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01/03/2006 - Completing the Concept

Prewriting: Before You Write "Fade In" -- Part 2


by Jeff Newman

What's a common -- and serious -- mistake that many newbie writers make, once they've come up with a story idea they like? They plunge right into their first draft.

Of course, if you don't mind writing an exploratory "pre-first" draft -- one from which very, very little (if anything) will be used in later drafts -- then fine. If you would rather explore the concept and the characters by writing scenes, even a full-fledged draft, rather than doing some brainstorming and at least partial outlining, then that's your choice. Do whatever you prefer, and especially, whatever works best for you.

But too often, blindly, rashly, and impatiently rushing to the keyboard before the concept and some elements of the story have been thought through and given some early development, results in a draft that is based upon a concept that is partially and potentially good, but still somehow weak and lacking. No matter how skillful the characterization and dialogue, and how compelling some of the events are, if it's all based on an insufficient concept, then no amount of limited revising and polishing can help. The main problem is at the concept level.

The problem with the Leaning Tower of Pisa wasn't that the tower was poorly built; it was built very well. The problem was the foundation. And no amount of tinkering with the tower itself could or can change the underlying foundational weakness.

And then, even if the concept/foundation is indeed solid, it's still not wise to jump into the actual writing. Some forethought and some designing will make your screen story richer and less haphazard. It will likely have a greater sense of focus, direction, and cohesion, and have greater structural strength.

For most writers, this advice proves helpful: don't rush to the writing. Do some prewriting first.

Prewriting involves pondering, daydreaming, and brainstorming, and some analytic thinking and decision-making. It may or may not involve an outline (and if it does, it can be an informal and/or sketchy one).

Is there ever a time to skip the prewriting phase, and simply rush in? Yes -- if the idea comes to you all-at-once, or nearly ... if it comes to you fully grown and clothed, or nearly. After all, sometimes we're lucky, and the story concept -- and much of the story itself -- emerges rapidly, within minutes of conception, in a brilliant burst of creativity. If that's the case, and if little or no research is required, then ... just jot down a few milestone markers and reminders, and you can dive in.

Most times, however, the idea presents itself to us only half-formed, if that. We have a general situation in mind, some tentative ideas for some of the major characters, and a few major plot events. But there are a lot of gaps that need filling in. Some development is in order.

It's the development of your initial, basic story idea that we'll explore in this, the second article of the series "Prewriting: Before You Write "Fade In."

So let's say you've come up with an idea that sufficiently excites you -- an idea that you really want to write, and that you think would make a good basis for a screen story.

Now it's time to start developing the concept (if necessary) and to begin brainstorming an array of story possibilities: events, scenes, sequences, moments, bits, and characters.

But how to proceed?

Some of us wish for a logical, easy approach that will yield quick results with little wasted time. Alas, screenwriting isn't a clean and tidy process. A "do this first and that next" agenda is seldom feasible. In fact, it rarely works to start on item one and proceed to the last, as though we were following a recipe or list of directions. Instead, you might spend time on one task, move to the next, then move back again to the first for a bit of additional thinking, then jump forward to the third task and find yourself doing the fifth activity at the same time, before moving on (and back) to the fourth, and so on. There's a lot of jumping around and backtracking involved. Creation is an oft-times messy and imprecise process, and we just have to expect and accept that.

There are two primary tasks at this stage of prewriting. The first is developing and "setting" the concept (we can change it later if we think it prudent). The second is letting our imagination run wild, so we can accumulate a list of possible scenes, events, characters, and so on. These two tasks can be done in tandem: at times simultaneously, and at other times in alternation. At some point, the concept will become firmly set, and we can then concentrate solely on creating options and possibilities.

Let's start with ...


We've already thought up a concept we like, or we wouldn't be at the brainstorming, note-taking, and story-development phase.

But now we are trying to expand, to flesh out, the basic concept. We want to make sure it is a dramatically viable concept -- a story-worthy vessel able to bear the weight of characters, dialogue, and of events that are primarily cause-and-effect related. We seek a story-ship able to change course, since a straight path is predictable and boring. We want a craft that can weather rough seas and winds of generally increasing fierceness (i.e., a story with progressive complications and which escalates and intensifies). It must also be able to make a sustained voyage without sinking (in our case, a two-hour voyage, or thereabouts).

What kind of concept fits that bill of particulars? It's a concept that ...

* attracts attention and piques interest (one test of that: in real life, would it be gossip- and/or news-worthy?).

* expresses or implies an important-but-difficult goal to be achieved and/or a difficult problem to solve.

* explicitly mentions, or at least implies, conflict and struggle, since these are necessary ingredients for drama.

* isn't too general or thin, but has a certain specificity to it.

* contains an unexpected development, a major complicating factor -- an "and then" or "but then" story turn.

For now, let's focus on that last element, since it's the one most often missing.


If you're lucky, your concept will already contain an unexpected development, a major complicating factor -- an "and then" or "but then" story turn. But if not, now is the time to start searching for one.

