states you own the animals  you are transporting, or have permission to transport them. Basically, it’s in place to stop modern-day rustling which is still a big problem, apparently. Now, we could’ve written this up and put many different slants on it. I could’ve been a pure informational piece explaining the certificates and how to get them in various states. It could’ve been an amusing anecdote, diverting into how the officer started asking about the truck which my ex drag raced (in 4wd) and was probably the fastest quad cab 4WD road-legal truck on the planet (and still got 18 MPG hauling a 4 horse rig over the mountains). Or we could’ve used it as a spring board to launch into a discussion about modern day horse thieves. One story, multiple slants.

Examples from My Work

What good would this be if I couldn’t get you to read one of my stories? I try to write rollicking good tales with some meaning.

Die with a Human Heart

From Die with a Human Heart:

Idea: What would a company store look like in the future? What if technology allowed us to live practically forever?

Concept: What if technology allowed us to live practically forever but only corporations could afford it, so they would pay to augment you but you had to work for them for centuries to pay it back.

High Concept: What if a man was resurrected from the dead by a company who outfit him with an artificial heart, but that meant he could no longer live on earth with his family who grew old and died while he remained immortal, and he wanted to regain his humanity?

Premise: What if a man resurrected from dead and made immortal by slave by a corporation who gave him an artificial heart was able to regain his humanity and escape his fate by returning to earth and giving the heart to his terminally ill grandson?

Story: A newlywed with a family is fatally injured in an industrial accident. The company he works for offers to save his life for an extended employment contract. His new body makes him perfect to work in space far from his family who are aging and dying without him while he remains practically immortal, until he returns to earth and saves his grandson’s life by giving him his heart, restoring his own humanity both literally and metaphorically.

Themes: Honor, Redemption

Forest God

And from a story I’m currently working on, Forest God.

Idea: What would happen if you could capture an immortal creature and imprison it without sustenance?

Concept: What if this creature was the Faerie King and capturing him removed magic from the world?

High Concept: What if this was done  by the Church, driving the Entire Faerie kingdom west out of Europe until they reached the sea and fled to the New World where he was captured and imprisoned by Puritans, the real reason for their emigration?

Premise: The faerie kingdom is chased across Europe to Ireland, where St. Patrick drives them into the sea. A millenium later the Puritans follow and finally capture the king, removing magic from the world and making way for the age of man. Four hundred years after that, he is released by a little girl, but rather than wreaking havoc on the world, he sets out to heal the wounds man has created.

Themes: The hubris of man run unchecked will destroy the world.


And from the Mertrout:

Idea: What if there was a creature called a mertrout, similar to a mermaid, but a woman who could turn herself into a fish? (Technically a Were-Trout, but Annie Proulx already used that title, and it is more ominous and less sexy sounding. Get it? Mermaid, mertrout? Half woman half fish.)

Concept: What if the mertrout fell in love with a man?

High Concept: What if the mertrout fell in love with a man and turned herself into any kind of fish he could ever want to catch, but in the end he was never satisfied and always wanted what he didn’t have?

Premise: A young man goes fishing and is surprised by a comely lass who appears every time he catches a fish. He’s never satisfied though and always mentions what he wishes he’d caught, which magically is always the next thing he catches.

Themes: Love the one you are with. A fish in the hand. The sacrifice of true love.