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Screenwriting Concepts, Part 3

One of the hardest things to do when screenwriting is come up with a good concept.

But evaluating whether or not you have a good concept is easier than you think.

Snap reaction—don’t even think of it—IS IT COOL?

What if we’re all living in a computer-generated simulation of reality? That’s COOL!

Could you pitch it to your boss at a film company and have her go, “OH COOL, I need to read that!”

Could you tell it to a friend when deciding what movie to see? Would the friend go, “OH COOL, sure, let’s see that!”

More broadly—does it capture the imagination? Does it suggest all sorts of intrigue? Can you sort of visualize, yourself, all the complications of such a premise? And wonder, gee, how will they pull that off?

A man who ages backwards—we can all relate to that, because we all age and die!

If your idea tickles you this way—then it’s good. How good? Hard to say.

Of course, the best concepts will typically have been already done.

Or, the nightmare, somebody else is already working on it—and you don’t find out until it’s too late.

Five years ago, a friend of mine and I wrote a sci-fi pilot that was, for all intents and purposes, the same concept as Free Guy: an NPC comes to life inside a videogame. Our version was more a dark look at a Facebook-like company. It was COOL. (Still is, but it’s dead.)

Free Guy was written at the same time—it was a total case of independent creation—but we didn’t know that.

We optioned it to a legit production company for a good chunk of money, but for a variety of reasons it didn’t go any further.

At the time, we were most worried about Westworld—we had no idea Free Guy existed.

But...these things happen.

I choose to be proud of us for coming up with a really good idea. (Although I’m still pissed because our show would have been awesome...and made me rich!)

Most amateur screenplays simply aren’t built on a good idea. Recently, when I offered to read people’s loglines/scripts and give feedback, I encountered that again and again.

A few times I asked the writer, “So, what is the idea here? Why’d you want to write this?”

And not to talk specifically about any one writer...but a lot of amateur concepts are, well, academic. They are theoretical.

FYI I made the same mistake myself, over and over again! I am no better than anybody else. Probably a lot worse—I am old!

By theoretical, I mean that, most of the time, they are, “Well, you see, I wanted to cross X kind of movie with Y kind of movie.”

Ah. Okay. Folks...don’t do that!

Here’s why:

If X and Y don’t organically have something to do with each other—it won’t be cool. It’s not immediate. The only way it intrigues is in an academic sense—if you’re a screenwriter trying to analyze the mechanics of smashing up these two things.

Having written way too many of these scripts—I can tell you I understand the appeal. It’s because we’re all afraid of the blank page. If we take a detective movie and try to cross it with a sci-fi episode, it sort of writes itself. We take the detective “givens,” and the “sci-fi” givens, and usually we have way too much stuff. So then we can whittle it down.

It’s manageable. It’s controllable. We feel like we’re on the right track. And we’re proud of ourselves because we can’t wait to write the awesome set piece with the detective climbing the space elevator...and the sex scene with the femme fatale who is half-alien and SURPRISE she pollinates him...

But the problem is we finish and—in order to enter a contest or query a manager—what’s the logline?

“A detective on a far-off Earth colony uncovers a conspiracy to brainwash settlers with the help of an alien technology.”

Now, that might be a good comic book. Maybe a good novel.

And if it’s so brilliantly written as a novel it becomes a bestseller—that thing will be optioned and maybe even made, you better believe it. The film industry loves things that have demonstrated the ability to attract an audience in another medium.

But it won’t even get read as a spec script, let alone sell—because it sounds lame.

What’s it about? The detective? The conspiracy? Corporate malfeasance? Aliens? Social commentary about control of the masses?

None of these capture the imagination. Alien captures the imagination: There’s a monster that sticks itself onto your face and hatches out of your chest—holy shit!!!

Our logline doesn’t offer anything exciting at all, except a mish-mash of elements and clichés from two different genres. Plus it would cost $200M to make.

So are you thinking, “Oh crap, that’s my script...”?

Well, it probably is. Because most things are. But really, don’t despair.

Every time you write something, you get better. It’s just the process. So nothing is a waste of time.

Just—don’t ever write a script that way again. Look at awesome concepts. And THINK.

By the way, the best way to gauge the kinds of concepts that are moving the needle for managers—the annual (as in the actual) Black List. Not the website scripts, though you can find it at the website.

Think until you hit on a concept that makes you go, “OH COOL.” Like, really go oh cool—where you can feel the emotion, and the pop culture aspect of it, and the intrigue of it.

And then—I can’t emphasize this enough—you start to build the concept from the inside out.

More on that...another time!

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