I wanted to revisit something I blabbed on about a few years back. I’ve kind of touched on it a few times since then, but I thought it would be good to just babble on about it more specifically. So if you’ve been reading this for a while and you have a phenomenal memory... sorry.
I see a lot of television shows that are getting rolled out and cancelled just as fast. One thing that amazes me is how many of them don’t really seem like television ideas. They’re cool ideas, yes, but many of them are very A-to-B sort of stories. My characters have been presented with a single, overriding problem or conflict, and once they resolve it... well, that’s it. Which is a great thing for a feature film or a single season, but very rarely works well with a long-running series.
And I’d say that long string of cancellations kind of backs me up on that.
Some story ideas are, as I just mentioned, pretty much straight line affairs. There may be a few steps, but in the end it comes down to achieving a single goal. There are also the broad ideas, the ones you tell people and they say, wow, that could go on forever. In the past, I’ve referred to these, respectively, as limited and unlimited concepts.
What do I mean by that?
An unlimited concept generally has a very broad scope. Sherlock Holmes uses deductive reasoning to solve mysteries. Spider-Man and Batman fight crime to make up for the death of their loved ones. Captain America and Superman fight to protect rights and ideals that they believe in. Joe Ledger is a soldier turned cop turned super-agent working for the mysterious Mr. Church (or is it Mr. Deacon?). The crew of the starship Enterprise explores the distant reaches of the galaxy. Jack Reacher just wants to wander and see the country, but he’ll stop to help folks out sometimes. Detective Kennex and his android partner, Dorian, investigate homicides in the future.
A key thing to note. When we talk about unlimited concepts, nine times out of ten we end up talking about the characters over the plot. Sometimes it’s the setting, but usually it’s the characters. An unlimited concept isn’t about a specific set of events, which is why it’s also sometimes also called an open story.
A limited concept, as the name implies, can only go so far. As I mentioned above, it’s an idea that has an end inherently built into the concept. A road trip story is a classic limited concept—as I mentioned above, it’s A-to-B. We’re trying to get (physically or metaphorically) from here to there. The passengers of Oceanic flight 815 want to be rescued from their weird tropical island and the residents of Chester’s Mill want to be rescued from the big invisible dome over their town. Tom Jackman wants to find a way to control his dark half. Mark Watney wants to find a way to survive on Mars for the years until a rescue mission comes. The crew of the starship Voyager wants to make their way home from the other side of the galaxy.
In all of these cases, the characters have very clear, straightforward goals. Once that goal’s reached, the story is over. It doesn’t mean everybody in Chester’s Mill lives happily ever after or the Voyager crew never goes into space again, but those are all different stories which don’t have to do with the premise I mentioned above.
Why am I babbling about this?
If I don’t understand what kind of an idea I have, it’s very easy for me to mess it up. Trying to play one as the other almost never works. By their very nature, these concepts are very true to themselves.
Several years back I was part of the staff for an online game. One time while we were brainstorming new quests for the playerbase, someone suggested taking one of the old ruined castles at the fringes of the map and making it haunted.
“Okay,” I said. “And...?”
“It’s a haunted castle.”
“Right. So what’s the quest?”
An unlimited concept is almost never a story in and of itself. It’s almost always lacking any sort of plot or narrative structure. I need to add elements to make it work as a story (or a quest). A fair number of “art” films tend to be unlimited concepts—they’ve got fantastic characters, beautifully rendered locations... but nothing else. Nothing happens because unlimited concepts don’t contain a conflict or goal for the characters to strive for.
On the other hand, a common thing I see people do with limited concepts is to keep pushing the goal away to extend the story (or series). It’s an A-to-B, which means when I hit B the story is over. So some folks will swerve around B for a while, maybe go back to A because they forgot a few things. Somehow we end up at 4.2 (no idea how we got here), then we get close to B and veer off at the last minute... If I’m doing a Los Angeles to Boston road trip, think how annoying it would be to start circling Boston but never actually get there. Or I suddenly find out I need to be in San Diego instead. That’s what it’s like when a limited concept artificially extends itself.
It’s also cheap if I pile on the limited concepts, giving my characters a dozen or three goals that need to be achieved—either all at once or one after another (see above). In my earlier days, before I had a better grasp of structure, I thought this was how you filled a book. I still see lots of writers do it when they start out.
The truth is, it’s very tough for either of these concepts to work alone. An unlimited one almost never does, but that hasn’t cut down on the number of art films or “experimental” stories. A limited one might squeak by as what’s often called a “plot driven” story. Neither of these tends to be very satisfying.
For a really great book or screenplay, I need both working together. I need to put that fantastic character (the unlimited concept) and give them a solid goal they need to achieve (the limited concept). As I’ve often said, my story won’t succeed without good characters, but they also need to do something and it needs to challenge them somehow.
If I don’t have good characters or I don’t have them doing anything... well...
The math isn’t that hard.
Look through that document of story ideas. Or the file folder. Or the notebook. If you’re reading this, odds are you’ve got at least one of those. Figure out if your ideas are limited or unlimited. Because then you can figure out what they need to become solid stories.
Next time... well, there haven’t been many comments lately, so I’m guessing none of this stuff interests a lot of you. So next week I’ll try to redeem myselfUntil then, go write.