How many times have you had an idea, and immediately LOVED it? You’re sure the concept is amazing, and you just know it’s going to be an incredible movie, novel or even memoir. You dive right in and start cranking.
You write the first fifty pages. It’s smokin’. You’re lovin’ it. Ok, “Wait a minute,” you ask yourself. “Now what happens?” You stop. You make a choice. You write that. Again, it peters out. You go back to page 51 and try a different tack. “Yeah, this’ll work!” Oh wait, no, that didn’t fly either…
You get depressed, you get bored, you start binge watching Game of Thrones, and ultimately abandon the pages. The project rests firmly in the half finished projects file on your computer. A cemetery of bad ideas that haunts you—all that time wasted, all that enthusiasm for the aborted project making you wonder if you’ve lost your touch. Or worse, whether you even had a “touch” at all.
There are actually some guidelines you can use to evaluate whether your idea has the steam to go the distance. Bear in mind, these guidelines apply only to classically structured stories. But even if you’re a budding James Joyce or Charlie Kaufman, pay attention. Because if you write in alternative forms, you still need to understand the structure you’re reacting to.
So, in service of your future mental health, here are the three elements that are necessary to make your idea come to life as a movie or book. I mentioned a couple of these in my “5 Ways to Make Your Story Stronger” post, but they are actually crucial at this, the idea forming stage.
1) You need to have a main character who wants something. Very 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, Katniss Everdeen needs to win The Hunger Games so she can help her family survive. Extra bonus here—huge stakes if she fails.)
2) Your 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?” Even better is when, upon hearing your protagonist’s goal, we already know what the conflict will be. (For example, “Michael Corleone wants nothing to do with his mafia family’s business.” Oh really, we think? THAT’S not going to happen.)
3) 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, ego, power, revenge, hate, jealousy, lust, etc. Attention all you people out there who have ever experienced jealousy… Why do you think we’re still selling out performances of OTHELLO?
One final element that isn’t absolutely necessary, but can be icing on the cake, is irony. Is there some kind of ironic twist that can create even more conflict for you? I’m currently reading a novel called YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN by Jean Hanff Korelitz. It’s about a self-satisfied female therapist who writes a best selling book about how women stupidly ignore all the “signs” early on that their romantic partner is a loser. When she discovers her own husband has lied to her, and possibly even committed a murder, she must turn her laser-like judgment on herself. Juicy.
Take action! If you’re working on a new idea for a novel, memoir or film, ask yourself these three questions. Does the story have a main character who wants something really badly? 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 so, turn on your computer and start working. This one will NOT end up in the graveyard.