What does “Hollywood” want in a story? A compelling concept with emotional impact. Appealing ideas have two components:
- A unique hook.
- A promise of conflict.
A unique hook (or gimmick or twist) transports the viewer to new worlds and experiences – the adventures of a fighter pilot-in-training (Top Gun), the exploits of a group of unemployed men learning to strip (The Full Monty), two female friends on a road trip trying to outrun the law (Thelma and Louise), three backpackers attempting to survive their trip to Slovakia (Hostel).
Conflict creates interest. A story without conflict is boring. Never bore your audience. Your script will be in the trash before the reader makes it through the first ten pages if you don’t engage him or her with rising tension.
Ideas That Sell
No one knows what’s going to sell. Who could have predicted a book about a young, impoverished man in India, who becomes a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, would be adapted into a film that not only won the hearts of mainstream movie-goers but the Academy Award for Best Picture? In the famous words of screenwriter William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything”. You don’t need to try to write the next the next Slumdog Millionaire or the next Deadpool or the next current-hottest-thing, instead:
- Write what you’re passionate about. If you don’t care about your subject, who will?
- Say what you gotta say. Whether you’re writing a zombie-horror-buddy-comedy film or a historical drama-musical, have something to say. Every film (no matter the genre) has an underlying philosophy – “good conquers evil”, “love is all you need”, “there’s no place like home”. When you convey a universal theme, it resonates with the audience.
Write what you know… sort of. John Grisham, an ex-attorney, writes legal thrillers. Michael Crichton was a physician who often wrote about biotechnology. Oliver Stone, a Vietnam vet, wrote about war in the film Platoon. Writing what you know makes sense, and can add a compelling component to your screenplay, when you can authentically include elements of a “world” unknown to most viewers. But if all you write about is what you know, you’re limiting your growth as a writer. (And a writer can research any unknown world and sound authentic, anyway).
The first script I wrote was an adaptation of a true-crime story revolving around the world of hitmen and an innocent” witness. What did I know about the mafia (other than The Godfather and a plethora of Martin Scorcese films), or what it felt like to kill someone or to spend years in prison or on-the-run in the witness protection program? What I did understand was courage, fear, responsibility, honesty, the toll of doing “the right thing”, and family love; all relatable, universal elements and feelings that allow an audience to connect with the story. In the end, I wrote what I knew… sort of.
Selecting an Idea
To select an idea, ask yourself:
- Am I passionate about the story?
- What do I want to “say”? What is my philosophy? What is the universal theme I wish to convey?
- Does the story have a unique hook?
- What is the promise of conflict inherent in the story?
Next, before you run off to your keyboard and spend the next two to three months writing your screenplay masterpiece, make sure your film idea is fully developed and viable. Ask yourself:
- Do I have “enough” story to fill up a full 90 to 120-minute film?
- Does my story have a beginning, middle, and end (the blueprint of a First, Second, and Third Act)?
- Who is the main character?
- What does he or she want to achieve?
- What obstacles are preventing the protagonist from achieving his or her goal?
- Do I have an inciting incident, turning points, and a resolution?
- Do I have supporting characters and subplots?
- By the end of the story, how have my characters changed?
- What elements of the story will attract an audience?