Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Danger Of Committing Too Soon To An Idea For A Film

Sometimes, what initially seems like a great premise for a film, might actually only be part of a great premise for a film, or even not great at all.

Like any self-respecting screenwriter I’m always on the lookout for good ideas for spec screenplays. I love books like Bill Martell’s Your Idea Machine because they remind me how essential it is to always keep your eyes and ears tuned to the ideas ether. That means not just keeping up with the news, both global and local, staying abreast of developments in hard science, social science (and even pseudo-science), skimming magazines, but also eavesdropping on gossip, catching snippets of conversation, etc. Anything that might contain the germ of a film premise when prodded by a “What if…?” or when otherwise treated as a jumping off point for fantasy.

It’s A Premise Captain, But Not As We Know It
However, sometimes I’ll come up with an idea and mistakenly see it as a premise for a story, when actually it might function much better as a section of something larger. In other words, I might have “merely” thought of a scene, a sequence, or a sub-plot, or even a minor character’s story, but I’ve latched onto it too soon and given it the status of story premise. I find a really good way to play with the ideas I come up with, is to ask myself things like:

  • Imagine this is a sub-plot. What is the main story?
  • Imagine this is just one sequence. What happened before? What happens afterwards?
  • Imagine this is only a scene. Where, chronologically, in the story does it take place?
  • Imagine this character is a minor character. Who is the main character, and what is their story?
  • Imagine this character is the antagonist. What’s he after?
  • Imagine this is just the backstory.
  • What if this were a major turning point somewhere late in the story?

Obsessive Logline Syndrome (OLS)
I guess the art of generating good film ideas also requires being able to tolerate a degree of uncertainty. Because ideas morph and evolve while you think about them. Some aspect of an idea may seem self-evident one day, only to fall by the wayside the next day as a result of a new twist or insight. This is something that has always bothered me about the notion that you must have a logline first, and only then start brainstorming scenes, sequences, etc. To me this is completely counter-intuitive. Sure, once you start writing a treatment or a first draft, it’s useful to have a good logline to hand in case anyone wants to know what you’re up to. In fact it’s always useful to use the logline format to check if your story still ticks the necessary screenplay boxes. But the logline evolves in tandem with the writing. So if I come up with something during the writing that makes the story better but, say, changes the main character from a man into a woman, then I go with that and adapt the logline accordingly.

Recognizing A Dead Horse
Clearly, you need to know when the idea isn’t big enough to carry an entire screenplay. Sometimes that’s obvious right away when you try and imagine a pitchable storyline with a main character who has a goal, and so on. Other times it might only become obvious after you’ve finished writing a two-page outline. It’s a matter of practice too, I suppose. But I know for sure that my own worst pitfall is committing to an idea too soon. I’m doing it less and less these days, but I’ve done it in the past. I once even found myself half way through a first draft before realizing the idea wasn’t sound as a film premise. I’m never doing that again, I can tell you!

My New Ideas Rule For 2012
I’ve instigated a new rule for myself for 2012: Whenever I think I’ve found a great idea for a screenplay, I have to brainstorm versions of the idea in as many different genres as possible, with different endings and beginnings, and other variations, before I settle on whether it really is worth pursuing to, say, a one-page synopsis. Plus this: If the synopsis doesn’t grab me, I’m allowed to admit the idea wasn’t as good as it first appeared.

Good raving writing to you all in 2012!