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Screenwriting Concepts, Pt. 2

The above screen cap is from a Refinery29 article about a “death doula,” somebody who helps people die (gives end-of-life care). I’ll circle back to this at the end.

I’m in day three of offering to read people’s scripts (or parts of their scripts) and give my feedback, for whatever it’s worth.

I didn’t hear from nearly as many people as I expected—I haven’t counted, but it’s been around 10—probably because I didn’t particularly advertise all that widely.

Also, more likely, it’s because I didn’t promise the kind of warm and fuzzy, validating feedback people always want to hear (I know I do).

The writers who reached out to me—all men, no woman, for what that’s worth—have been super cool about feedback, gracious and pleasant. I’m glad I met them and I’m thankful they shared their work with me.

If you’re one of those folks, please don’t feel singled out if I seem to use the same words in this column as I did in my email to you.

Most of what I was sent was compromised, I’m sorry to say, by the problems that I anticipated: the concepts (loglines) weren’t strong enough to “move the needle” if I was an actual producer or manager.

(I am, of course, just a guy, but I promise you this: I’m at least as story- and business-savvy as most of those folks, some of whom parade around as god’s gift to storytelling, when they couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag. On the other hand, some of the smartest, most story-savvy people I’ve ever met are managers. Obviously, the people I am contacting for representation, who might be reading this, are only the latter!)

The logline is pretty much the pinch point for any script that advances in the industry.

Even if you win or place highly in a prestigious contest, you’ll need a killer logline to get industry reads. (I am told that the winners of the big contests, like the Nicholl, are assured reads regardless; but a script is unlikely to win a contest without a really great concept, don’t you think...?)

The contests don’t just shove the winning scripts down people’s throats: they send out a bulletin (email, whatever) with the loglines saying, “Hey, wanna read these?”

And industry folk skim them and ask to read the ones that sound cool.

I recommend everybody surf the loglines of contest winners (you can find tons of them at Coverfly) to get a sense of what it’s like to be inundated in these. You go into a fugue state!

The classic bad logline has this problem: no ideas, and way too many of them.

Because I’m not going to make fun of any other writer’s loglines, here’s one of my own from my earlier days that is a classic terrible logline (from yesterday):

GOLIATH: A family of four is thrust into a harrowing space adventure when their interplanetary ferry is attacked by pirates. The family is abducted and anointed as gods in the pirates’ religion—which includes human sacrifices to the space beast “Goliath.” 

Jesus Christ, that’s terrible! I loved it at the time.

And here’s a modern-classic awesome logline:

In a decimated near-future a lone family must try to survive ferocious alien creatures who hunt using acute hearing.

That is, of course, A QUIET PLACE.

The great logline: A clear protagonist (the family), a goal (trying to survive) and an obstacle (aliens who hunt by sound).

But more than that, it’s a clear, visceral, unforgettable concept—it’s a world where you make a sound, you die.

Everybody can understand that. It captivates the imagination, because we all live our lives making sounds, and we can imagine how hard it would be not to make any!

The terrible logline, on the other hand: It’s too many ideas. In the above...I’m too embarrassed to list them. What the hell is that even about???

But I see this all the time: the logline is, for example, zombies plus aliens plus a love story plus a hostage crisis.

Here’s why that happens.

Most amateur writers construct their scripts via plot. I know this to be true, because I was one of them, for way too many years!

First of all, when starting out, you’re just learning the format.

Screenwriting is shockingly easy to learn as far as the format itself. You buy any one of the screenwriting software, which are so easy to use, and you start typing: Action action action...dialogue dialogue dialogue...

You just make it up and soon you have something that looks, visually, like a script. No problem!

Well, except for the fact that it sucks. But people don’t know that.

They’re like, okay, I’m writing a script! So what happens in this script?

And they start to think of plot:

There’s a guy trying to rescue his kid. Okay, that sounds like a movie. And the bad guys are—aliens! But wait, they’re an alien gang, that sounds cooler. Like aliens have taken over a group of gang-bangers. Word. And we’ll need a love story, so I dunno—let’s say there’s telepathy in this movie and the guy is also connected to his girlfriend, who is in the gang. Wow, Romeo and Juliet!

They think that is jam-packed with totally awesome ideas: aliens and gangs and telepathy and love and hostage-rescues. They figure I’ll connect this all with super-duper-cool action and riveting SURPRISES! (surprise! it’s aliens!) and it’a million-dollar sale!!!

