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11/15/2005 - Create & Consider Your Concept

Prewriting: Before You Write "Fade In" -- Part 1


by Jeff Newman

Precious few professional screenwriters, once they get an idea for a screenplay that enthuses them, simply put fingers to keyboard and start writing. Instead, most writers, prior to writing, do some prewriting. They may have done otherwise once or twice, and found that just "rushing to the writing" actually takes a lot more time in the end: they wind up with a goopy, droopy ultra-rough first draft that needs far more than pruning and polishing. After doing that once or twice, they now look (and think) before they leap.

As the saying goes, "Well begun is half done." And part of beginning well is spending some time thinking, making some tentative decisions, and organizing one's thoughts.

This is the first article in a series called "Prewriting: Before You Write 'Fade In.'" And the first step in the prewriting process is creating your concept: coming up with the idea, and then clarifying and "massaging" it -- tinkering and toying with it -- until it's an interesting, compelling, dramatically viable concept. Furthermore, it should be a concept that you are willing, nay eager, to spend some time with; it should be an idea that really enthuses you, that you are excited or passionate about.

And finally, to be realistic and practical, it should be a concept that will be marketable. Not necessarily mass-marketable (although that would be great), but ... would many producers, agents, prodco executives, and major actors agree to read a screenplay based on this concept? Would enough movie-goers want to see it so that the film would turn a profit?

After all, movie-making isn't just an art; it's a business (show business). Compared to publishing books or staging plays, movies are expensive to make (and to distribute and market). If a film based on a particular idea is likely to attract only a tiny, niche audience, it had better be one that could be made for a very low budget. If it's going to be something that would take an average movie budget to produce, it had better be an idea likely to attract a whole lot of people.

So before committing to a concept -- before you spend weeks or months developing it and writing a screenplay based upon it -- take the idea out for a test drive. Make sure it's a solid idea: one you want to write, and that enough others are likely to want to read and see. We'll talk more about that in a bit, but first: how does one think up good ideas in the first place?


Once you've been writing a while, finding ideas you want to write about won't be a problem. The problem will be finding time to write all the concepts you keep coming up with. You'll have more ideas than you could ever possibly find time to execute. If, however, you are trying to restrict yourself to sure-fire, slam-dunk, "high concept" ideas ... that's different. No matter how experienced you are, coming up with those kinds of fresh, highly commercial, mass-market ideas will always be a challenge. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Good ideas are worth a lot more. And high-concept ideas are as rare as diamonds in a dung-heap. Well, just about.

But when writers are just starting out -- and especially if the writer is young -- then finding good ideas is often quite hard. It seems that all the ideas they come up with are either not likely enough to create interest among others, or else they've been done. At first, it just seems almost impossible to come up with new ideas, when so many movies and other stories have already been produced.

So the efforts of a new writer to come up with a good idea are similar to the efforts of a pro trying to come up with a high-concept idea. How to proceed?

There's no magical or one-size-fits-all answer. But here are some strategies that work for many.

1. The Power of Self-Suggestion Followed by Relaxation

Once you are in "idea search" mode, spend some time thinking about the kind of movie you'd like to write, in terms of subject matter, tone, and/or genre. Think of other movies along those lines -- ones you like and would be proud to have written. Once in a while, a good idea will quickly spring out at you. Not usually, though. But at least you've let your subconscious know that you're seeking an idea, and roughly what kind of an idea.

Then: relax. Go about your business, your life. If an idea doesn't suddenly strike you from out-of-the-blue, then keep reminding yourself every now and then. Especially just after going to bed. And every now and then at various times during the next few days.

Chances are now good that an idea will suddenly bubble up from your subconscious. It often happens while in the shower, taking a walk, or driving. Or while drifting off to sleep, or even while dreaming. A "Eureka" moment will occur. Note: be sure to write the idea down -- at least a few notes about it. You think you'll remember it, but you might not. This is especially important if it comes as part of a dream in the middle of the night. Write ... it ... down.

After thanking your subconscious mind, now it's time to start playing around with the idea. And, if necessary, improving it. And testing its worthiness.

But before we get to that process ...

What if this approach doesn't work? It usually does, but not always. So what's another idea-generating approach?

2. Find & Seek

If your subconscious didn't come through after some polite requests, then you may have to do some extra work to "prime the pump." If you know the subject matter you want to write about, you could start doing some research. Chances are, an idea will present itself at some point.

Another strategy: start reading material you normally don't have the time or interest to peruse. Go through magazines you usually don't read or never read (going to a library will save you lots of money here). Read some tabloids, too; some of the sensational, or wild and wacky, stories might trigger an idea. You can't take the exact idea, but by changing the details and some aspects of the story, you can make the idea your own. While you're at the library, stroll the aisles of books, and look through some you've never read, including non-fiction books on subjects you haven't read about before. Just skim and browse.

Also: look up plot summaries of old novels and plays, and old movies. If you come across an idea that grabs you, then do some switching and altering. By changing elements (the time period, the genre, occupations, the locale) and enough details, you can make what was old into something new and different.

