Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
You’ve got your pen and paper and you’re ready to go…or are you?
“Wait, what story should I write!?!”
The question pops up and now you’re doubting yourself. So in this article, we’re going to dig into how to figure out what story to write. It takes almost no time to come up with ideas, but actually turning those ideas into fully fleshed stories is another task entirely.
Whether you’re writing a short story or a screenplay, you need to vet your story ideas before getting started.
Story Topics In This Article
- What Story Should I Write?
- How to Choose What Story to Tell
- How Can I Find My Storytelling Muse?
- Questions for Deciding what Story to Write or Tell
- What to Do If You Have No Story Ideas
- How Do I Know Which Story to Write?
- Elements of a Story
Argh, what story should I write!?
For the past 2 years, I’ve been hemming and hawing about what passion project to pursue.
What story should I write? Which story do I even want to tell!?!
- Should I try to get funding for the feature I’ve written?
- Or should I turn the feature script into a TV script?
- Or should I film one of the two short scripts I’ve got sitting in my drawer?
- Or maybe I should make a docu-series about artists and creative life.
- Or what if I focus on creating a YouTube channel about Filmmaking?
- Or maybe I should lay down my camera and write that werewolf novel I’ve been harbouring for 5 years.
- Or should I develop that short film idea I have that’s based on a true story?
I was so busy with client work and teaching that the answer remained irrelevant.
I’ve still got a full schedule, but this year, I’ve committed to giving myself the break I’ve longed for. Interestingly, my next passion project has finally revealed itself.
In the live filmmaking mentorship program running right now, my students and I have been zoom chatting about a topic that plagues all filmmakers and writers.
What story should you write, develop, or tell?
How do you choose what story to tell or write?
The inner dialogue of many filmmakers and writers goes something like this:
“What the hell should I make? I have this story idea that I really like, but I’m not sure if it’s important enough. No, that story’s not good enough. People won’t like it. I don’t know if it matters enough, but I want to do it! Well, you might want to do it, but will anyone want to watch it?”
Doubt and fear are the biggest killers of creativity.
We all face this two-headed demon.
Coming up with our own ways of managing the daemon is part of every creative’s process. Doubt and fear aren’t going anywhere. They’ve moved in, bought furniture, and painted the walls shades of green. They’ve negotiated affordable rent, and they’re here to stay.
That means we have to accept their presence and focus on the muse.
The muse works differently for everyone. There’s no such thing as a step-by-step approach to cultivating your muse or developing your intuition. But there are a few things we can do to help the muse smile favourably upon us.
Wait, what’s the muse?
The muse is your inner creative universe that drops inspiring and exciting ideas into your brain. The muse is your creative connection with the cosmos. The muse IS the creative being that lives inside you. The muse is ephemeral and transcendent and made of light.
The muse is energy. If you listen to your muse, you will be energized and inspired. If you don’t listen to your muse, you will be heavy and filled with heartache. Listening to the muse and then taking action IS the job of every creative.
How can I find my Storytelling Muse?
I can’t tell you how to find your muse.
You’ve already found it. We all have a connection to our muse that we either choose to ignore or cultivate. The more you appreciate and act upon spontaneous moments of inspiration, the more strongly connected to your muse you become.
Now back to all those ideas you have.
How do you sift through the many ideas you have and find the one that is truly inspired?
What I’m about to share with you has worked for me, and I hope that it either informs your own process or gives you another option to try.
Here are some things that I consider when deciding what films to make or what creative passion projects or story ideas to pursue:
(Side note: there’s a different rubric for client projects that pay the bills. Those are projects that come to you, while this is only for projects that you initiate.)
Questions for Deciding What Story to Write or to Tell
This is relevant whether you’re planning on writing a piece of fiction or prepping to make a documentary short. Use these questions to decide if your story idea works.
Ask yourself these story questions:
The more YES answers you get, the more likely this project is a good long-term fit.
- Did the idea pop up spontaneously?
- Do you have visual ideas in your mind that have also popped up spontaneously?
- Does any kind of story arc come to mind when you think of the project idea?
- Thinking of the project, does it make you feel inspired and intrigued?
- Do you have a desire to watch that film yourself? Would you love to see how it turns out?
- If you tell someone you trust deeply about your idea, do they get interested in it? Are you excited while telling them?
- Do you feel nervous about it?
- Are you getting any universal signs, white flags, or synchronicities around or about this project?
- Does this project haunt your sleeping and waking dreams?
- Has this project refused to go away?
- Is this project love?
If you ask yourself these questions and get a lot of YES answers, then you’re on the right track, and you should simply commit to it. Go all in. Take it from a tentative yes to hell yeah!
You court your muse by taking action on the ideas that she gives to you.
But, if you’re getting a bunch of NO answers or I’M-NOT-SURE answers, then this isn’t a project you should take on right now. It might circle back later. Or it may never get made.
But, what to do if you have no story ideas?
What if you don’t have any ideas that you like at all?
What if you run your film projects or writing projects through these questions, and it’s nothing but no, no, no?
That’s okay. It likely means the idea hasn’t hit you yet. It could also mean that you’ve buried the muse-inspired idea and need to wait for it to resurface.
