Turning Ideas Into Stories

Everyone can get a great idea for a movie. The hard part is turning that great idea into a polished screenplay. To go from a great idea to a polished screenplay, the first step is to solidify your story foundation that consists of five items:

  • A Hero pursuing an Impossible Goal, overcoming Obstacles by a Deadline or risking Death.
  • Hero —> Impossible goal —> Obstacles —> Deadline —> Death threat

To define your Hero, pick a simple but descriptive noun that defines that character.

To define an Impossible Goal, pick something supremely difficult that anyone can readily see is nearly impossible.

To define Obstacles, define both the active obstacles (people opposing your hero) + passive obstacles (circumstances, environment, etc.).

To define a Deadline, think of what the villain wants to achieve.

To define the Death Threat, think of the physical and emotional threat to your hero that will be irreversible, then include a Horrible Consequence that represents something that would be evil.

Basically, the structure for fleshing out your great idea needs to look like this:

  • Hero = noun
  • Impossible goal = difficult, big goal
  • Obstacles = Active (people) + passive (circumstances)
  • Deadline = Villain-imposed time limit before villain succeeds
  • Death threat = Physical + emotional death + Horrible consequences

Let’s see how this works for “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Hero = Archeologist

Impossible goal = Retrieve the Ark of the CovenantObstacles = Nazi treasure hunters (active obstacles) + Nobody knows where it is (passive obstacles)

Deadline = Nazis want to use the Ark of the Covenant as a weapon

Death threat = Could get killed + His girlfriend could be killed + the Nazis could have a weapon to take over the world

The basic story behind “Raiders of the Lost Ark” can be summarized by combining all of these features together such as: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is about an archeologist who’s trying to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant before Nazi treasure hunters can use it as a weapon. To retrieve the Ark of the Covenant, the hero must battle Nazi treasure hunters and decipher clues to get to the Ark of the Covenant first. If he fails, the hero could be killed by the Nazis, his girlfriend could be killed, and the Nazis could dominate the world.

Notice that once you have this rough story idea, you can see how your story can take shape. Change the hero, the obstacles, or any other part around and you create an entirely different story. Imagine if we just changed the Hero from an archeologist to a soldier. Suddenly it’s a slightly different story since a soldier could solve problems differently than an archeologist. Change the Hero to an accountant and you again drastically change your story.

Let’s look at this story structure in the latest Tom Cruise movie “Edge of Tomorrow.”

Hero = Military officer

Impossible goal = Save the world from an alien invasion

Obstacles = Aliens, busted to private, can’t find the alien queen

Deadline = Aliens ready to ambush human attack

Death threat = Could get killed + girlfriend could be killed + aliens could take over the world

Summarizing “Edge of Tomorrow” and you get this story synopsis: Edge of Tomorrow” is about a military officer who gets busted to a private and has to save the world from an alien invasion. Not only must he defeat the aliens in battle, but he has to do it by fighting in an unfamiliar mechanized suit while trying to locate the alien queen. He has to kill the alien queen before the humans launch an invasion that only he knows will fail because the aliens are waiting in ambush. If he fails, he will get killed, his girlfriend will die, and the aliens will conquer the human race.

It’s easy to come up with great ideas. It’s harder to focus that great idea and shape it into a compelling story, but if you follow this basic structure, it can definitely help focus your ideas so you have a clearer picture of your overall story.

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