As a result of a couple of false starts I made on screenplays recently, I’ve been giving some more thought to the kind of considerations you need to make before you commit to writing up an idea. The result is a rather longer post than usual, but hopefully worth the read!
It’s kind of counter-intuitive to the creative mind to consider whether it would be sensible to do something that tickles the creative fancy. After all, creativity has a lot to do with being able to tolerate and integrate seemingly irrelevant information and intuitive, undirected activity.
However, there are at least two important arguments to make against writing in the seclusion of your ivory tower, without thought for what you’re going to do with the screenplay after it’s finished.
Firstly, you will have infinitely more ideas for films than you will ever be able to write up as finished scripts. You can afford to be picky without fear of running out of ideas.
Secondly, a screenplay is the starting point for a sizeable business venture, organized by people other than you. If the screenplay isn’t in some way obviously going to attract an audience, no one will put their money or time on the table to produce it.
Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go ahead and make your own films, especially shorts (in fact I’m exploring that option right now myself). But when it comes to longer-form material which you plan to sell or pitch to producers, I think it pays to ask yourself some serious questions before you start writing.
Here are ten question I’ve come up with. I’m sure there are others.
Does the idea fit a recognizable genre?
If you tell someone what kind of film it is, will they be confused? It makes no difference if your story combines different genres, if it’s art house or hi concept, the question is: Will your story fall into some recognizable category? If not, how will you pitch it? How will you explain (to a producer, an investor, an actor) who the potential audience is?
Is it also original?
Is your idea what Karl Iglesias calls “uniquely familiar,” or what Linda Aronson calls “real but unusual?” It’s no good writing a generic romantic comedy or a boilerplate crime thriller. Your screenplay has to have some element in it which makes it stand out from other, similar, screenplays in the genre. That could be an aspect of the subject matter, something extraordinary about the main character, a little-known story world or location.
Is there an obvious marketing hook?
Is there something famous and intriguing you can refer to when you pitch the idea? Your story might be related to a dramatic event in history, or a political controversy, or an international sporting event, or a well known urban myth, or an unsolved scientific or theological problem, etc. In other words, does the idea spark the imagination by referring to something that most people can immediately relate to?
Does the main character have an unequivocal, concrete goal?
Can you explain in a simple sentence, specifically, what the main character wants and how the audience will know if he’s achieved it? Is it clear why the main character wants to achieve that goal? Check out what people like Laura Cross have to say on this topic. The same goes for the main character’s weakness. Can you describe it easily?
Is the main character interesting?
Which can mean all sorts of things at the specific level, but at the general level this question asks whether the main character is memorable and intriguing. That could be because of something special the character wants to achieve, or it may be a way of behaving that arouses curiosity.
Is the idea meaningful to me?
Here’s one to consider carefully in your ivory tower, because this really only relates to you personally. How are you going to persevere through months of writing if the idea has no resonance with what you believe in, or doesn’t explore a question that intrigues and challenges you? It’s one thing to take on a paid job with a certain professional distance between yourself and the material. It’s quite another to slave away on your own on something you have no idea if anyone will want to produce, and which you yourself don’t really believe in anyway.
Can I articulate its moral premise?
I’m really into Stanley Williams’s moral premise concept these days, and although I don’t agree with his politics, I’m convinced he’s right in asserting that you can find the DNA of your story if you articulate its moral premise. What sets of values are in conflict in your story? What psychological and physical dilemmas relating to these values do the various characters have to deal with? Is the story all about just one thing? Big things to think about, but worth investing the time.
Is it a film I’d pay to watch? Really?
Or as Marilyn Horowitz puts it: Are you your own film’s biggest fan?. I often find this a surprisingly difficult question to answer truthfully. It really requires a radical shift in perspective to imagine your story as a trailer or a poster and be honest about whether you would take an evening off to go and see it. This relates to the question of whether the idea is meaningful to you, but it’s at a different level. The level of the consumer, faced with an array of movies at the multiplex or online, and having to choose. Would you rather see your movie than the latest offering starring Meryl Streep or directed by Quentin Tarantino?
Is the narrative a good metaphor for what the story is about?
Does the story express an idea without it literally being a story about that idea? Can you describe, or do you have an intuition about what the theme of the film is? There are so many different opinions about whether a screenwriter “needs” to be able to articulate the theme of a screenplay before writing it, that I’m not going to burn my fingers on that question. But you should at least have a sense that your story is dealing with something larger than just its plot.
Are there any immediately obvious pitfalls?
This is tricky, because you don’t want to think critically about your idea too soon. But as soon you feel yourself committing to an idea, which usually means imagining scenes, mulling over story beats, hearing bits of dialogue, etc., it’s time to take a step back and ask the difficult questions before you go any further. Are there any huge holes in the basic plot? Does the story require prohibitively expensive locations or special effects? Is there some glaring lack of logic in the basic set-up? And so on. Usually these are the things you know intuitively but prefer to ignore so that you can get down to the writing. And sometimes these are issues which can realistically be solved further down the road. But if you sense there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea, don’t even go there.
I honestly never thought I’d think about writing screenplays this way. It seems calculating and mercenary. But then again, a screenplay is more or less a business plan you’re about to write. And I’m sure I would have saved myself a LOT of time and effort if I had asked myself these questions before embarking on some of my less, shall I say, sellable projects. Still, you live and learn.