(By the way, of course you need good surprises, but scripts work best with suspense than surprise. Surprises don’t offer forward momentum, they are just momentary shocks. That’s a subject for another time.)

So they just write the script. They write 90–120 pages of plot. Of stuff that happens.

They finish the script and realize they need a logline because contests are asking for one. Or they’re trying to sell the script, and need to email the logline to managers.

The logline ends up being:

After an alien invasion, a terrified father must rescue his daughter from a street gang acting as the aliens’ agents, while telepathically communicating with his true love who is part of the gang.

Given that I just made this up inside of 45 seconds, of course it sucks. That’s the point.

Because it’s not about any one thing.

Aliens taking over street gangs is a cool visual—but it doesn’t really mean anything.

The hostage rescue is a second movie.

The love story is yet a third movie.

The larger point is that there is nothing here that promises a unique cinematic ride. There is nothing here that seems to say anything about gangs, or love, or children, or hostage rescues. It certainly doesn’t suggest anything about the world—that aliens would choose to use street gangs, of all things, for some enforcement purpose.

It’s just a pile of shit smashed together.

Now there is a very cool movie called Attack the Block:

A teen gang in South London defend their block from an alien invasion.

This is ONE concept, not three piled on top of each other. It takes the alien invasion trope and casts it in a whole new, different and original light: the setting of South London street gangs.

It’s simple, direct, and cool. (It is a very cool movie, and launched John Boyega’s career.)

You want your movie to be about ONE concept that is easy to understand, original, and unique. You want executives to be able to go into their boss’s office and say, “I just read a great script!”

The boss says, “Cool, what’s it about?”

And the exec needs to be able to say, in one line, “Aliens attack a bad neighborhood in London and these street kids have to fight them off!”

NOT—“There’s this guy trying to rescue his daughter, and telepathy, and aliens inhabiting a gang, and, uh...”

Because the boss would be, like, “What...?”

I seem to recall that yesterday I promised to start to explain how to come up with a better concept for your script.

I’ll try to do that—but of course, if any of us could reliably come up with great concepts, we’d be Stephen King...or Terry Rossio, whose columns about this probably offer way better advice than you’ll find here.

When you start out writing—in general, not a particular script—you have to burn through a certain number of scripts where you’re just writing plot. You have to learn how to execute the mechanics.

But in order to start to write the kinds of scripts that will move the needle, you have to do plot last. Or, more accurately, simultaneously with everything else...

Because really, you’re doing CONCEPT first. A unique idea that nobody has seen—or, because it is extremely difficult to think of something completely new under the sun, more likely a fresh twist on something popular they have seen...just not like this.

J.J. Abrams said, about Fleabag, we’ve seen the fourth wall broken before—just not like this.

Your logline has to promise a clear, direct, cinematic experience.

In truth, people think of cool concepts all the time. You can kind of daydream into them: A world where time runs backwards... A world where love is bought and sold as currency. I dunno... High-concept shit. (Personally, I get a little tired of these, because they lead to a lot of dogshit movies that make no sense—they’re just posters and taglines, they’re a con job on the audience.)

Where people usually go wrong is in figuring out the three things that expands a concept into a logline:

1) Who is the protagonist? 2) What is his or her goal? 3) And what is the obstacle?

Those three things are extremely difficult. It looks easy—but it’s brain surgery. You can’t just pick them out of a hat.

The biggest trick is this...

The protagonist has to have a story/journey—and out of that, a goal—that offers human connection and relatability that grows organically out of the concept.

In A Quiet Place, it’s the family with a deaf child, in a world where you can’t make a sound. That offers one of the most valuable things in screenwriting: dramatic irony.

It’s irony that the thing that was considered a “handicap” (that’s a sensitive word nowadays, and I don’t mean to offend)—the child’s deafness—becomes the thing that lets them survive: they are used to silent communication and being sensitive to sound or its absence.

Beyond that, A Quiet Place writes itself as far as the goal: survival.

But A Quiet Place doesn’t just work if it’s survivors of the alien apocalypse, absent the sound element: it needs the specificity and humanity of the hunting-by-sound and the family with the deaf child.

There’s nothing more human than loving our family, wanting our kids to survive, and trying to hold onto our humanity in the most dire situations.

So this concept overflows with heart or, at least, relatability.

My impression is that even when amateur screenwriters stumble into an awesome concept, they don’t fully take the time to explore and choose the exact right ingredients of protagonist, goal, obstacle, setting and human relatability to make it work.

