Coming up with ideas for a story can be hard. AND IT REALLY IS. But there are a few very simple steps that you can take to nurture that initial burst of inspiration, and have the cogs in your head start turning.
The first thing you have to consider, is that every story has several basic elements. So ask yourself, “What are the things that every story needs?”
1. Who’s in it? (WHO)
All good stories have one thing in common: focus. In this case, a reader’s point of focus is often on your focal character. Readers need someone to root for, someone to empathize with, someone to worry about, someone to fear for. You character should be able to illicit these feelings in your reader. Without her, you don’t have a story.
2-3. What’s the Weather Like? (WHERE & WHEN)
By conditions, I mean something akin to weather conditions. This is the where and when of your story. And while they are also equally important, you don’t need to be overly specific when you’re just starting out.
You have to consider, however, that your story only comes alive when your character has a backdrop to interact with. The messier the backdrop, the more potential for conflict.
Don’t, however, take this as a reason to create an entire universe.
Right now, just start with something simple. What immediate danger does your character’s environment pose? Is it political in nature? Environmental? Cultural? Societal?
Are robots taking over human society? Is a rogue shark starting a dangerous killing spree? Has humanity just come in contact with alien life?
These weather conditions aren’t very specific on where and when, but they do create the impression that a storm is hovering just over the horizon.
4. Why him? Why her? (WHY)
Just as you want certain things in your own life, so should your character. Don’t settle for short-term goals. Because while they’re important to keep your story moving, they tend to tire your audience out, especially if they have no connection to the overall problem your character has over the course of the entire plot. Instead, look for what Greek playwrights call the hero’s Tragic Flaw, or hamartia. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’s tragic flaw was his hubris or pride.
Look for that Achilles heel.
I mentioned in another blog post (How Do You Come up with Good Ideas for a Story?) to look for the itches in your character’s life. What aches and frustrations does your character have? What itch does he or she need to scratch?
Is it the dream of quitting her monotonous, meaningless job? Is it the ability to move on after a bad divorce or break-up? Is it the fear of being forever alone? You character must want something. Ideally, something that he or she will have a difficult time achieving, something that will pressure her to change.
5. What’s She up Against? (WHAT)
What stops your character from achieving his or her goals? There are different elements that could prevent this. Conflict in every story, after all, falls under 4 categories:
- Man VS Nature
- Man VS Self
- Man VS Man
- Man VS Society
You could have all these forces at play in your story, however neither is more powerful than Man VS Himself. Think about those characters that really struck a chord in your own life. Often, these were the characters that had flaws that needed changing, characters who—by the end of the story— either chose to change, or stay the same.
So, in fact, if you’re going to include at least two of these forces into your story, it’s best to always include a Man VS Himself element. This is because we all understand how difficult change is.
In fact, it’s so hard that the majority of us avoid change at all costs. Just think about how many times people rile over the fact that Facebook changes its UI (user interface). If something that small and petty is capable of causing so much anger and frustration, what more the changes in one’s own attitude and character? This is why character change in stories is so powerful, and so crucial to telling a good story.
People don’t just change overnight, and so shouldn’t characters. But what would happen if so much pressure was placed on them to change? Take Woody in Toy Story, for example. Woody had to practically experience hell in Sid’s room before he realized and acknowledged that he was wrong.
6. How Does She Get Herself Out of this? (HOW)
Which brings us to the last question you need to ask about your plot in order to make it better: HOW? How does your character get out of this seemingly impossible situation she finds herself in?
An impossible situation doesn’t necessarily mean that your character should find an army of a hundred all by himself. Tension only builds and boils when…
- The audience cares about your character.
- The character needs to make a personal change in order for him to come out the other side alive.
- The stakes are high enough to make your character petrified of making the wrong move.
What is at stake for your character? What has he got to lose if he doesn’t accomplish his goal? Having a perpetually brave and courageous hero doesn’t really resonate with an audience. There has to be something your character fears the most that gets him to doubt himself and his actions—even for a second.
Raiders of the Lost Ark wouldn’t be the same if Indy didn’t have to go into a tomb full of snakes, or if his opinions about the supernatural wasn’t changed in the end, when the Nazis opened up the Ark of the Covenant.
In fact, the argument that the Nazis still would’ve died even if Indy wasn’t there is irrelevant. Because the whole point of the story was to make Indy realize the possibility of a higher power—which he resists throughout the movie. In the end, if his mind wasn’t changed about that, he, too, would’ve died along with the Nazis. In effect, the story had in it the element of Man VS Himself.
Aliens wouldn’t be as memorable if Ripley’s enemy wasn’t the aliens she so dreaded seeing again. It was about overcoming her fears. Again, Man VS Himself.
Gattaca wouldn’t be as tense and engaging if the true identity of Ethan Hawke’s character, Vincent, wasn’t compromised in some way. Vincent’s struggle here is a powerful example of Man VS Himself and Man vs Society working together. Because in this story, Vincent’s main struggle is to prove that he is a strong and capable individual—both to himself, and to mankind (or at least, those that know that he’s a de-gene-rate).
Casablanca wouldn’t be as heartbreaking and yet, at the same time, uplifting if Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, didn’t let go of the love of his life in exchange for the greater good.
The original Star Wars trilogy had better story precisely because it was all about Luke’s inner struggles: first with trusting in the force, and then with controlling his anger and emotions while trying to save his father from the dark side.
Every Toy Story film contains an inner struggle boiling within Woody and his friends. Finding Nemo is so great because it’s about a father’s struggle to relax, let go, and trust that his son will be fine even without him. And it takes Marlin the entire film—a journey of hundreds of miles—to learn this one important lesson.
Six simple questions. Remember that every important discovery is made through the process of asking questions. Ask a good question, and you’ll find a good answer. Pose a weak question, you get a weak answer.
The importance of asking questions in your mind is that it opens you up to actually go out in search of those answers. Because you suddenly have that specific question locked away in your subconscious, your mind becomes more alert to noticing things that might provide an answer.
Have you ever noticed how, when you’re in love, everywhere you go you are reminded of that one person? A billboard you pass by every single day of the week might not have caught your attention a few months back, but now that you’re in love, you look at that billboard every single day and notice just how much the model on it looks like that girl you’re crushing on in school or in the office.
That’s how our brains work. Some of the every day things we don’t normally notice, or didn’t pay any attention to before? Suddenly they start popping out. Why? It all depends on what we’re focusing on.
So start focusing on asking the right questions. Start focusing on asking questions that matter. You’d be surprised at how long it really takes before you stumble onto an answer.