At the risk of sounding insanely pretentious, I’d just like to say great art is mysterious. It burns through us and leaves us awestruck.
And it’s tempting to think of artists and creators as some sort of preternatural magicians or witches, wielding unknowable magic.
But the truth is, art takes effort. Creative work doesn’t just spring out fully formed. It takes time. It demands mistakes. It needs to be discovered.
George Lucas wrote multiple screenplays for Star Wars before he felt he had the story nailed down. He had to figure out how exactly how to execute his idea, saying his space opera epic had “always been what you might call a good idea searching for the right story.”
I think about this whenever I’m stuck developing a new TV pilot or movie idea. I try to pick a “good idea” but get frustrated when it doesn’t work right away. “This is A GOOD IDEA! WHY ISN’T IT WORKING!”
This is a trap. The job of a storyteller is not to tell an audiece a Good Idea. It’s to tell them a Good Story.
Good Idea vs. Good Story
What’s the difference? For me, a good idea is about inspiration whereas a good story is about execution.
For Star Wars, A Good Idea is/was an updated take on the space opera serials of George Lucas’ youth. Flash Gordon but now. A good idea has worlds, themes, characters. The possibilities are almost endless. Too endless.
A Good Story is the journey and exploration of character through said world. A restless farm boy embarks on a mission to rescue a princess and save the galaxy from the evil Empire .There are stakes, personal, external, and philosophical if the character does not achieve what they set out to pursue.
Finding Your Story
I struggled to find the story for my most recent TV pilot. My Good Idea was to write a relationship comedy inspired by Edward Snowden and his girlfriend. But after breaking several drafts, I realized that I didn’t really have a story. What exactly was trying to tell? It took me multiple drafts and multiple ways of execution before I found a story worth telling.
Here are three ways to explore your Good Idea and discover the Good Story within.
Who Lives In Your World
For George Lucas, “world” meant literal worlds. Galaxies. But in a general sense, think of “world” as what the show should be about or the area/topic/location that you want to focus on.
Now break down your world in terms of statuses. Who are the high-status players in this world? Who runs it? What’s the tippy top look like?
Go down the pecking world. Who’s in the middle’? The outsiders? Who’s at the bottom? Is there a way to tell a story with multiple statuses? Or is it better to focus on just one?
Spoiler alert: most TV shows end up being about the top class or the outsiders. Why? Because the stakes are the highest at these extremes.
Succession is a show about an incredibly powerful family. Same with Empire. We relate to the characters because they mine into universal truths but we care about their problems and motivations because they are so outsized and outrageous.
There’s more leeway with comedy. The Office works because the stakes are so middling yet Michael Scott’s reaction and drive are outrageously disproportionate.
Outsiders give audiences a solid rooting interest. Everybody can relate to feeling like they don’t quite fit in. Plus, we tend to love underdogs. We want to root for David, not that stinky Goliath.
Try to approach your world from a few different story angles this way. Once you have one that feels right, with good conflict and interesting characters, you’re on the right track toward a Good Story.
A central relationship is great engine for a story. It is often described as the heart of show. We want to see how these characters get through something together (or get past the other).
Who is your show about? What is the central conflict between them?
Michael Scott vs the Office. Sharon and Rob having a baby. Gretchen and Jimmy definitely/probably not falling in love.
These relationships are all grounded and relatable. We understand the inherent stakes behind them and our characters’ motivations. We know what they want and how they will go about it and thus we have a story.
Think about your world and the types of relationships that exist within it. Better yet, think about a relationship in your life that you want to explore then transpose into your world.
Starting your story in terms of emotion may feel a bit esoteric but provides a very relatable way into a Good Story.
The brilliant scripted comedy podcast Wooden Overcoats does this perfectly by exploring the central emotion of envy. It’s as old as the Bible and always ripe for comedy.
Rudyard Funn, Overcoats misanthropic protagonist, pines for the affection that his rival Eric Chapman receivess effortlessly from the community. Even though he’s an extremely unlikable dude, we relate to him because we’ve all felt that twinge in our gut when someone gets something that we want.
Think about emotions and patterns of emotion in your own life. How are you feeling right now? Ten years ago? Is there an emotional time in your life that you can write about? Instead of directly transcribing the incident or period, transcribe the emotion into your Good Idea.
My latest pilot is a scripted podcast about the world’s first smart town. I’ve been feeling very chaotic this year and I wanted to write about the theme of control. The comedy comes out of my characters trying to assert control over their respective worlds always to their own detriment. It’s a tricky thing to tackle and make funny but it’s been interesting and it feels real.
The journey from Good Idea to Good Story is never simple. It’s not direct. By design, you are going to go down paths that end in a dead end.That’s okay. It’s all part of the process. So try different ways into your story.
But don’t stop until you have a Good one to tell.