The only way I know how to generate ideas that I’m actually going to be interested in and inspired to pursue is by following this esoteric process:
1) Let your mind know that you’d like to make a specific type of project. Tell your mind the size and scope of what you’d like to make. Give your mind any other essential details about what you’d like to make.
2) Forget about it, and start doing (and finishing) some creative and totally random mini-projects until the idea for the bigger project hits.
That sounds simple, but it works.
When I finished touring my first solo show in 2009, I was totally blocked. I felt dry. But I knew that I wanted to write and tour another solo show that was ultra-minimalist and in the magical realism genre. So I placed that as an intention in my mind.
Then I let it go, and I started writing random short stories, aiming to simply practice writing stories that are captivating.
A solo show takes years to develop, so it’s not something you pursue until the magical idea hits you. Within a few months of doing random mini-projects, the idea landed. I followed the idea, and it turned into a solo show that became a 10-year project. (Yes, you read that right. 10 years!)
I’ve applied this process many times over the years; it’s how I’ve cultivated every project that was a joy to create.
Using this process, I ended up creating a passion project film about a photographer and visual artist. I knew I wanted to make something about an artist, so I put that in my mind as a request. Then I let it go and went on with my life. A few months later, I stumbled upon the work of an artist that I became obsessed with. A few months after that, I made a short film about her work.
This is the video I made after consulting the muse a few years back.
More recently, I’ve finally landed on the next passion project that I’m going to pursue.
Sorry, I can’t tell you what it is because it’s not healthy to widely announce ideas when they’re in their infancy. Take note of that.
Early in their development, you should protect your inspired ideas fiercely and only mention them to a few people that you trust deeply. Early-stage ideas are not meant for general public consumption.
I hope this has helped you get to know your muse better and feel less alone in your creative struggles.
Remember that when the inspired idea does hit you that it’s time to take action. Even if you can’t start pre-production immediately, you can begin brainstorming and even doing test shoots. The muse smiles upon those who take action.
How Do I Know Which Story to Write?
There are a few ways to know which story to write.
First, the story has to make you feel something. When you think about it, do you feel anything? If you don’t feel anything when writing the story, then your reader won’t feel anything either. Thus, you need to start from a place of emotion. If the story gives you zero emotional charge, it’s not the right story. Or, you just haven’t found the way into the story yet.
Next, do you have a strong character and a hook?
Meaning, when you think of the story is there a hero who is interesting enough to captivate attention and has a big desire? The core requirement of any story is a hero who is compelling and has a strong desire.
Finally, to check if you should move forward with your story you should follow the Foolscap method of story testing. This is something I learned from Steven Pressfield.
Take a piece of paper and now split it into three sections.
Beginning, middle, end. Then fill in the blanks. Give yourself 15 minutes. That’s it. Just fill in the basic things that’ll happen in each section of the story. Don’t give yourself an “out.” In other words, tell yourself that you have to do this process and accept that the story is already within you. There’s no escape. The story is there.
Plot it out in 15 minutes on that 8.5×11 sheet of paper. Beginning, middle, end.
If you like what you come up with…pursue it. If you don’t, leave it.
You can also use the story circle to brainstorm your next story.
The story circle is a simple version of the hero’s journey. You can use it as a way to plan your story.
The Story Circle is a guide created by Dan Harmon based on Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the Hero’s Journey. To get the juices flowing in the writer’s room and guide the writing of new episodes, he simplified the hero’s journey into eight key concepts that make it easy to assess or build a story idea quickly. This is a tool anyone can use to think about storytelling.
To learn more about this technique, read the article about the story circle technique.
Elements of a Story
When you’re deciding which story to tell, it helps to understand the elements of a story.
The core elements of a story are as follows: a complex main character, transformation, desire or objective, obstacles, tension, imagery, emotion, hook, takeaway, structure, theme, plot, tone, style and setting.
If you’re not confident that you understand these elements, I’d suggest learning more about the basic elements of story before tackling your next project. It doesn’t take years to learn, but you will need to spend a few hours per week digging into different stories and pulling them apart.
Learn Filmmaking and Get the Gear Guide
If you’re interested in learning filmmaking, check out the Solo Filmmaking Mentorship Program I created for aspiring filmmakers and video creators. It usually goes live once per year. So I recommend getting the Story Envelope Filmmaking letter which comes out a couple of times per month. That way, you can get filmmaking tips for free and find out when the filmmaking course is going live again.
Also, before you go, grab the Solo Filmmaking Gear Guide and Checklist for Beginners.
About the Author
Hi! I’m Colette Nichol. I’m a solo filmmaker and story strategist based out of rainy Vancouver, Canada. I’ve been making videos and micro films for small businesses and global brands since 2014.
Plus, I LOVE to help aspiring filmmakers pursue their dreams and start making films. This blog is designed to help you gain the knowledge you need to become a filmmaker.
If you want more, get on the waitlist for the Story Envelope Academy Solo Filmmaking Mentorship Program. It opens up one time per year and is the best way to become a filmmaking or video pro fast!