Every journey begins with a first step. And every story ever made – from the simplest of children’s stories to the most classic literature and epic movies – began with an idea. A seed of inspiration that was so compelling to its owner that they devoted their life to developing it into a premise, a concept, a series of drafts and, ultimately, a glorious final product.
The originating idea may be tiny, but it is also critical. The better you understand
your inspiration and the message behind it, and the better you manage to retain the integrity of that inspiration as you get deeper and deeper into your story, the more cohesive, authoritative and compelling the final product is likely to be. Why? Because that original germ contained something visceral — something that resonated with you and your mind and your life — and it is that which you must capture if the final story is to resonate with the minds of other people. The human truth that sparked your idea is the human truth that has the best chance of resonating.
So, first, I’m going to talk about how to work that inspiration, how to expand on it effectively in these embryonic moments, and then I will talk specifically about the seeds of the story we are developing through this project, and how they are shaping up.
Begin at the beginning
It is difficult to generalise the nature of your inspiration. Here are some types of ideas which might form the basis of a story.
- If I broke the law, I’d probably get away with it. I’ve never done it before, and if I could keep my cool, and continue my law-abiding life on the surface, it would be difficult to catch me.
- Wouldn’t it be great if you could meet your mum or dad when they were your age – see what they were like when they were young and see if you would have been friends.
- Someone was really bad to me and the law did nothing. They seem to be more on the side of the bad guy than the victim.
- The people running that hotel had absolutely no idea how to deal with customers. They were so rude!
- I got pregnant when I was only 15. I didn’t want to be a mother but I couldn’t face a termination.
These ideas have different underlying forms, and yet they all became famous stories. The first thing to do with your idea is to turn it into a premise for a character, so the idea includes a person, and perhaps intimation of the metaphorical journey they might make. It can usually be expressed in the form of a ‘What if..?’ statement, an intriguing situation with various possible outcomes, a dilemma or perhaps a moral argument. Let’s go through the above and convert them to include character and some sort of direction:
- What if a chemistry teacher, dying of cancer, decides to use his skills to make illegal drugs so he can provide for his family after his death through millions of dollars of drugs money? (Breaking Bad).
- What if a kid goes back in time, meets his parents when they were his age, and his mother falls in love with him? (Back to the Future).
- What if a lady whose daughter was raped and murdered feels the police are not working hard enough to catch the criminal and sets about holding the local police to account? (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).
- What would happen if a person with enormous arrogance, superiority and complete disdain for other people becomes the owner of a hotel? (Fawlty Towers).
- How should society deal with a 15-year-old girl who becomes pregnant? (Juno)
Notice how each premise captures, firstly, a character, secondly, an indication of a narrative journey and – in these cases – ultimately everything at the heart of the final productions they represent. And yet the premise also presents them in a format that draws you in; that raises questions and – even at this stage – makes you want to know what might happen.
This is the first job and the focus of initial thinking, but of course, you will not get the premise perfect immediately. However, you should write it down, however sketchy it feels, and look after it. When you are deep in your story, this nugget of gold can really help you to see the wood for the trees. You will most likely return and reshape this as you learn more about your story. Every story is some form of character journey, so the job in these very early moments is one of capturing an essence of the nature of that journey, reasons why it might be of interest and who might make that journey. Something in here is why you wish to tell your story, and it will remind you.
Do not worry if you cannot put yours in a nutshell immediately. This is the first, most basic, level. Your story will grow from here. This single paragraph idea will sprout a story tree; a series of subplots, acts or chapters; on to the branches of sequences and scenes all the way to the myriad of blossoms that are the beats, moments and actual words of the final script or book. And they all grow at once, and you will have to nourish and nurture the story, root and branch, at every level, all the time. You will need to get all of these levels connecting and growing together before it is natural and beautiful and a single, giant, complete entity. You may have to climb high into the branches and flowers, and start working on the detail but always move back down and refine at this premise level, because if you have the roots right, such that it perfectly supports your story and idea, the chances are your final product will be much, much better for that strength and nourishment that comes from the foundations.
Alfie: The idea and premise
So the film I am going to make began with my mother’s funeral. It was a sad day, and yet at the same time, it was a joyous celebration of her life. The question that generates my story is this: How come a funeral, so definitive of death and driven by sadness, can also be so joyous and positive?
Can I capture that? Can I deliver a story that has deep sadness, and yet love and joy at the same time? This is the challenge I have set myself. The story of Alfie will be about death. And yet the positivity that lies beneath it and comes to the fore even during the single event at the greatest depth of sadness at the funeral…
What is your premise? Are you able to capture it? Is it formed around a character and indicative of the journey that must be taken to deliver it? How can you present that to make it intriguing? What if..?
In the next chapter of this series, I will show you how to expand on your idea and premise in order to capture that essence and build it into an effective full-length story.
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