What if the premise seems too simple? Can I still make it a good story?

by JC Ironwave

Ok, so first of all, I am making a film. It's going to be a machinima film made with a game engine and I want to make it while I'm still in film school so that I can have some experience in filmmaking. I know that this website is specifically for writing books and novels, but I honestly couldn't find a better place to ask. I've asked questions on here before, and you've always given me clear, terrific answers. So, without further adieu, let me ask you my question:

If my plot's premise is too simple, is it still possible to make a 90-minute film out of it and still keep it enjoyable with a strong 3-act structure?

The premise is this: A thief stole a magical sword from a great dragon's lair. The dragon became angry and laid waste to the countryside, demanding all those he spared to return the sword back to him within a certain time frame, or he would destroy them all. So our hero, with his family killed in the dragon's outbreak, decides to find the sword and instead of giving the sword back, he was going to have his revenge and slay the dragon with it.

To add a bit more background, the land has already been torn in war for years, and various lesser dragons have begun to migrate into the land, posing as potential hazards.

Anyway, I have been under the impression that this premise and plot was too simple and would seem somewhat predictable to my viewers. I was thinking that maybe I could have a larger time frame to lengthen the story, or maybe the main character should actually be a different guy who travels to the land to retrieve the sword for his family because it belonged to his ancestors long ago. But maybe that guy could work as a secondary character, I don't know exactly. I also thought that maybe the dragon hires a group of dragon-riding mercenaries to retrieve the sword for him. But I just need the plot to take some twists and keep the viewers engaged while also being able to support a 90-minute film.

Any ideas? I know this probably isn't the sort of question you are used to, but I just haven't found much help anywhere else.


Answer: Many films and novels have been based on premises just as simple, if not simpler than yours.

For instance, think about the dozens of heist films, going back to The Great Train Robbery. The premise is as simple as can be: some robbers pull off a robbery.

Many stories have also been based on the simple idea of killing a monster. The Hobbit is a prime example.

The Lord of the Rings is scarcely more complex: destroy the powerful object before the villain can use it against you (which is also the idea behind Star Wars: A New Hope).

If you haven't already, I suggest you read these articles on structure...


I think you'll find that if you develop all four throughlines, you can easily have enough material for a full length film. Remember that any signpost or other event can be developed into a sequence of events with its own 4-part structure, so that 16 signposts can become 64 scenes (plus the 5 drivers), which is more than enough for a full-length film (which is usually around 48 scenes).

As for originality, that does not come from structure and seldom from the basic idea or goal. Originality comes from how you illustrate the events in your story. For instance, any well-structured story will have a crisis that determines the outcome. In your story, the crisis will likely be a scene in which the hero confronts the chief villain and defeats him. If you were to leave out the crisis, because you want to be original, the result would be an emotionally flat story.

Where you want to be original is on the illustration level -- the specific people, places, things, and events that illustrate the story. This includes like...

* The main character - his/her personality, unique traits, inner struggle, etc.
* The relationship between the main character and the impact character.
* The other characters and their personalities.
* The unique story world you create -- including its values, rules, history, technology, resources, physics, etc.).
* The events you choose to illustrate structural elements such as the crisis, the major drivers, the resolution, etc.
* The specific forewarnings, requirements, costs, dividends, prerequisites, preconditions, etc.
* The style of storytelling (camera work, pace, editing).
* The design elements (setting, character appearance, props, lighting, etc.).

Structure is like the skeleton. Illustration is the flesh on the bones that makes the story come alive.

Most stories are quite similar on a structural level, but few people notice because they are vastly different on the illustration level.

That doesn't mean your plot shouldn't have surprises, twists, suspense, etc. Go ahead and defy expectations within the bounds of good structure. Most likely, if your characters are original, their actions and choices will be original because they spring from their unique skills, personalities, experience, etc.

Remember too that what seems familiar to someone who has studied film and literature for a lifetime may not seem cliched to a typical audience, especially a young adult audience (who I suspect your film will be geared to). So you don't have to be totally original. You just have to avoid illustrations that are too similar to those in popular films of the past 15 years or so.

Best of luck.

P.S. You might consider not killing all of the hero's family. If he has nothing left to lose, that could weaken his motivation. On the other hand, if he had one thing left to protect -- a sister, a brother, or even a dream -- that might give him a stronger reason to fight. Just a thought.

Comments for What if the premise seems too simple? Can I still make it a good story?

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Dec 29, 2014
Thank you very much!
by: JC Ironwave

Thanks Glen. You gave me really good insight. I forgot about the skeleton analogy for plot structure, and I guess that's very true. We all have similar looking skeletons, but it's our flesh and skin that makes each of us unique :P

Anyway, my screenplay is still very much in its early stages, so it'll be easy to change things. I'll be sure to read all those articles you linked me a couple times through and incorporate your tips. Thanks for your help!

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