Most story (and series) ideas fail at the level of concept. Sad, but true. I’ve learned this the hard way. Of course, “fail” is a harsh word. What I mean is simply that they fail to become something that millions of people would happily pay money to watch or read. Because that is what most of us are going for when we write, aren’t we?
It’s not easy to achieve such a lofty goal. It’s rare that anything does. But it’s what the writing marketplace is entirely built on. Those few projects that truly succeed finance all the countless others that don’t — and they (and their writers) are what everyone in the business is looking for, and paying for.
Of course, there are many elements that have to come together for a project to really work, and be a big success. But the key element that we writers do well to pay more attention to is the concept: the basic idea for the story that you could communicate in two sentences — which would hopefully make most people who hear it say something like, “Wow, that sounds like a story I’d want to see or read. There’s something unique about it, but also very real, and it seems clearly entertaining and compelling. I don’t have to ask a bunch of questions. I get it, and I’m with you.”
And so we screenwriters work on this “logline.” Blake Snyder’s book SAVE THE CAT emphasizes this. But here’s the point that I think is key about the logline: it’s not about shaping the words of the logline to “sell” your concept. The point is to shape your CONCEPT until it can be expressed clearly in a logline that just works for people, without you having to do any “selling.” The logline is not the place to tease or hype or generalize — it’s a place to clearly and succinctly tell an idea that sells itself.
The logline should stand alone. If more explaining is required, and more questions are necessary to truly get the idea, then that’s a sign that it’s not a concept that really works. It might be so well-executed that it makes for a good script, but it’s far, far less likely to get sold or produced or help a writer build a career in a significant way. Because the BUSINESS of writing is concept-driven. And concept is what grabs the public.
I used to always hate when people told me to focus on the logline and the big commercial high-concept idea, because I thought it was so limiting. I thought that most of my favorite movies couldn’t be expressed in a catchy logline. And I will say that many great stories don’t necessarily have an enormous “wow” factor when you hear the two-sentence pitch. But I do think their loglines would sound like something Compelling, Unique, Real, and Entertaining. It sounds like there’s a story there, that is worthy of being told, that many many people could enjoy. And that doesn’t require a lot more explanation to be able to evaluate it.
That said, the real thing I love about SAVE THE CAT (and especially its sequel, SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES) is not so much the stuff about loglines. It’s the ten unique “genres” Blake Snyder came up with (and the five sub-genres of each, with numerous movie examples, that are in the second book). This new way of organizing the basic types of successful stories, that have been repeated over and over again, is truly revolutionary to me. Rather than focusing on setting or tone (“war movie” or “comedy”), he much more usefully focuses on basic CONTENT — what’s happening in the story. And in doing so, he created a very helpful common language with which to discuss story concepts.
I’ve yet to read a script or manuscript where it wasn’t valuable to try to pin down which of these ten (really fifty) basic types of stories it’s trying to be — each of which has a few basic elements that are worth paying attention to. And I think finding which one of these you’re really trying and wanting to write is incredibly helpful in honing your concept. Of course, you want your idea to be fresh and different in some way, but there is a flexibility within these basic templates that allows limitless creativity — while providing a structure to create within.
The other central aspect of SAVE THE CAT is the Beat Sheet, which is helpful for structuring the key elements of a story. It’s great for coming up with a one-pager, where the key building blocks of the story are mapped out, and I highly recommend using it for that. But unfortunately, nothing will really write or even outline the whole thing for us!
Not even my favorite software and theory of story can do that — although it goes into far more useful detail on the elements of what make up great stories than anything else I’ve ever seen. But I’ll save that for another post…
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.