Start with a topic, something that interests you. Philosophy can be a great source.
A few examples include:
1. Life & Death
3. Morality, the nature of good and evil
4. Reality, perception, illusion, and the nature of truth
5. Science, religion, and/or spirituality
6. Free will, chance, destiny, and cause & effect
7. Consciousness: the mind, body, and/or spirit
8. The mind/intellect, emotions, and animal instincts
9. Leadership, politics, organization, security/control/order, freedom/chaos
10. Economics, materialism, ownership, price
11. Pleasure/fun vs work/self-improvement
12. The individual and the group/community
Stories will often engage multiple topics, but it’s good to start with a single topic, and incorporate others as they relate to it.
Next, start asking questions.
1. What is the nature or purpose of the topic? How do you define it?
2. What value or merit does the topic have? What sacrifices will/should people make for it?
3. What relationships exist between the topic and the world? (i.e. Good and Evil)
4. What relationship do people have with the topic?
5. How does the topic unite or divide people?
For example, what if you chose power:
What is power? Some say money is power, others say knowledge is power, but how would you define power? What is the nature of power? Does it have an inherent moral aspect, or is it only through the user that power gains a moral alignment?
Should a person actively seek out power, or only accept it reluctantly? Is power something all living things strive to achieve, or is it unique to specific individuals?
How should power be used? Is a person with power free to use it exclusively for their own benefit, or do they have an obligation to use power for the benefit of others?
What is the value of power? What are acceptable consequences of power? At what point does the “price” become too great? Is power itself the goal, or is power exclusively a means to achieve something else?
How do you distinguish between those with power, and those without?
These questions are all debatable, and that’s the point. Recognize what question(s) interest you, and explore the different answers.
For example, Lord of the Rings is a story about power, which takes the form of magic. The central conflict is between Souron and the peoples of Middle-Earth. The primary goal is to defeat Souron once and for all, by destroying the one ring, the most powerful magical artifact in the story, and the most powerful temptation. If Gandalf, Aragorn, or one of the other powerful characters took up the ring and wielded it, they would easily defeat Souron, but the corrupting power of the ring would compel them to take his place as the main villain of Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s message is clear, “Power corrupts. Use sparingly, and only as a last resort.”
Both Aragorn and Gandalf reiterate this message through their own role in the story. Aragorn, a long lost heir, is reluctant to reclaim his birthright. And Gandalf, a powerful wizard, only uses his magic as a last resort. Whenever he faces orcs or other mundane threats he relies on his sword alone. It is only reluctantly that either wield their true power.
In contrast, consider the Legend of Zelda videogame series. In many ways this is a very similar story to Lord of the Rings. A dark lord rises to conquer the known world, and a rather unassuming protagonist (Link) is called upon to stop him, but how the protagonist defeats the villain is completely different. This time the protagonist travels from place to place, gathering magical artifacts, which he actively uses to become more powerful, until he is strong enough to defeat Ganon. This time the moral of the story is “Work hard, become stronger, and eventually you will succeed.”
Of course anyone familiar with both Lord of the Rings and the Legend of Zelda will point out that the two are very different, and that’s by design. Good storytelling does not happen by chance. At some point in the creative process the creators of each story consciously decided what kind of story they were going to tell. One chose to tell a cautionary tale about the dangers of power, while the other focused on the value of hard work and growth. And then each of them planned or revised their stories accordingly.
Revealing Meaning Through Conflict