If, after some sustained brainstorming, the Major Complication or Interesting Angle doesn't come to you, then go on to the next task: generating a list of possible events, scenes, characters, etc. It's likely that what you're looking for (in terms of augmenting, improving, and completing the concept) will come to you during that process.

But here's what we're looking for (if it's not already in place). Most still-forming stories feature a broad concept that is interesting up to a point, but once we look beyond that point, we realize the concept feels a bit too general and/or incomplete. The concept needs another angle. It needs something unexpected, unusual, or/or unlikely, as well as something that will make things less predictable and less linear for the viewers, and more difficult for the major character(s).

What major unexpected development could occur to intensify the main problem, or to add a major problem to the central situation? Often there is an ironic angle -- "of all the times for this to happen" or "of all the people or places..." But whether it's ironic or "merely" challenging, some kind of "and then" or "but then" complicating development or story turn usually needs to be added in order to keep the story from being too thin, or from running out of gas halfway through.

It can be any major development that makes the situation even harder for the main character(s). It may be some kind of ironic aspect related to time or place, or an unlikely, less-than-ideal person or team that must deal with the problem, or an adversary or ally who is a clear mis-match to the main character, and who is certain to generate sparks, if not fireworks.

What we're looking for, in effect, is the second part of the concept. The first part is the general, broad concept. That's what we tend to think up first. Unfortunately, some writers are content to leave it at that. They don't add the crucial second part. The second part is the much-needed "wrinkle" that adds an extra level of interest and energy to the story. It's a complicating factor or angle that is unusual, unexpected, and/or unlikely, and which make the proceedings more difficult for the characters.

For instance, in LIAR, LIAR the basic concept is already strong: a boy, sick of being lied to and disappointed by his inveterate liar/lawyer dad, makes a birthday wish that his dad must tell the truth for 24 hours. And then the wish comes true. That's already a good concept. But it needs another, complicating (and preferably ironic) element, and here it is: the father is a lawyer who has succeeded partly by lying -- by his "molding" of the truth in his approach to cases, plus by insincere flattery of those he works for. And now he's just been given the biggest case of his career -- and if he does well, he can get the big promotion he's been hoping for. But then, suddenly, due to his son's wish, he's compelled to tell the truth ... the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. "Of all the times for such a thing to happen..."

So that's the major complication, the second part of the concept: just when he's been unexpectedly given the biggest case of his career, the success of which will ensure a big promotion, he suddenly has to tell the truth for 24 hours. Without a complication of this sort, the concept would seem too thin. It would lack a sense of direction, and seem likely to be too easy of a problem for him to deal with. He could just "wait out the clock." But with this complication, he can't do that. Things become much more difficult, unpredictable, and ... well, complicated.

The second part of the concept in BACK TO THE FUTURE also avoids the potential "all he has to do is lie low and wait out the clock" story problem. Marty has unexpectedly and unintentionally been zapped 30 years into the past. So far, so good -- but that's not enough for an effective concept. In fact, in this case, that's about a third of the concept. The next third: there, he meets his parents when they were his age -- and is shocked by what they were really like. Better, but still not enough. So the final third: his future mother falls for him, instead of his future dad -- Marty has inadvertently disrupted the time line. If he doesn't correct it prior to the one moment (in a few days) that he has a chance to return, he'll vanish from existence. This not only makes things more interesting for us, and much more difficult for him, but it also takes away the option of just waiting around until he can return.

The fact that he interfered with the time-line and now might disappear into oblivion greatly raises the stakes, and it gives him a difficult task to perform (making sure his future parents get together). And the fact that he must do it before the lightning strikes the clock tower provides a deadline. With this added element, the story concept is much stronger and more compelling.

The central concept -- and thus, the inspirational or animating idea -- in TOOTSIE is that a talented actor can't find an acting job because he's so difficult to work with, so he disguises himself as a woman and lands a co-starring role in a soap opera. That's fine so far. But what's the major complicating factor? It's that he falls in love with the female lead -- who thinks he's really a woman -- and he can't tell her the truth.

In STAR WARS, the broad concept is that a galactic empire has created a huge and powerful Death Star space station, capable of destroying entire planets, and the empire intends to use it against the home planet of some of the rebels who seek to restore self-rule and democracy -- and on any other planets whose inhabitants aren't submissive. The complicating angle? Those enlisted to deliver the schematics of the Death Star to the rebels are not some band of highly trained spies or a special forces unit. It's a farm boy, two non-combat robots, a long-retired general, and a money-grubbing black marketeer. This unlikely group -- later joined by a princess -- are all that stand between complete and permanent imperial domination, and a chance for life and liberty of billions.

