The Two Words that Help you Come Up With Plot Ideas

The question “What if…?” is a great way to begin to build a story. You take something that’s happened to you, or something in the news, or an existing plot and you advance the story with a “what if..”

Using a news story as a starting point

A while back I spotted an article about a British teacher who bashed a kid with a dumbbell. It’s a pretty dramatic story, according to The Guardian:

“The 50-year-old hit him on the head with a 3kg (6.6lb) dumbbell while shouting: ‘”Die, die, die” at All Saints’ Roman Catholic high school in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.”

And you thought your school was tough!

The article continues: “The science teacher, who was well liked by staff and students, snapped when he attempted to wrestle a Bunsen burner stand from the 14-year-old boy, who told him to ‘f*** off”. The court heard that the boy was a leading light in causing trouble, and had earlier been swordfighting with a ruler and playing volleyball with scrunched-up paper.”

The jury took less than two hours to find the teacher innocent of attempted murder, but he’d already spent eight months in prison before the trial.

With that as our starting point, here are some what-ifs:

  • What if the student’s family decides to get their revenge by pushing the mentally fragile teacher over the edge again? That could be a good psychological thriller.
  • What if someone else who is out to get the teacher kills him and makes it look like the student and his family did it? That could turn into a good thriller or mystery.
  • What if the teacher decides to make amends and he and the student become friends and both learn something from the experience? That could be an inspirational story, with or without a religious element.
  • What if the jury finds him guilty and he’s the one who plots revenge–but when he gets out he finds that the student, now an adult with a small child, has changed? (In this version, I’d make it more clearly a case of self-defense but the jury doesn’t believe him and convicts him unfairly. That would make his revenge motivation more sympathetic.)

By the way, often the best source of these kinds of stories are the newspapers and magazines you might not ordinarily read because you find them too sensationalistic and not very good sources of news about important events.

Using existing movies as starting points

You can use existing movie plots and characters as the starting point for some “what if?” brainstorming. For instance:

Green Book: What if a black man is present when a white racist kills another white man? The racist says the black man was the killer and the bigoted small-town jury believes him. Maybe the black man’s estranged son is forced to get involved to try to clear his father of the murder (in that case the son probably would be the protagonist).

A Star is Born: What if we move the story of one person on their way up and one on their way down out of the music world? It could be about two chefs, or two actors (that’s the story of David Mamet’s play, A Life in the Theater), or two people on a reality show. It could be a comedy instead of a drama, and they don’t necessarily have to fall in love. Maybe it’s more about the rivalry, and how far one will go to climb the ladder of fame and the other one not to fall off it.

Aladdin: What if somebody finds a lamp that produces an apparently friendly genie devoted to granting their every wish…but in fact the genie is evil and has to do some dastardly deed in order to be freed from the lamp? (I did a quick search to see if this has been done and found a 2012 TV movie called Aladdin and the Death Lamp. User comments on IMDb range from “worst movie I’ve ever seen,” to “Bad, but I have seen far worse from the Sci-Fi Channel.”)

You can do the same thing with existing novels, fairy tales, folk tales, and myths.

Try it yourself

When you’re brainstorming new ideas, it’s a lot easier to start from something specific than to wait for stories to pop into your head from thin air. Try the “what if” strategy and jot down every idea (don’t judge while you’re brainstorming). Later you can evaluate which ones may be worth pursuing.

In the first week of my Script Coach series you’ll discover a whole range of practical strategies for coming up with compelling plots and characters. You can sign up for just that one session or for the whole series of five evenings.

Filed under: Screenwriting

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