Because that stuff is super-duper-hard. That’s why people spend years in development on scripts, and why studios go through numerous A-list writers to try and nail something.

At a certain point, it’s alchemy. It’s random, there are compromises and groupthink...who knows how anything gets made, really?

It’s true that lots of terrible movies get made for millions of dollars, because people got it wrong. And lots of brilliant movies get made outside the system because a handful of people (or one visionary) got it right.

But the alchemy does come from tangible, real things.

If you do come up with a totally awesome concept, and get at least part of the way there, you will get attention from managers/producers.

Because they figure even if you can’t get all the way there on the script, they can buy the idea from you and find somebody else to do it.

If this happens to you—take the win!

But to do this—do plot last. Do concept first. Then character. Figure out who has the story, and what is the setting for it, that best executes the concept.

The point about doing plot last is that you need to have done your “practice scripts” (of plot-driven garbage) so that you can mentally map out the potential plot points.

So it’s not that you’re doing plot last as much as simultaneously. Your brain is nimble and well-trained enough to think through plots rapid-fire and come up with one that works for all of the other “givens” while also making sense and, importantly, not violating realistic human behavior.

Because you can have all sorts of random and absurd shit happen in a movie—if it’s believable. The second people behave in fake ways for your plot—then you’re dead.

The time you take to work out the execution of the concept is the part of screenwriting where you’re not actually writing anything. I’ll be watching a baseball game for three hours, my wife walks in and glares at me, why aren’t I working? And I have to explain, actually, I am working. I know it looks ridiculous.

Frankly, I don’t know why anybody ever writes out character bios. For me, it’s completely meaningless. Why would I want to get locked into, “This person went to Harvard and had a dead brother?” It’s all a bunch of moving parts until, gradually, from evaluating hundreds of possibilities, you stumble onto a “given”—something so cool, be it a set piece, an arc, a character, a moment—that you know that has to be in the movie, because it fits the concept like a glove.

But still, that “given” might move—or get cut! The ending of the script might become the end of act one. The villain might become the hero.

Don’t stop yourself from having a better idea!

Personally, I never, or almost never, make notes during the period. It’s just happening in my brain. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning with the realization—of course, the protagonist isn’t a man, she’s a woman, because of X.

Or that the supporting character should actually be the protagonist.

Or it doesn’t need to be set in the future at all.

Or that totally awesome set piece, the one that first came to mind and made me want to write this movie—it doesn’t work for this story.

The more you can simplify, during this period, the better.

Amateur screenwriters add things; professional screenwriters strip them away.

You’re chiseling into that marble to find the statue.

This is why the development process is so grueling. The industry is full of super-smart people with different ways of executing something. The producer wants one thing, the potential director another, the star yet another.

Personally, when I read something that sort of has a cool idea from a pre-WGA writer (or even scripts on the actual Black List), I find, more often than not, the execution doesn’t work.

And I am, more often than not, likely to suggest something radical—like, why is the protagonist a grouch? Doesn’t it work better if he’s actually a fun person?

Galaxy Quest was cracked by a screenwriter, hired to rewrite the script, saying exactly that: “Oh no, I don’t think this guy [the Tim Allen character] hated being the captain [the original script concept]. I think he loved being the captain. I think if he could be the captain for one more day, he would do it, in an instant.”

Because that is, by the way, Bill Shatner, to a tee.

I typically don’t have much success when I tell screenwriters what I think would crack their script. I don’t blame them: “consider the source” is really good advice, and if I was so smart, why am I not rich and making movies?

But usually, my sense is that amateur screenwriters are so emotionally connected to the way they executed their concept—it is, after all, the probably the reason they wrote it—that it’s not just the thought of doing all that work to rewrite it (although that’s a huge part of it)’s that they truly don’t want to.

I certainly was that way. You know what changed my tune?

Reality. Nobody wanting the scripts!!!

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! Write better concepts!

At the top of this column, I posted a link to an article about a “death doula.” Here’s the blog piece from Daily Kos (a good liberal news site) that led me to find it yesterday.

I think that’s a movie. I don’t know who the protagonist is, I don’t know the arcs—all I know is, if you write that correctly, and sensitively, and relied on all the things we learned from watching and loving Six Feet Under...that’s a movie.

It looks super depressing, but it ends up being beautiful and life-affirming. Because, obviously, we all croak. Nothing more relatable than that!

It’s not the kind of thing I’m in a place to write...but have at it, folks!

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