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How to Develop a Story Idea: A Guide for Non-Writers

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At this point in the process, we’re going to assume that you have found a story idea that you want to explore. It could be a story that is based on a real-life experience or a completely fictional story. The source of the story isn’t important at this point.

What is important is developing that idea in a fully-fledged story with a beginning, middle, and end. Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, that’s okay, you can still develop a story that will capture your audience’s attention.

In this guide, we will walk you through the process of taking an idea and creating a story that is both original and engaging. We’ll also provide tips for developing your characters and setting and give you advice on how to structure your story for maximum impact.

Let’s get started!

Start with an Idea

Let’s assume that you have some form of a story idea, the first thing to do is to develop that idea into a solid premise. From the premise, we will be able to expand and further develop the story into something that is fleshed out and ready to be told/written.

What is a premise?

A premise (also called a logline) is the heart of your story, it’s the main idea or concept that your story is based on and can usually be written in 1-2 sentences. It’s important to have a well-defined premise because it will act as a guide for the rest of your story.

A good premise should be specific and contain the following:

Characters with conflict

Who are the main characters in your story? What motivates them? What are they trying to achieve?

Cinematic Story Events

What is the main event(s) that take place in your story?

Subtext

A hint at a story that is more than just the above-mentioned story events.

It’s a lot to pack into 1-2 sentences, but the best story premises do just that. They are able to give the reader a good sense of the story and a hook to pique their interest without giving too much away.

In many cases, the premise will present the central question that will be answered by the conclusion of the film.

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Example Premises

To give you a better idea of the structure of a premise, let’s look at a few examples.

Contact

Dr. Ellie Arroway, after years of searching, finds conclusive radio proof of extraterrestrial intelligence, sending plans for a mysterious machine.

The Martian

An astronaut becomes stranded on Mars after his team assumes him dead and must rely on his ingenuity to find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive and can survive until a potential rescue.

Sunshine

A team of international astronauts is sent on a dangerous mission to reignite the dying Sun with a nuclear fission bomb in 2057.

Groundhog Day

A self-centered Pittsburgh weatherman finds himself inexplicably trapped in a small town as he lives the same day over and over again.

Inside Out

After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness – conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house, and school.

Interstellar

A team of explorers travels through a wormhole in space in an attempt to ensure humanity’s survival.

Edge of Tomorrow

A soldier fighting aliens gets to relive the same day over and over again, the day restarting every time he dies.

Inception

A thief who steals corporate secrets through the use of dream-sharing technology is given the inverse task of planting an idea into the mind of a C.E.O., but his tragic past may doom the project and his team to disaster.

The Matrix

When a beautiful stranger leads computer hacker Neo to a forbidding underworld, he discovers the shocking truth–the life he knows is the elaborate deception of an evil cyber-intelligence.

The Terminal

An Eastern European tourist unexpectedly finds himself stranded in JFK airport and must take up temporary residence there.

A Quiet Place

In a post-apocalyptic world, a family is forced to live in silence while hiding from monsters with ultra-sensitive hearing.

Us

A family’s serene beach vacation turns to chaos when their doppelgängers appear and begin to terrorize them.

Upgrade

Set in the near future, technology controls nearly all aspects of life. But when the world of Grey, a self-labeled technophobe, is turned upside down, his only hope for revenge is an experimental computer chip implant.

2001: A Space Odyssey

After uncovering a mysterious artifact buried beneath the Lunar surface, a spacecraft is sent to Jupiter to find its origins – a spacecraft manned by two men and the supercomputer H.A.L. 9000.

Answer the 5 Ws

With a premise in hand, the next step is to explore the story idea in greater depth by asking ourselves a series of questions, the five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why. Answering these questions will help you to get a better understanding of your characters, their world, and why this story speaks to you.

What is your story about?

The first question we need to ask is, what are you writing about? What is the central conflict of your story? Answering this question will help you to zero in on the main event or thread that will drive your story forward.

In most cases, this will be a question that is planted in the audience’s mind at the end of the first act. Will our protagonist succeed? And the answer will be given via the outcome at the end of the film.

Knowing both this question and the result provides the answer to what the story is about (on a surface level).

Once you have a general idea of what your story is about, you can begin to flesh out your characters and setting.

Who is your story about?

Ask yourself who is your protagonist and what do they want. What obstacles will they have to overcome? As you develop your characters, keep in mind that they should have external goals that they are trying to achieve as well as internal subconscious goals.

Each character’s arc will be defined not by whether or not they achieve their stated goals but by what they learned and how they grew over the course of the story.

Where is the setting?

The setting of your story can be just as important as the characters. Where does the action take place? Is it a real or fictional location? Is your protagonist at home in this setting? Or are they in a place or time that is foreign to them?

Answering these questions will help you to create a vivid and believable world and will again inform not only what happens but also the decisions and actions of your characters.

When does it take place?

This is closely related to the question of setting. Once you have decided on a location, you need to decide when your story takes place. Is it set in the past, present, or future? Is your character a time traveler like Marty McFly?

Time travel stories aside, the time period can greatly affect the mindset and thought processes of your characters. Just take for example the expected treatment (socially and legally) for any non-white male characters throughout history.

Keep in mind that the time period can have a big impact on your story and the way your characters interact with each other and their environment.

Why is this story important?

This is not a question of historical importance or newsworthiness (although some stories will be both), no, the question here is what makes this story worth telling? Why take the time to tell this story and why would anyone be interested?

This is by no means an advocation for writing a (heavy-handed) moral into your story. Rather, this is a question of if you were to tell this story to a stranger on the street, do you think they would be interested?

Answering these questions will help you to focus on the heart of your story and make sure that everything else supports that.

Rinse and Repeat

You’ll likely want to ask the 5 W’s of each of your characters and use them to explore the scenes and moments you have brainstormed. As you go through this iterative process, you’ll inevitably find that new scenes and characters are created and discovered.

Take notes and create note cards to fill in the gaps in your story. Some of these newly discovered characters and scenes will ultimately be discarded, but that is of no concern at the moment. For now, the objective is to learn as much as you can about your characters and the story so that you can see the big picture and start to see how all the pieces fit together.

Wrapping Up

Now that you’ve created a logline and answered the five Ws, you should have a pretty good idea of what your story is about and why it’s worth telling.

In the next section, we’ll have a look at story structure and how to take your burgeoning story and turn it into a fully-fledged story. Stay tuned!

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