When you think of stories, the line between an idea and the premise is smudged. Shark. Shark attack. A shark terrorizing a beach. A sheriff who must stop a killer shark to save his beach community.
If you write by the seat-of-the-pants, shark may be enough. If you are someone who tends to sketch out your stories, and perhaps even outline them in detail, you need that last sentence to propel you forward. So, when a writer gets the classic question, "where do you get your ideas?" it isn’t always clear what a helpful answer will be. This is especially true if the person asking the question is someone who is a writer or aspires to be a writer.
I've written in detail on both capturing ideas and formulating your story's premise in previous posts. In this one, I'll focus on the smudged area to explore what might get you started on a story that's good enough to catch readers' attention.
I sure bet is taking a classic story and developing it for your audience from your point of view. It's popular lately to grab fairytales and folktales and reinvent them for today. Sweeney Todd, which has succeeded both as a play and as a movie, is derived from a well-worn tale that used to be best known as a Penny dreadful. And a large percentage of Shakespeare's plays have antecedents.
So, while respecting intellectual property law, you may find that you can use a story you love to create something new. It's a Wonderful Life is based on A Christmas Carol, but turned inside out, with a generous man instead of a miser as the protagonists. One of my favorite stories is Poe's Cask of Amontillado. It got under my skin so thoroughly that I had to write an inverted version of it. I found as I wrote it, I never got lost, the passion did not diminish, and readers (including an editor) enjoyed it.
That's a "something went right" approach. "Something went wrong" (or didn't go far enough) is another way to attack the idea/premise space and get something that begins with vitality. How many times have you gone to a film or read a book and been disappointed by the ending? In such cases, you might actually begin to imagine something better. (In the case of the movie, Se7en, I anticipated and ending I like better than the one I got.) If you have a great ending in mind, that's a wonderful starting point for developing a story. Great endings are hard, so a big chunk of your work is already done.
Even though I loved We Can Remember It for You Wholesale – Philip K. Dick's short story that became the basis for Total Recall— it felt to me as if he had missed the most promising opportunity for implanted/erased memories. I wrote and sold a short story about a man to habitually erased memories of bad love affairs, which made it almost impossible for him to learn the lessons. (This was years before Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) The story practically wrote itself.
Those experiences that touch us emotionally and maybe even transform us often become good starting points for deep, personal, and emotionally engaging works. Sharing these stories is both courageous and generous. However, many people attempt to tell these stories too early. For most writers and other artists, the big things that happen in their lives need to be processed for a time before they can be presented artistically. They must be put into context not just in the story, but in our responses to life. Lessons must be learned. Powerful questions need to be asked (and maybe answered). Distance is helpful. A full heart is best served cold.
There are other ways that ideas can be discovered and developed to the point where they are story ideas. Some of them are very simple like lists (I like lists that disturb me) and prompts (for me, the weirder the better). Sometimes that notion that is teasing you comes to life if you think about presenting it to different audiences or within different genres. And, of course, I recommend collecting and sifting through questions that occur to you. There are few things more powerful for a storyteller than a list of powerful questions.
Your ultimate standard for whatever lands in your idea/premise space is the response it evokes — for you and for an imagined audience.