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Idea vs. Story

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I saw a movie called PAN yesterday. It's not a "rewriting" of the Peter Pan myth, so much as a telling of the story before the story. Of how Pan came to be, how he first came to Neverland, and the amazing tale of his and Hook's very first meeting.

And the word that first comes to mind when I think of the movie is "gorgeous," with "oh-so-inventive" a close second. Or maybe first. I don't know. Math isn't my strong suit.

Regardless, those two descriptors can be used through the whole of the movie. What else are you going to say about a movie that practically opens with a flying pirate ship taking on a squadron of Royal Air Force fighter planes in a dogfight over a sleeping WWII London? Where aboriginal warriors explode into clouds of bright color when dispatched by enemies? Where fairies live in a place comprised of crystals the size of the Empire City – and those crystals are all floating?

And I can't even begin to describe the transition from our world to that of Neverland. I won't even try – it was that good.

Scene after scene, moment after moment, the movie was full of these jaw-dropping visuals, these creative moments, these astounding ideas.

And yet PAN was a box office disappointment.

And yet PAN was - er, panned (sorry, had to!) by critics.

And yet PAN, to me, fell utterly flat.

"Whoa, whoa, WHOAH!" you may be saying right now. "But I thought you just said all those good things! I thought you really loved the visuals, the imagination, the ideas! Also, I think I forgot to change my underwear this morning!"*

Yeah, I did say all those things. But notice what was missing?

I never said the story was any good.

PAN was a perfect illustration of the difference between an idea and a story. It's also a perfect illustration of where so many writers – especially beginners, though many a pro falls prey to this as well – go wrong. To wit:


The first is what most often gets people excited to start writing: a concept, a visual moment, a cool action scene.

But that's not enough to sustain an audience's interest. To do that, you have to have: a) a series of great ideas, and b) a compelling story that weaves them all together in a coherent way.

To have the second one without the first results in a boring story. To have the first one alone results in something that is either incoherent (no good) or boring (fatal!).

To illustrate this, try the following exercise:

1) Go up to a friend.**
2) Say this: "I just saw an amazing movie where ninjas fight aliens while riding on the back of a cyborg dinosaur!"

Now, what happens next is your friend says, "Holy crap! Tell me more!"***

So go to part three:

3) You say: "It was so cool! Robots! Ninjas! Flying unicycles! Sexually questionable attack unicorns! Talking monkeys with a lust for justice and a hunger for PCP! The largest pillow ever to attack New York! Some guy with two right legs who is a professional Riverdancer! An ace reporter who knows the secret to green Jell-O! A giant ant with lasers attached to its thorax who goes on a rampage and..."

And here's what happens: you keep piling on all this stuff, and sooner or later your buddy's eyes will start to glaze.**** Because all this is cool, but there's no reason to care about any of it. It's missing a hero. It's missing a quest. It's missing a villain (or at least a sense of who the villain might be). It's missing...

... a story.

And stories, contrary to the idea you might get watching a lot of summer blockbusters, aren't just a series of cool moments. They are a beginning that leads to a middle which then culminates in an end.

I'll say it again: stories are a beginning, a middle, and an end. They are a period where someone wants something (beginning), and that wanting grows to a desire strong enough that he or she actively tries to achieve it (middle), and eventually overcomes all odds to either achieve that goal – or fail (end).

It's not rabid attack weasels, or a roguish chinchilla with a wandering eye, or some brooding guy with a murky past. No matter how cool all of these things are (and they are cool – especially the weasel), they don't create moments we care about. They stir admiration, but only in a sterile, distant way.

They will never become a part of us. Of our soul. Our DNA.

Because moments pass. Our lives are made of moments, and the vast majority are forgotten the instant after they pass.

What matters to us? The stories we make. The moment we realize that all these misfortunes led up to the moment where we met our true love. The first time we realize we have to do something far beyond our abilities... and wade in anyway.

Moments, on their own, are meaningless. In movies, in books, in life.

But stories... those move us. They change our lives. They are our lives.

And, in the right hands, they can be far more than that. They can be eternal.

Imagination is critical. But the weaving into a greater pattern, the making sense of the senseless... that is perhaps the greatest thing any of us can ever hope to do.

* I won't say how I know you're thinking this. I just do. Go with it. And change.
** You can do this to an enemy, too, but be prepared to unsheathe your blade and FIGHT TO THE DOOM!
*** If saying this to your enemy, the response will probably be, "I will DESTROY YOU AND ALL YOU STAND FOR! For I am ZARD'D'ARKON, King of the Quelloniks, and you MURDERED MY FATHER!"
**** Or your enemy's blade will glint like lightning in the harsh light of the high noon sun.


Michaelbrent Collings is an internationally bestselling novelist and screenwriter. You can find him on Facebook at, on Twitter @mbcollings, or you can sign up for his mailing list here.