Welcome to the cemetery of bad ideas. It houses elaborate gravestones, and tiny markers. It’s overgrown with weeds and shame and regret and painful memories.
You had an idea for a book or screenplay and immediately felt like you hit the jackpot. You pictured yourself at the Academy Awards, or getting nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and dove right in and started cranking out pages.
The first thirty were smokin’. You were lovin’ it. Ok, “Wait a minute,” you asked yourself, “Now what happens?” You stopped. You made a choice. You started writing that. Again, it petered out. You went back to page 31 and tried a different tack. “Yeah, this’ll work!” Oh wait, that didn’t fly either…
You got depressed, bored, and ultimately abandoned the pages. The project now rests firmly in the graveyard of half finished ideas on your computer. There are ghosts in this cemetery and they haunt you. All that time wasted, all that enthusiasm for the aborted project making you wonder if you lost your touch. Or worse, whether you even had a ‘touch’ at all.
If you’re writing a classically structured book or screenplay, there are some guidelines you can use to make sure your idea has the steam to go the distance. And if you’re an experimental type, you’ll probably be tweaking or playing around with these elements, and need to understand how they work.
Here are the four elements necessary for a good film or book idea.
1) You need to have a main character who wants something. Badly. And they will stop at nothing to achieve this goal. The goal is, in fact, the engine that will drive your narrative forward. For example, in THE FORCE AWAKENS, Rey must find Luke Skywalker so he can come back and start training Jedi warriors to do battle with a new bad guy. In the beautiful and emotional novel/film ROOM, the young mother must figure out a way to free herself and her son from captivity, and then, once escaped, navigate a world she no longer understands.
2) Stakes. If the main character doesn’t achieve his/her goal, something important must be lost. For the mother and child in ROOM, their physical and emotional lives are at stake. In THE FORCE AWAKENS, the galaxy is threatened. We need to know that if the protagonist’s goal is not achieved, something bad will happen. The answer to the question, “Will this terrible thing come to pass?” is what holds the reader to the story.
3) The idea has to promise lots of conflict. When we hear it briefly described, we need to think to ourselves, “Holy crap, what’s going to happen?” Sometimes, just by stating the hero’s goal, we already know what the conflict will be. For example, in the book INTO THIN AIR by Jon Krakauer, the characters are trying to summit Mount Everest. That’s all we need to know. The statement of the goal immediately brings to mind all the horrors they will face as they try to get to the top of the mountain. If the conflict is not implicit in the protagonist’s goal, you need an antagonist working against him/her. A character with a strong goal, and an antagonist with an equally strong objective in DIRECT OPPOSITION will give you rising conflict in the story.
4) The idea has to resonate with others. Your idea needs to explore emotional issues/themes that others can relate to. For example– dysfunctional families, problems with love, power, revenge, hate, jealousy, lust, etc. When you analyze your idea, you should be able to immediately identify three or four ways your reader or audience will be able to emotionally connect to the story.
Take action! If you’re working on a new idea for a novel, memoir or film, ask yourself these four questions. Does the story have a main character who wants something badly? Are there huge emotional or physical stakes if he or she doesn’t achieve the goal? Does the idea promise lots of conflict? And finally, will the audience/reader be able to emotionally connect to the issues and themes in the story?
If you’ve answered yes to all these questions, start writing! Also, if you have a “dead” project that’s haunting you, how can you inject these elements to bring the idea back to life?
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