I have an idea…
I hear this all the time. It could be an idea for a television series or a film. And it may be a wonderful idea with a fascinating logline. There’s one problem with an idea, however. It needs to be fleshed out. As Shakespeare might put it: Ay, there’s the rub.
The truth is, execution is far more important than simply an idea when it comes to film and television. An idea is a seed, not a mature, fruit-bearing plant. But just as it is difficult to successfully cultivate a garden, creating all the elements necessary to bring an idea to fruition also is a challenge.
I have an idea for a movie.
Okay, what is it?
A UFO lands in somebody’s yard.
Right. And then what?
No response. Just a blank stare.
When asked to elaborate on an idea enthusiastically and earnestly offered (with a great flourish and intensity and waving of hands for emphasis) most people are suddenly deflated and stunned into silence. Either that or they babble forth with a disjointed string of non sequiturs that make little sense in terms of story.
So how do you turn your idea into something coherent and ready for primetime?
The Five Ws.
Anyone who has ever written for a newspaper knows the Five Ws well. Editors use the Five Ws as a mantra. Readers can inherently sense it if the Five Ws are missing.
Not a clue what the Five Ws are? Don’t worry. You’re about to find out.
While working as a journalist early in my career I often was forced to deal with the Five Ws — five questions that serve as the universal basis for a good news article.
Who? What? When? Where? Why?
When I began writing television, film, and books, I realized that these same journalistic principles of story construction could be modified slightly when it comes to developing fiction. So now, when I have an idea, the first question I pose is:
Who is it about?
For me, characters drive the story, not the other way around. You need a protagonist, of course. Or maybe more than one protagonist. For example, a team of Detectives in a police procedural. Who your characters are and how many of them you create is up to you. If it’s helpful to follow the template suggested by many story seminars (reluctant hero, mentor, etc.) then by all means do so. However, I don’t necessarily think you need to adhere to any particular dogma when creating characters. If your hero is not reluctant, so be it. And if your hero achieves his goal without the benefit of a mentor guiding him along the way, good for him. Life doesn’t go by any rules so why must a set of characters?
The first thing I want to know when developing characters is what motivates them. How old are they? Are they married? What do they want out of life? How might their wants and desires affect the plot’s turning points? What are their back stories? What events occurred in their lives before their appearance on the page or on screen begins? How did these events mold their personalities? Assembling a brief bio of each character, major and minor, is critical at this stage. Once created, these characters will help you write the story. They’ll do the heavy lifting. All you need to do is follow them on their journey.
Whatever happened, it happened to the characters that you have brought to life. A UFO landed in somebody’s yard? You can anticipate the next logical step of the story because the characters are going to react in a manner consistent with who they are. A neighborhood resident would view the close encounter more hysterically than a NASA scientist, who would exhibit curiosity. How would a cop handle the situation? Or a soldier? Is your character an adult or teenager? Does your character run from the UFO? Try to communicate with it? Shoot at it? The story will begin to unfold as the characters do what you might expect of them. And your original idea will gain momentum as the characters navigate the maze that threads through the beginning, the treacherous middle, and the end of your story.
When did it happen?
Since all eras have their own laws, attitudes, and social mores, characters are, to a large degree, products of the time in which they reside. Whether your story is a period piece, contemporary, or takes place a thousand years from now, the choice will have an impact on what your characters think and feel. The past will require some research to ensure authenticity. You live in the present so you can draw from your own experience. The future doesn’t yet exist so you must summon your imagination.
Where did it happen?
I often use New York as a locale because, to me, New York is a character, albeit a non-human one. The streets, the skyscrapers, the energy, are difficult to duplicate elsewhere. Peoria is quite different from Manhattan, Italy is worlds away from China. Middle Eastern women wear burkas, women in LA wear… well, whatever they want. Where your character lives or works or travels is of prime importance in that the arena can shape the plot in unexpected ways as characters explore their environment. A Fedex deliveryman making his rounds in the suburbs? Likely mundane. A Fedex deliveryman in Moscow? That’s another story. So where did your UFO land? In New Jersey, under an intense media spotlight? Or in North Korea behind a veil of secrecy?
Why did it happen?
Everything that transpires in a story happens because of an incident that propels the characters and thus the plot. In Argo, diplomats escape the Canadian Embassy in Iran. Life of Pi pivots on a shipwreck. A UFO lands in somebody’s yard? It started out as just an idea. Only now you know how it turns out.
- Ask the Expert: The Birth of your First Draft
- Storytelling Strategies: Argo and Recapitulation
- Meet the Reader: The Real Rules of Screenwriting
Get tips from the classics in Michael Lee’s webinar
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