Updated: Dec 23, 2019
(Part III of "Is your screenplay ready to market?")
Most spec scripts are based on bad ideas. There...I’ve said it.
In all my time as a professional studio reader we would read sometimes as many as a hundred screenplays before we found anything, even resembling an idea, not to say; and original idea.
Most spec writers, it seems, do not have a firm grasp on what qualifies as an idea, in the mind of a professional. There’s a disconnect between what the layman considers being an idea, and what the industry thinks, it is.
I do, however, believe the average writer can learn how to originate great ideas for movies if they only knew how.
In this article, I will give you an intro to what Story-Concepts are and how to design them.
This is the third installment of a series of articles that asks the question; Is your screenplay ready to market? In these, I ask you a series of questions that you should ask yourself about your screenplay before you shop it around. If you haven’t read the first two in the series, I recommend that you do, for context. You can find them, right here on this blog.
So, here we go.
IS YOUR STORY DESIGNED AROUND A STRONG, ORIGINAL CONCEPT ?
To an industry professional, strong, original concepts mean two different things;
They are not the same. A concept can be original, yet not strong and vice versa.
Many spec screenplays are either strong or original but rarely both and most of them are, in fact neither.
The term 'original' has a lot of people confused. For many spec writers, the term only refers to that the screenplay isn't based on a novel, a short story or any other source. For the industry, however, originality means something completely different.
Let's say that a Warner Bros producer reads a Horror script. He thinks the script is good but It reads eerily similar to a copy of "The Exorcist"
That's a big problem. For one, It's a problem with rights and potential lawsuits but more than that, it is a bigger problem for the spec writer who penned it.
Look at it from the producer's perspective. Why would he pay good money to an unknown spec writer, when he could just as easily have remade the original?
If he remade the original he would be able to tap into that movie's, already established fan base. It's money in the bank - and for a potential investor that is as close to security as you will ever get with a film project. But the problem with that is that he wouldn't need you to do it. His investors would feel more comfortable if he simply hired an established writer. with a track record of success to write it.
For a producer, the term 'original' does not mean "Not based on a prior source". - It means; Not seen before.- If I have seen it before, it is not original.
The average moviegoer might find that strange, given the fact that so many Hollywood movies are alike.
Part of the reason is genre. Genres share a lot of the same traits, which is what defines a movie as being in a certain genre.
All Mystery stories, for instance, revolves around a crime, the detection and investigation of it and a whole host of other standard elements that define the genre.
But even if you write a mystery that contains all these elements, you would still not have met a producer's definition of originality. All you would have accomplished would be to have written a perfectly standard mystery, as all mysteries are.
I guess this leaves you even more confused than before. Because how can I claim that a screenplay has to be original when so many movies aren't?
Our universe only consists of 118 elements. Everything you know is a combination of these.
So, yes, you can't invent any new elements but the combinations of them are up for grabs.
Let's look at what elements we have to mess around with:
So what are the elements that go into a story concept?
Let's look at them:
GENRE: Each genre has its own rules, conventions, and norms. You can, of course, change these norms around, add and subtract. But you can't ignore them. If you want to cook an omelet, you need eggs. If you don´t add eggs, it's not an omelet. And so it is with each and every genre. Try to imagine a mystery without crime, a detective or anything to detect. Or how about a romance where nobody falls in love? - No matter how you turn it, every genre has its own set of stationery elements that makes up the genre.
ARENA: An Arena is where the story plays out. A western plays out in the old west, most police movies play out among cops, A gangster movie, among gangsters. The thing is that most genres are tightly associated with certain Arenas. but more about that later.
PLOT FORM: a plot form is a form that the story takes. There are only 12 forms of the plot and that makes it easy. For instance, Star wars - a new Hope, is a threat plot. A threat plot is when the characters are being threatened by a giant evil (such as the Empire) and have to confront and eliminate that evil. It's basically the same plot form, you'll find in Godzilla, Jaws, War of the worlds, and all other stories that are about someone who is facing am overpowering threat witch they must eliminate.
Another plot form is the so-called Quest plot. The quest plot is a story about a character who, as the name implies, is on a quest to find a particular thing or a person. You have seen it in movies such as the Indiana Jones movies, Blade Runner, Brazil, Close encounter, Sugarland express, The third man, and so on.
The great thing about plot forms is that they transgress all genres. You will find any of these 12 forms of the plot in any and all genres which make them the ideal tool for creating original plots, as we shall see shortly.
PERSPECTIVE: Whose story is it, anyway? - That is the fundamental question that determines your story's perspective. Think about like a crime, a homicide. All homicides have at least three actors; The killer, the victim, and the detective. Of course, you can have many more than that but no matter how many you have, they will all serve one of these three functions. Most traditional crime mysteries tend to share the perspective of the detective. But Truman Capote changed all that with "In cold blood" one of the first modern stories to feature the killers as the protagonist. All Capote did was changing the perspective and that gave him a brand new, original concept.
So, how do all these elements combine into great story concepts?
That's up next:
Now that we are aware of these story concept elements, let us look at how they play out in the actual world of storytelling. Let us shift things around a bit.
First I will pick a genre. Let's pick the mystery genre.
The archetypal mystery movie involves, as we have already discussed, a crime, (usually homicide), a detective of some kind. Today's detectives are usually police officers who put the genre safely in the arena of a police environment.
So let's say you wrote a mystery. If you take the route of; Movies we have seen a trillion times, those are choices you will make. Your story will be about murder. The detectives will be police officers and the story will revolve around discovering who the killer is.
Now, you may write a brilliant mystery or a mediocre mystery, but no matter what it is, - even if its the best mystery I have ever read; your concept is still the most boring one imaginable. In my old job as a reader, I would have given you a grade "Excellent" for your writing abilities and I would have checked off the little box that says " Poor" on your concept. In the eyes of a producer, that translates into a rejection letter.
So let us shake things up a bit.
Who says that a mystery must always play out among detectives or police officers? Why not try a different Arena?
Imagine a murder that takes place in a circus. The detectives are clowns and acrobats, or perhaps a stage magician? I don´t know whether that will make a great story. It will spend on the specifics, but it is, at least, an original concept as in "not seen before" and that is always a good thing,
Let us try another one.
This time we will shift around with genre and platforms. I am imagining a romance. Two people fall in love but something is in the way. That's just the genre. Write that story and you will receive a "Thanks but no thanks..."
The Plot that is common in romances is the so-called, "Love plot" In a love plot the character's goal is to find and maintain love in the face of obstacles.
Let's try a romance with a different plot form.
How about a love story that is designed around, not a love plot, but a quest plot.
So, in this story they all in love but then he goes missing. Nobody can find him. After a while, the police give up. Now, she is the only one who has an interest in finding him and so she embarks upon a quest to find him.
seen before? - Sure. so let us change the arena; lets set the story in the old west.
A woman goes searching for her lost love in the old west.
Kind of interesting since women who took matters into their own hands back then were frowned upon.
Let's try the last example. This time. let us play around with the concept of perspective.
This time, let us try horror. We will go with the "Haunted house trope", this time. You know the haunted house trope, right?