I'll ask, "What's your story about?"
They'll say, "Oh, it's very complex."
And then they'll begin to tell you the main character's backstory.
Translation: "I don't know what my story is about."
No no no, Dudes and Dudettes.
Know what your story is about.
This is important!
Saying "it's complex" is a cop out. Lazy.
Also, I'll see or get this answer to the question: "It's about government oppression."
That's not a story.
It's a theme. It's a premise for a story.
A story has a beginning, middle, and an end. It features a character or characters.
If you don't know what your story is about, you're gonna waste a lot of time trying to write it.
So--how do you figure it out?
Nathan Bransford uses a great format in this post about query letters.
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal]That's one good way to do it.
My favorite way is to write what Hollywood calls a "log line." Basically, a one sentence description of your story that follows this format:
- who the story is about (protagonist)
- what he strives for (goal)
- what stands in his way (antagonistic force)
- In a future where criminals are arrested before the crime occurs, a cop struggles on the lam to prove his innocence for a murder he has not yet committed. (Minority Report)
- A 17th Century tale of adventure on the Caribbean Sea where the roguish yet charming Captain Jack Sparrow joins forces with a young blacksmith in a gallant attempt to rescue the Governor of England's daughter and reclaim his ship. (Pirates of the Caribbean)
- After a twister transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home. (The Wizard of Oz)
- When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an insane and corrupt prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge. (Gladiator)
- After a series of grisly shark attacks, a sheriff struggles to protect his small beach community against the bloodthirsty monster, in spite of the greedy chamber of commerce. (Jaws)
Get to the meat of your story.
Because all the other stuff is flavoring for the meat.
All those sub-plots and labyrinthine plot twists and intriguery and double crosses and double-double crosses and ginormous set pieces?
Spicy goodness and various other nommy bits.
But what you want to know right off is the meat of your tale.
From there, we can move to the (gasp! ZOMG!) outline.