Every journey begins with a first step. And every story ever made 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 remember 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 gripping someone else.
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.
Begin at the beginning
It is difficult to generalise the nature of your inspiration, but most often, the inspiration is an expression of something that happens. A plot component.
- A normally law-abiding person can get away with a crime.
- A kid goes back in time and meets his parents when they were his age.
- What if someone suffers an injustice and the law does nothing?
- The people running that hotel had absolutely no idea how to deal with customers. They were so rude!
- A schoolgirl gets pregnant at 15.
A story often has two components – the plot and the character. A good deal of the time, when a writer gets frustrated they are locked on to the plot elements – what happens – and they get stuck because they cannot think of what else can happen. The answer will always lie on the character side. So take the plot inspiration and begin to turn it into a vehicle for a character, so the idea includes a person and perhaps intimation of the literal or metaphorical journey they might make. The questions to ask of the character in the context of the plot are:
- What do they want?
- Why do they want it?
- What are they prepared to do to get it?
- Why now?
- What does fulfilment look like for this character?
- What is stopping them from getting it?
- Why do we care?
Let’s go through the first of the above plot ideas and incorporate the character drivers. The premise is that a crime is committed by a normally law-abiding person. OK so our crime must have a normal person. Let’s apply the questions to this criminal:
- What does he want? He wants money. Criminals want money.
- Why does he want money? He must need it for something. So he is poor. OK, and let’s say he is dying. Terminally sick. He wants to make quick easy money to provide for his family after his death.
- What is he prepared to do to get it? Well, he’s dying, right?! So he’s pretty bullish about facing lethal danger, so he does well in the criminal world. Let’s make it a dangerous world so he has to be prepared to go pretty far – drugs. Yeah! That will do it. He’s new to crime, but taking on the drugs lords and the drugs enforcement agency.
- Why now? If there is a good answer to ‘why now?’ there will be intensity and urgency in the character’s motivation. Why now is because he is dying. He has to get big money in quickly because he has limited time.
- What does fulfilment look like? His family gets rich before he dies.
- What is stopping him? The drugs gangs that are already there will be pretty cheesed off. The law of the land. Even his own family might not really approve. Perhaps other normal people who suffer because of drugs in their lives or their children’s lives.
- Why do we care? We have empathy for a dying man trying to do right by his family.
This is the way forwards. Each event – what happens – has implications for the characters that MUST be present to deliver it, and then, in turn, every action the character takes is another event – is more of ‘what happens’ – you can blend in with the next set of character actions.
And of course, you as the author have the delicious taks of endlessly forcing problems into their lives to to make matters more difficult for them. In this way, what the characters do defines who they are, and what the characters do generates the plot. They intertwine and become one. Plot and character – one and the same thing.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The above is a good starting point for your thinking, but of course, you will not get the premise perfect immediately. I have simply leapt from the starting point to Breaking Bad, but there will, of course, be a lot – perhaps months or even years – of work before it starts to properly shape up.
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. It should take you ages, and it should change a great deal before you are satisfied, so keep that fluidity and flexibility. Keep trying new things. Let your imagination flow, let your answers change – it is simple at this stage to embrace change and to ask ‘What if?’ and to let your imagination run wild.
Bella: The idea and premise
So the film story 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 seed 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?
OK. So I have a death. And I have a mourner or mourners who will be devastated, and yet somehow happy. The protagonist must surely be a mourner. Theirs is a journey through morning and grief. Let’s ask the questions:
- What do they want? To find a way back to normal after such sadness.
- Why do they want it? Because the sadness is unbearable.
- What are they prepared to do to get it? Go through a process of grief and mourning and catharsis.
- Why now? Because a death happened recently. There is not choice but to face it all and suffer it now.
- What does fulfilment look like for this character? The story will demonstrate that grieving appropriately can help people get over death and find joy in their own life once more.
- What is stopping them from getting it? Their loss. Their irresistible emotions.
- Why do we care? We have empathy for anyone who has suffered a loss. We also experience catharsis when we see someone suffer, so we learn about that suffering and the process of grief without suffering it directly themselves.
The real problem you should be able to see here is that this will not be a very good story… A death and a funeral?! Hardly escapist wonderment for movie fans is it?! How do I make this into a proper story?
The answer is: We aren’t done yet. We have to take the above and present it using the secret keys to the substance of great story: knowledge gaps and subtext. That is in the next installment: Bella 2: The Story Seed Sprouts!
To follow the progress of this project, do please sign up to follow the story development by clicking here. Note that this short film project will be followed by the entire, detailed story development process of a feature film, entitled Mayakin. A puzzle film in the style of Christopher Nolan, coming soon, so sign up!