Scott McConnell, the story guy, explains how to find the essence of your story by exploring the best dramatic ideas within.
Every creative act by humans begins with an idea. This is especially so in storytelling, including scriptwriting, where ideas are fundamental to creating a good story: Characters are motivated by ideas, character arcs are a change in a character’s ideas, conflicts are essentially the clash of ideas, a climax dramatizes the victory of an idea, a theme is the controlling idea that unites all aspects of a story.
In short: All stories are the concretization of ideas—ideas in action. Writers dramatize ideas. The difference between stories is simply the type of ideas that a writer dramatizes.
As a writer/creator, it is the thinking that you do to find and develop the best ideas in your story premise that will make the difference between your script being an average one or a great one, between its chances of being a box-office dud or having a real shot at success and moving an audience.
Too many discussions of how to write a story focus on creating events and not on the ideas that underlie characters and their conflicts and actions. When you are developing a story, fundamentally you are conceiving ideas, building the clash of ideas and concretizing ideas. Let’s look at a few basic ways you the writer can focus on ideas when creating a story.
First, motivation. Humans act, do things, for a reason. We want to be in love, so we chase that guy. We enjoy the pride of work, so we learn our job and work hard at it. We know the harm of screen addiction, so we take our children off their screens, and so on and on.
From classic films, consider these idea-based motivations: In Casablanca, Rick Blaine hides from the world because he is bitter about the betrayal of his love and trust by Ilsa. In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean protects the downtrodden because of his love of justice. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark acts to build buildings his way.
And consider these television classics: Hercule Poirot acts to solve crimes because he loves justice and the efficacy of his mind. Prince Albert in Victoria acts because he believes in modernity and human progress. In Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Phryne Fisher acts for justice but also because she enjoys adventure and romance. All these characters are motivated by ideas they hold in the form of premises that they choose to act on.
And second, the premises that these protagonists hold conflict with the premises of their opponents. Jean Valjean clashes with Inspector Javert, who believes in a cold law devoid of compassion and true justice. Queen Victoria, though a good person and a loving wife, as the head of state at times puts the needs of her role above her husband’s ideas.
And third, regarding a story’s central conflict, look at the ideas that underlie the main conflicts in these classic stories and films: In Judgement at Nuremburg, every character’s motivation and conflict relates to their attitude about the role of the law being either to protect the rights of the individual or to deny them for the good of the state. In Les Miserables, the major clash of ideas is between those characters who believe in protecting the downtrodden and those who want to oppress them. In Enemy of the People, the central clash of ideas is between the character who believes absolutely in human objectivity and truth and those who compromise facts for other considerations.
And fourth, if you want to add some originality to your story, then one great avenue for that is to dramatize new ideas whether they be from human psychology and motivation, or technology or science, for example.
All stories do not have to dramatize on the scale and depth of ideas that the stories cited above do. But whatever genre of story you are writing, when developing your characters and their goals, conflicts and actions think about the ideas that underlie these. That is of great creative importance if you are writing an ideological drama, like Enemy of the People (integrity vs. compromise) or a thrilling action film, like Die Hard (good vs. evil).
One caveat, regarding ideas and story. In art, as in life, not all ideas or values are equal. Compare, for example, the ideas dramatized in the recently released Australian feature Palm Beach and the 2013 hit film Saving Mr. Banks. In the former, we see the real-life and often amusing and poignant conflicts of a group of aged North Shore Sydneysiders. The ideas underlying their concerns and problems are real—for a specific group, aged men and women. In comparison, Saving Mr. Banks deals with a universal idea and problem that almost every person on the planet faces: Dealing with childhood psychological issues so one can enjoy one’s adult life. Niche ideas versus universal (and important) ideas. The latter tends to create more dramatic stories that reach a wider audience. (Australian films and television shows being too niche is a common problem in its industry, I believe.)
There are of course many other ways to understand and apply ideas in a story, but the central lesson here for writers and producers is: Always try to find the essence of your story—its most dramatic ideas.
Too many scripts (and films) I see today have gaping ravines of missed opportunities where the most dramatic ideas in the story were not developed. It often takes the flinty cold eye of a producer or director to find the best ideas in a script. And the best script editors are those who help you with your story’s ideas. To learn how to develop the best ideas in a story takes many years of study and practice but that work begins with first understanding the vital importance of ideas in writing and in life.