OK, so you have an idea for this awesome scene where a guy saves a child and her puppy from a burning orphanage. And the guy is a former NAVY Seal who has PTSD. Good stuff, right?
But that’s just a scene, not a story. So now what? What happens next?
This is a problem I face every single time I start a new script. I’m facing it right now, as I work on a Western I’ve been excited about for a long time. I have an inciting event, a great setting, some interesting characters, but no real story to speak of. I thought I had a story, just like I thought I had a story with The Inhabitors, but it’s rapidly changing as I outline my characters and work to get in their heads. By finding common threads between them, seeing how they relate to one another and the world around them, the story I initially wanted to tell has slowly been changing into something else. Something deeper.
In this case I had a theme I was interested in exploring, and a timeframe and setting that played into that theme. The trick, then, was developing conflicts that played into the theme through the characters experiences, flaws, and morals. However, this still isn’t a story. But it’s the beginnings of one.
Now that I’ve developed my characters and their baggage, I can start to develop the story by focusing on one as our protagonist. His arc is a natural beginning and end. Then, I take the other characters, including who I want to be the antagonist, and put them into situations where they interact – whether that be via conflict or where they’re forced to work together for a common goal. The story comes organically from that.
This isn’t the only way to craft a story. In that past I’ve created outlines that map beat-by-beat how the story should play out. This isn’t necessarily a bad way to approach it, but I’ve found that I prefer to focus more on characters and let them lead me to where they want to go. There will be course corrections, and sometimes (as was the case with Peripheral) I push the characters too far one way where they’re not really the characters I wanted them to be, but it’s all a part of learning the story as you go for the first draft.
That’s all this is, doing preparation for the first draft. Because the second, third, fourth, and fifth-through-one-hundreth drafts are where the story really takes shape.