I’ve consistently found that most of the notes I have on any script I read — and certainly all of the most important ones — are notes I would have had on the basic idea behind the story, if it had been pitched to me before it was written.
And so, the #1 piece of advice I give to screenwriters is this: get serious objective feedback on the idea, before you launch into outlining — let alone writing the script. And expect people to have notes on the idea, and for you to possibly do some serious rethinking before you ever get past that stage.
Professionals tend to know this, if only because their agents and managers (as well as producers) force them to discuss basic concept, before they will encourage them to start writing (or before they’ll agree to read something that’s been written). And represented writers tend to pitch lots of different ideas before they get to one that is embraced as worth writing.
But nonprofessional writers tend not to do this. They tend to overvalue the process of actually writing the script, and all the little choices one has to get right in the execution — from basic story structure all the way down to dialogue and description on the page. All of which are important. They’re just not as important as the idea.
The 60/30/10 rule:
I would say that 60% or more of what makes a project successful or not is the core idea that could be pitched in a logline, or short query (meaning, up to a one-page synopsis). Which is why this is all that managers want to look at, to consider whether they want to read a script. Maybe another 25-30% is the scene-by-scene plotting and structure choices. And the last 10-15% is the actual words of the page.
Again, I’m not saying those things don’t have to be really top-notch for a script to advance a writer’s career and move forward in some way. I’m just saying they are not the key factors that determine a project’s success. In the professional world, for one thing, it’s assumed that a produced, represented writer will have great skill in these areas. They are generally not what set apart a script and make it move forward.
So I always emphasize this with the writers I coach: run your ideas past professionals for feedback before you commit to writing them. And expect to do a lot of work on generating and modifying ideas, learning about what makes an idea work, and about genre, before getting to a place where your ideas impress professionals.
Does this mean every idea has to be “high concept”? Meaning, it has to have such a grabby, hooky, entertaining, impossible-sounding premise that makes listeners say, “I want to see that movie for my own personal enjoyment”? Not necessarily. But the premise has to meet a few basic (but note easy-to-meet) criteria:
1. At the heart of the story is a problem that takes the whole movie to solve.
(Or, in a television pilot, a problematic situation that is ongoing, and can never really be solved.) In a screenplay, the problem first appears about half way through the first act, and is the main focus of the movie, all the way to the end — other than those last couple of scenes that communicate the changed status quo after it’s been solved.
Not only does it take the whole movie to solve, but the movie’s main character (and there usually is only one) spends virtually every scene actively trying to solve the problem. But they can’t, because it is so vexing and complicated —and it generally only gets MORE complicated as they try to solve it. Leading to the next criteria:
2. This problem/challenge is extremely difficult solve.
If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t take a whole movie (or whole multi-season series) to solve it. It has to defy resolution, and really punish the main character (or, in a series, the ensemble of central characters) as they grapple with it. But they don’t give up. They stay active, and they keep trying to address whatever it is, despite all the slings and arrows that come at them in the process. Why?
3. Solving this problem has huge, life-changing, external stakes.
This “mission” to rise to this challenge is of huge importance, to characters the audience has come to care about. (And earning that caring is of huge importance.) If it doesn’t get solved, life will be unthinkably worse for them. If it does, things will be so much better than they are. All will be right with the world.
So there are generally both positive and negative stakes. And the stakes are EXTERNAL to characters’ life situations, not just INTERNAL to their thoughts, feelings and attitudes. Writers often miss this part, as they tend to be more interested in the internal issues and conflicts driving characters, and their flaws and character arcs. It’s good to have those too, but in movies, they are secondary to the external stakes.
4. This problem fits an established genre.
The process of trying to solve it is entertaining to the audience (and even to readers), in keeping with the type of movie or series that it is. Whether you’re delivering comedy, action, suspense, etc., the writers job is to emotionally grab an audience, and deliver desired emotional experiences to them as they’re watching. I personally think the ten types of stories called “genres” in Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT books are especially useful for making sure you’re writing a particular type of story that has proven successful in the past. (And these types are so flexible they probably cover every movie you’ve ever loved.)
5. The concept is original, in some clear and significant way.
For many writers starting out, this seems to be the main objective — to write something they feel hasn’t been done before, which is interesting to them. And of course nobody wants to see by-the-numbers repeats of what has come before. There must be a spark of uniqueness to the idea. But if it’s only unique, and doesn’t have have these other four elements, it will tend to fall flat.
Blake Snyder talked about how he used to spend lots of time trying to find the next concept to write, and would pitch loglines to strangers in coffee shops to gauge their reactions. Most of us writers don’t want to do that, but testing ideas first is much more efficient than spending a year or more on a script, only to then have someone like me read it, and question the basic idea behind it.
And loglines are a really useful tool for this. Because they succinctly present the basic problem of the movie is, and how it meets these criteria.
I believe it’s worth the time and elbow grease necessary to arrive at an idea that really works — and has the capacity to captivate and entertain millions of people (and the professional readers that stand between you and those millions). Isn’t that the end goal, after all?
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.