I often say that a good story idea focuses on one big problem that it takes the whole story to solve. What that means is that the problem has to emerge early in the story (traditionally at the “Catalyst” or “Inciting Incident,” about 10% in), and not be resolved until the very end of the story (or maybe its last 5%, as there are often some “aftermath” scenes following the resolution).
At the same time, the story’s main character is focused on trying to solve this problem constantly. It’s what we’re focusing on in every scene or chapter. They are not just sitting around, living life. They are actively engaged in trying to solve their problem and reach their goal. (These are two ways of thinking about the same thing: they either have a problem, and solving it becomes the goal; or they have a goal, and not having reached it is their problem.) That’s pretty much what we’re there to watch them to do.
So if this main character is actively engaged in trying to get there, in virtually every scene, from 10% in to 95% in, which is essentially the whole story, what does that tell you about the nature of that problem?
It’s difficult to solve.
So many stories get tripped up because the problem just isn’t HARD enough to sustain the entire story, despite the active main character’s constant attempts to solve it.
The problem at the heart of a story needs to be thorny and defy resolution. The challenge of solving it has to see to get more problematic and yet important as the story evolves, right up until that “final battle” that decides things, in the end.
So a good idea for a story, a good logline, has to instantly communicate how this is going to be a seemingly impossible challenge, which could go wrong in a million different ways (and probably will) before it’s resolved.
When a ditzy blonde sorority girl gets dumped by her boyfriend who is headed off to Harvard Law, she decides to apply there herself, and go try to prove that she’s serious enough for him.
Three groomsmen who lost their about-to-be-wed buddy during a night of drunken misadventures in Las Vegas – which they have no memory of – must try to retrace their steps, in order to find him in time for the wedding.
An out-of-work pastry chef thinks she’s losing her best friend to a far superior woman, and decides to go to war with her, by proving she can be the better bridesmaid to the friend.
These three loglines are for comedies, which on the surface might seem to be a genre where the difficulty is smaller, because it’s all about having fun, right? (As opposed to an action-adventure, horror, or thriller story, where it’s clear how bad things can really get.)
But the truth is that even in a comedy, the difficulty of what the main character is trying to do still has to seem huge, and beyond their abilities. They are ill-suited to the task at hand, and the deck is completely stacked against them. What they’re trying to achieve seems extremely unlikely – but we can imagine it will be fun to watch them try.
The same is true of overall problems characters in a TV series face. These problematic situations which define the series can NEVER truly be resolved, until maybe the final episode of the last season – because if they were, the show would end. The show essentially IS the ongoing problems the characters face. So while the problems that make up the stories in any given episode generally lead to some sort of satisfying resolution by the end of that episode, there are always larger looming difficulties that remain. And the viability and success of the show is tied to just how hard those problems are to solve – the degree of difficulty – whether it’s annoying in-laws across the street in Everybody Loves Raymond or marauding zombies in The Walking Dead.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.