Test Your Story Concept

By Ruth Atkinson • October 25, 2021

REPOST: I recently taught a webinar for The Writers Store on Story Development. In it we talked about the importance of testing your story concept before you end up like Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation lost in a sea of notes and pages with no idea how to move forward.

What you want to do is find a process for evaluating your story concept before you get to page 60 and have written yourself into a corner only to discover it doesn’t work. This causes you to waste precious time, get frustrated and even worse… give up!

The heart and soul of a screenplay is its premise. Whether this is  something high concept or more independently minded a successful script starts with a really great idea. But a great idea isn’t a story – a story is the chain of events set in motion by the central disturbance. A well written screenplay has a great idea that naturally leads to a compelling story.

It’s important to learn how to assess the strength of your idea as the first step in your story development process. Asking yourself some key questions about your concept before you go to draft can help you determine if your story idea is solid enough to warrant developing it. If you’d like to hear the full webinar where I share tools you can use to find ideas, test your concept, find the spine and shape of the narrative and begin to outline you can find it on demand at The Writers Store here.

The protagonist’s actions drive the story forward so it’s important to look at spine of the piece from your main character’s perspective.

Who is your protagonist?
Do they have a flaw or subconscious problem they need to heal?
Do they have an external goal / problem they need to solve that drives the story forward and will sustain 90+ minutes?
Is this a goal the audience can get emotionally invested in them achieving?
Does this goal naturally lead to action ie: plot?
Does this goal/action naturally lead to an all is lost crisis moment?
Does the action that drives the plot result in your protagonist growing in a meaningful way over the course of the story?

The crux of any story is the chain of events (plot) that stem from the main disturbance. Looking at the plot is an important part of determining the strength of the premise.

Does your story have a clear inciting incident / disturbance that kick starts the story and creates a problem for your protagonist to solve?
Does the problem your protagonist faces create the opportunity for compelling, high stakes obstacles that escalate (chain of events)?
Are there at least three major obstacles (ideally more)?
Does this problem naturally lead the audience to ask “and then what?” after each obstacle is overcome?
Does the problem your protagonist has to solve create tension and suspense around the outcome?
Can you clearly plot the inciting incident, first act turning point, mid-point, second act turning point and climax?
Does the action naturally propel the protagonist to a compelling climax?
Does the action of the story lead to meaningful resolution?
Does the story have a clear theme?

While generally we don’t want to write specifically to the marketplace we do want to write a script that will eventually sell and attract the attention of agents, managers and producers so it’s important to evaluate your idea from a commercial perspective as well.

Does your story have a clear genre?
Is your protagonist, their goal, obstacles and resolution unique and something we haven’t seen before?
Does it have an original hook?
Does your idea naturally attract cast and a director?
Is the world of the story unique and visually compelling?
Does your concept have a built in audience?
Can you envision the marketing campaign?
Is this concept in line with current trends in the marketplace?
Is the concept in line with the budget needed to make it?
Does the concept feel like a movie?

A personal investment in the story you’re writing is key and it’s vital to assess this as well.

Are you passionate enough about your idea that you will be able to spend the next year (probably longer) developing it?
Why is this particular idea important to you?
What are your goals with this screenplay?
Does this particular concept move your career forward?

Testing Your Concept
The process of answering these questions will help you to assess the strength of your overall premise and the resulting story. No one wants to spend six months to a year on a project that isn’t going anywhere so evaluating your ideas before you go to draft is an important first step to see if what you have is worth investing your time and energy into. At the end of the day it just might help you tell a stronger story too!

Ruth Atkinson

Ruth is a Los Angeles-based script consultant and story editor who has worked in the film and television business for 20 years. Films Ruth has consulted on have won awards at festivals and been distributed around the world including  My Awkward Sexual Adventure  screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and named one of Canada’s Top Ten best films, acclaimed short  film ‘Lil Tokyo Reporter, The Perfect Family starring Kathleen Turner which was the closing Gala Film at Outfest 2011, released theatrically and aired on...