I was recently reading Secrets of Story: Well Told by screenwriter William C. Martell, and it relates to a talk I've been giving at conferences called Telling Better Stories About Public Transportation (PDF of my presentation).
And since I'm often beginning writing books but almost never finishing them, Martell provides an excellent blueprint to complete before attempting to put pen to paper.
The story begins with an idea. Ideas are really important, but it takes a whole bunch of them to make a story and to create one great concept based off of all those ideas.
Many people have a hard time getting through Dan Brown's books, but his concepts are what keep others reading and buying those books. His religious conspiracies and puzzles make up for his terrible writing. Screenplays, novels, magazine articles, blogs, and any other forms of writing are all sold on their concept.
Also crucial is conflict. Without conflict, a story is dead on arrival. Little problems must be part of a larger problem otherwise the conflict is weak, unfocused, and makes for a bad story. There are two kinds of conflict, and the physical kind must connect with the emotional kind or else the story will leave readers on the sidelines along with the protagonists.
One of the most important decisions for a storyteller is determine which character's point of view the story will be told from. A story must create an emotional connection between the protagonist and the audience, and of course the protagonist will have a very limited point of view. The story should only detour from that point of view when an antagonist's view is presented, and that still must be related to the protagonist's problem. Movies and books must, simply put, always be about a person with a problem.
Writers don't often think enough about the all-important character. It doesn't matter what that character looks like, it only matters what's inside that character. You can't just plug a great character into a great concept, one will flow from the other.
Many writers confuse plot and story, but plot is what happens. It's an element of the story. Plotting is often a lost art in today's blockbuster films. Plot is how one scene logically leads to the next.
Place and time are also crucial to consider. By using distinctive locations and times, writers can take us to worlds we've never seen before and give us an unusual experience. Focusing on one time and one location is important. Bouncing back in time or place can happen, but it is something to be dealt with delicately or the audience will get confused.
Tone is also important. It must stay the same throughout the story. In Pulp Fiction, there was both violence and comedy, but they were mixed well consistently throughout. The violence was funny, not serious. When Marvin gets his head blown off in the backseat of the car when they hit a bump, that's funny. Gross and violent, but not taken seriously. You can have a comic-relief character in a serious film, but just establish him early enough so that the audience can know what to expect.
As for genre, know your genre. Make sure your story follows the rules of the genre or at least acknowledges those rules when you bend or break them. Clint Eastwood's True Crime was a box office failure because it wasn't what the audience paid to see.
Arena is another important element. Caddyshack takes place in the arena of golf caddies. Network takes place in the world of network news. The fastest way to turn an old concept into a fresh exciting idea is to drop it into a new arena.
Every story worth telling has a point. That is the theme, which is all of these pieces working together. Every story has a theme somewhere, the question is whether you will explore it or ignore it. In The Matrix, the theme is that Neo doesn't believe in himself. Neo eventually realizes he has to believe in himself to save Morpheus. That theme ties all of the movie's scenes together and makes them a story. Theme is the glue. It isn't necessarily the moral of the story, it can just be some element of the human condition that your story explores.
Jot down really good outlines for each of these elements and you may be well on your way to writing the Great American Novel.