In THE MATRIX, the broad concept is that what we perceive as reality is really just a computer-enhanced dream -- that, unknown to us, machines with artificial intelligence are drawing energy from us as we sleep and dream our lives away. That's an excellent and fascinating premise, but it needs more specificity; it needs another angle and/or a complication. And that is provided by focusing in on one individual in particular (Neo), and following him as he makes this discovery, so that he and we learn about it at the same time. "And then": he learns that some believe he is the fulfillment of a prophecy that one who seeks the truth and awakens from this coma-like state will be "the one" -- a human savior who will lead humanity to freedom from domination and exploitation by the machines. Is he really "the one?" Will he accept this task? And if so, will he be up to it? That's the new, additional direction that the story concept presents us with -- the vital "second part" that completes and invigorates the basic concept.

There are some stories (dramas, usually) where the additional story angle or major complication isn't as bold or startling as in genre stories -- but some kind of complicating factor that makes the basic situation more interesting and less predictable, and which increases the basic level of conflict or difficulty, is usually still present. In A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE a delicate but very intelligent and manipulative Southern woman has lost the family home and her teaching job, and seeks shelter with her married sister. What could be a fairly interesting but also rather static and talky piece is made more compelling by the fact that the sister's husband resents his sister-in-law's presence and meddling, and determines to force her out. Being an earthy, common, practical, often brutish man, he's in most respects the opposite to Blanche. It's the additional challenge and threat he presents, and their glaring incompatibility, that provides the added level of dynamic interest.

In AMERICAN BEAUTY, the basic concept is this: "A middle-aged man feels trapped in a largely loveless marriage and a soulless job, and by the materialism and conformity he once bought into, and now he seeks to turn his life around. He hopes to find some meaning, spontaneity, passion, and authenticity in his life." That's interesting but familiar territory, and too general.

What completes and enhances the concept is what inspires him to wake up and to change: a teenage cheerleader friend of his daughter's, and his daughter's non-conformist boyfriend -- a youth who recently spent time in a mental institution, who refuses to accept society's conventions or play by its rules, and who escapes by smoking dope.

Thus, the source of his inspiration and guidance isn't a motivational or self-help guru, psychiatric help, religion, or a book of philosophy. It's two very different teenage friends of his daughter. Given his age, situation, and the initial depth of his despair, that's an unusual, unexpected, and unlikely source. This makes his road to recovery and authenticity somewhat more difficult, since it doesn't involve any set, prescribed, tested path, and it certainly makes it less predictable.

Turning now to your story idea -- the concept you've recently come up with and are intending to develop and write into a screenplay...

Does your concept have an unexpected, complicating angle? Some kind of story-invigorating wrinkle? Does it have an "and then" or "but then" factor? If not, then now is the time to try to come up with one.

Sometimes this will come fairly quickly. If not, here's the good news: You can "flesh out and solidify" the concept first, or, if you're not satisfied with the results of your initial thinking, you can instead start generating ideas for story possibilities, and then (based on some of the ideas and options you come up with), you can go back to the concept.


Don't proceed to your first draft (unless you intend it to be more of an exploratory draft) until your concept is sufficiently developed and dramatically viable.

Often, the initial concept is incomplete. It's too broad or general. It needs greater specificity, and some new angle that will increase the level of difficulty, add interest, and make the situation less predictable. Most initial concepts need a second part to complete and enhance them.

This second part is some kind of Major Complication or New, Interesting Angle. Nearly always, it will fulfill some or all of the following criteria.

First, remember the "3 U's." The second part of a concept -- the Major Complication or New, Interesting Angle -- should be one or more of the following:

* Unusual
* Unexpected
* Unlikely

By "unlikely" we mean unlikely but credibly so. "Unlikely" could refer to the person or team who are given a task or who must achieve the goal, deal with the difficulties (obstacles and/or opposition -- the conflict), and/or solve the big problem. Or it could refer to an unlikely pairing of two individuals.

"Unexpected" and "Unusual" are self-explanatory.

And the above elements and/or other aspects of the Major Complication should make the situation:

* Less Predictable (for the audience) and
* More Difficult (for the main character/s)

In addition to the above, try to create a complicating element that does one or more of the following: raises the stakes, provides the main character(s) with a difficult task that must be performed before the goal can be achieved, creates a deadline, and/or contains an ironic aspect of some sort.

But the main thing is to provide a second part to the main concept so as to complete and invigorate the story concept -- a new wrinkle, twist, or development that complicates things and which is unusual, unexpected, and/or is in some way unlikely, and which makes the story less linear and predictable for the reader or viewer, and makes the situation and proceedings more difficult for the major characters.

There's no point in spending all the time and mental effort in writing a story unless the underlying concept is solid. Otherwise, you're trying to build a castle on a foundation of sand.


By now (or soon, once you do some brainstorming and apply the above criteria) you should have a sturdy, compelling, dramatically viable concept.

Now it's time to begin (or continue) brainstorming some initial ideas and possibilities that can help you decide how to flesh out the story and design the plot.

That will be the topic of the next article in this series.

# # #

Copyright 2006 by Jeff Newman


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