What Good Ideas Entail

“Just Full of Ideas” taken from Cayusa on flickr and shared under Creative Commons.

How do you turn an idea into a story?

Regardless of what kind of idea you started from (What if, Image, or Theme) eventually the heart of your story is going to be the characters. But if we just start running from there, we might not hit maximum potential. What I really want to do (because I should stop being presumptive and saying “we”) is consider the way that character, plot, and theme interact. Once I’ve got a good intersection, then I’ll return to the character.

ideas worth following

I don’t have time to write the story for every idea I have. So which ones do I want to put time into? Consider the books in my post on Five Great Concepts.

The concept for each implies the entire story. Rabbits lead to a conflict with human expansion, which leads to an adventure to find a new living space, which leads to themes of courage, mortality, and home. The Magic School Bus entails a classroom of kids, a kooky teacher, adventures in science, and the themes of learning. It’s all there.

High Concept: An idea for a story that can be stated in one or two sentences.

All of the books above qualify. In contrast would be books where characters wander and change slowly. You can still summarize them in one sentence, but you don’t get a sense of why they’re captivating without actually reading the pages. Examples might be Judy Moody by Megan Mcdonald, The Whole Truth by Kit Pearson, or Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. These are great books, but they’re driven by the characters’ voices more than by a one-sentence elevator pitch.

Screenwriter Terry Russio (co-writer of Aladdin, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc) has a great column on high concepts, or the strange attractor. He gives the example…

A man wrongly convicted of murder runs his investigation from the confines of his jail cell.
Okay, this is mildly intriguing. You could use this ‘high concept’ to write a screenplay. It might turn out to be the springboard for a good movie — but a lot depends on the execution, all the way down the line. But even granting that a film did eventually get made, and made well, it still could be a tough sell to an audience.
So from a studio, or ‘development’ perspective, then, this ‘high concept’ is not likely to generate a lot of excitement… or entre into the industry for the beginning screenwriter.
An idea that’s marginally better (in a purely commercial, make-a-
sale-to-Hollywood sense) is:
A man wrongly convicted of murder learns to astral-project himself out of his jail cell; he must locate the real killer in order to clear his name.

That’s an idea that might be easier to market, but is it really worth pursuing? What kinds of conflicts do you see coming up? What kinds of characters does it suggest to you? Do you think that the idea of astral projection is inherently tied to a theme that you are interested in examining?

Chances are (unless your favorite movie is Sharknado), no.

You don’t just want something interesting that implies a bunch of stuff. You want something interesting that implies a bunch of interesting stuff. This is the reason why I think The Graveyard Book was such a great idea.

Sorry, I started using you there for a bit. Let me rephrase: I want to find stories that give me new ways into discussing the themes and ideas that I’m interested in.

how to follow

A lot of the time while we’re chasing an idea, we get distracted by other ideas. Writing a novel or movie takes closer to a hundred ideas than one, and it’s a challenge to make sure all of those ideas actually work together, especially once you’ve been working on something for a long time. When Chris Sanders and Dean DuBlois took over direction of How to Train Your Dragon, one of the first things they did was change the dragon’s model.

Do you remember that tiny little dragon? That was originally Hiccup’s friend. In the books, his friend is a small dragon.

Why the change?

Chris Sanders says that if the movie is about turning an enemy into a friend, then it should be the biggest enemy possible. Which makes sense. It follows the old rule to give your characters their opposites, and their biggest challenges possible.

However, the Hiccup from the book series could never manage the larger dragon. He is the runt of the vikings, and it takes him twelve books to grow up, not ninety minutes. The runt dragon is a good match for him, and the books are about both of them growing together.

In the movies, the dragon’s character arc is far less important.

The Emperor’s New Groove is another movie that had a huge change in the protagonist’s foil. Pacha changed from this mirror image of Kuzko, voiced by Owen Wilson to a strong-backed farmer voiced by John Goodman.

Sting was hired to do the songs for New Groove, and his wife made a documentary of the process called Sweatbox. The original planned film for New Goove was much larger in scope, called Empire of the Sun, and had multiple side plots unrelated to the film’s central question:

Can an ordinary man teach a king how to rule?

Eventually, most of the extras got stripped away. Except for the part where Kuzko gets changed into a llama. Because llamas rock.

Which maybe begs the next question…

what side plots flow from an idea?

This isn’t something I’d thought about until I started reading books on screenplay. They say that the side plot should show another way of tackling the story’s theme. It should be a kind of mirror.

I used to think it was a chance to explore a completely different theme. Sometimes I still think it can be useful that way.

The person who breaks this down most fully and clearly is Dara Marks in her book Inside Story. These are her breakdowns for Romancing the Stone and Lethal Weapon.

(I apologize in advance for badly aligned formatting. C’est la vie.)






Love is an adventure

|                                             |

PLOT (“A”)                             SUBPLOT (“B” & “C”)

(external thematic goal)           (internal thematic goal)

Trust the adventure                    Follow your heart

|                                                      |

OBSTACLE                       FATAL FLAW

Fear the adventure                         Hide from your heart

CONTEXT                                CHARACTER TRAITS

Dangerous                                             Isolated

Scary                                            Lonely

Unpredictable                                   Idealizes Love



Life and death



Choose life

|                                             |

PLOT (“A”)                             SUBPLOT (“B” & “C”)

(external thematic goal)           (internal thematic goal)

Value life                                  To connect with others

|                                                      |

OBSTACLE                                  FATAL FLAW

Devalue life                         Disconnected from others (Riggs)

                                                   Too attached to others (Murtaugh)

CONTEXT                                CHARACTER TRAITS

Murder                                    RIGGS         MURTAUGH 

Corruption                              Lonely       Overly attached

Desperation                       Reckless           Controlling

Savagery                                 Suicidal          Accident-prone

She not only suggest side plots, she also suggests what character traits, obstacles, and personal flaws are necessitated by chosen themes.

I’ve never tried to start a story by doing a chart this comprehensive, but when my stories feel like something is “off” I’ve been able to repair it by taking some of Marks’s ideas into consideration.

Thinking about too much of this drives me crazy. And I want my stories to feel organic.

Don’t you?

a final note on following quirks and being organic

Writing a good story isn’t always about hitting your theme, or hitting the exact logical monomythic step. Sometimes it’s just about writing something cool.

See: Llamas.

One of my favorite examples of this in children’s literature is Scaredy Squirrel. It’s a simple concept, but the reason it works so well is that Mélanie Watt can hit it from about a million angles. Hilarity overload.


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