Even if all of this doesn't result in your stumbling across an idea, it still serves a purpose: your subconscious knows you are doing this. It knows what you are after. It's also absorbing all of this new information.

And so, after a while ... while showering, walking, or driving ... you will come up with an idea that makes you say "Aha!"

So let's say you now have an idea you like, that you think would be good. Now what?


Here are some questions to ask yourself. Take the time to really go through these, and be willing to play around with your idea if needed in order for it to pass muster.

1. Is this idea solid and strong enough to sustain a full-length movie? Or is it too slender? Is it good for a short trip, but not for a long haul? Some ideas would be fine for a short film or a short story, but not a 90-120 minute film. And quite often, ideas are good but they are only halfway there. They need another element, another angle, to make them really strong and compelling -- some kind of "and then" or "but then" complication.

2. Would this idea, when presented in the form of a logline or short paragraph, make Hollywood professionals interested enough in the idea that they would consent to read the script? Note well: most scripts written by amateur writers never get read by a well-established agent or production company executive. The concepts just didn't sound interesting, substantial, or compelling enough in logline or capsule summary form. Or they seemed to lack any commercial potential. And they won't read anything longer than a query letter (which can't be longer than one page). They want to read the idea as expressed succinctly. So ... would the pro's want to read your prose, based on this idea?

3. Would this idea, if written well and produced well, be the basis for a movie that a goodly number of people would pay to see?

One way to answer the last two questions:

4. Is the idea gossip- and/or news-worthy? That is, if this idea were to happen in real life, would some people gossip about it -- would they tell others about it, and would others be interested in listening to it? Or, if this idea actually happened, would it be something likely to be written about in the newspaper and/or included in the TV news?

If it doesn't seem likely to be something that would be gossiped about or reported on if it happened in real life, it's probably an idea that wouldn't have any reel life, either. It's probably too flat, too mundane. Too ordinary or low-key or cerebral or ... well, boring.

5. Is there something unusual or surprising in the idea? Or if not, at least something that is not just interesting, but fascinating, intriguing, exciting, and/or compelling?

6. Does the idea suggest significant problems and difficulties for one or more characters? Is there likely to be some conflict -- some obstacles, competition, and/or opposition?

7. Does the idea suggest high stakes? They don't necessarily need to be life-and-death stakes, but we need to sense that one or more significant things could happen -- good things if a character succeeds, bad things if the character fails.

8. Does the idea contain or suggest an objective -- a goal? A big problem to solve, or something that someone wants to obtain, become, or achieve? And does the goal sound like it would or could be very important to someone?

9. Does the idea take too long to explain? Is it too complex? If it can't sound both clear and compelling when described in 75 words or less (and preferably about 30 words or less), then it may not be an idea that is clear and simple enough.

10. Is the idea distinct and specific enough? It can't sound too generic. If it does, it won't sound intriguing. And it won't seem fresh enough. It can't sound too much like some other movie that many people have seen. It can sound similar in some ways to other movies, but it needs to be different and distinct enough to seem fresh.

11. Would this be a movie you'd want to see?

12. Is this an idea you really want to write? Do you like it enough to spend all the time and effort on it required to write a full-length screenplay? Is there something about it that excites or enthuses you?

If your idea is able to successfully negotiate the dozen checkpoints mentioned above -- or, if not, if you are able to revise and revamp the idea so that on the second trip through, it does -- then congratulations: you have a sturdy, story-worthy, market-friendly idea on your hands. And it's an idea that you yourself also like.

If, even with a good deal of toying and tinkering, your idea doesn't clear these dozen hurdles ... then go back to the process described earlier, and come up with one or more other ideas.

Do you want to be extra-certain, before committing all your precious time and skills, and pinning so many hopes on this idea, that it's one that others will likely to be attracted to? Then test it out on a few folks.

Find the concepts/loglines of several screenplays or projects that have sold in the last few months or so. "Hollywoodlitsales.com" is a good place to find out that information. Then select five or six friends of yours who like movies, and ask them for their help (either individually, or when all are in a group; it doesn't matter). Tell them you're trying to get a better sense of what Hollywood buys and what it doesn't (that's true, after all, isn't it?). Then tell them, or let them read, five or six loglines -- one of which is yours. But don't tell them that one is yours. Or, if they guess what you're up to, don't tell them which one. Ask which idea they think is best. Ask which ones they like. Ask which they think is the weakest. See what they say and think about your idea. If they don't like it, or they have a shrug-like, "nyeh -- might be okay" kind of reaction ... then it's back to square one. That's not the idea for you.

You must start with a strong idea. The idea is the foundation for all that follows. Don't sabotage yourself, and condemn your screenplay and all your efforts, right from the git-go. Don't spend time, thought, effort, and emotion building a castle on a foundation of sand. Start with a sturdy idea.

And then? That's what we'll cover in Part 2 of "Prewriting: Before You Write 'Fade In.'"

# # #

Copyright 2005 by Jeff Newman


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