Story Concepts That Sell

October 30th, 2014 by

The foundation of any movie is the screenplay. The foundation of any screenplay is the concept. Therefore it stands to reason which story concept you develop and write as a spec script is a critical choice. And that is precisely why I created the upcoming webinar Story Concepts That Sell: To understand how movie industry insiders think, provide you with proven methods to generate story concepts, and develop analytical skills to help you zero in on the strongest ones for you to write.

Consider this quote:

“Most aspiring screenwriters simply don’t spend enough time choosing their concept. It’s by far the most common mistake I see in spec scripts. The writer has lost the race right from the gate. Months — sometimes years — are lost trying to elevate a film idea that by its nature probably had no hope of ever becoming a movie.”

– Terry Rossio (Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

I’ve been approached many times to do webinars. I chose this topic for my first one precisely because it is so important. I’ve spent thousands of hours generating story concepts and studying ways to engender that process, so I have a lot of content on the subject.

My webinar Story Concepts That Sell is scheduled for Monday, November 17, 2014 1:00PM PT/ 4:00PM ET.


  • A take on ‘high concept’ that actually helps your creative process
  • The singular importance of a ‘story conceit’
  • How to think in terms of genres, cross genres, and sub-genres
  • Hollywood’s golden rule of ‘similar, but different’
  • Keys to brainstorming story concepts
  • Why recycling is more than just an eco-friendly lifestyle
  • Gender-bending and genre-bending
  • A commonsense approach on how to write loglines
  • The two most powerful words in the story concept process
  • Why you need to take into account the international market
  • Many more tips on coming up with story concepts that can sell


  • Writers who want to write commercial movies
  • Writers who want to land representation with a manager and/or agent
  • Writers who need to understand the mindset of a Hollywood buyer
  • Writers who have never grasped how important story concepts are
  • Writers who struggle with writing loglines
  • Writers who want to learn how to approach the craft like a professional
  • Writers whose dream is to sell an original spec script
  • Writers who want to maximize their chances at breaking into Hollywood
  • Writers who are serious about succeeding as a screenwriter


The webinar is broadcast over the Internet with the live audio being delivered through your computer speakers or over your telephone. The presentation is displayed directly from the Presenter’s computer onto your computer screen.

The Q&A is managed through a chat-style submission system with questions being answered by the Presenter for the entire class to hear. In the event some questions are not answered during the live session, an e-mail with all questions and answers will be sent to all webinar attendees.

Participate Live or Watch Later

This webinar includes both access to the live webinar where you may interact with the presenter and the recorded, on-demand edition for your video library.  Each registration comes with access to the archived version of the program and the materials for one year. You do not have to attend the live event to get a recording of the presentation. In all webinars, no question goes unanswered. Attendees have the ability to chat with the instructor during the live event and ask questions. You will receive a copy of the webinar presentation in an e-mail that goes out one week after the live event. The answers to questions not covered in the live presentation will be included in this e-mail as well.

Another quote to consider:

“Ideas cost NOTHING and require ZERO risk. And yet, oddly, the LEAST amount of time’s usually spent in the idea stage before a small fortune is dumped on a whimsy that’s still half-baked… Ideas cost nothing yet have the potential to yield inexplicably long careers and happy lives.”

– Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Zak and Miri Make a Porno)

Yes, ideas and story concepts are that important. Shouldn’t you learn everything you can to give yourself an edge in relation to this critical screenwriting skill set?

Logline Critique

You also have the option to submit a logline from one of your original stories which I will critique, providing feedback on it to you.

Join me for my webinar Story Concepts That Sell — 90 minutes that could transform your creative process.

Go here to learn more and sign up. Date: Monday, November 17, 2014 1:00PM PT/ 4:00PM ET.

Reader Question: What to do if I’m good with plot, but weak with characters?

October 30th, 2014 by

Question via Twitter from @MahinWriter:

My issue: I can outline plot, but my character arcs feel weak. Got a blog post for that!?

It’s an important question and I appreciate you asking it, Michael, because with all the emphasis on screenplay structure in the online screenwriting universe — and by structure, most ‘gurus’ mean plot — there are a lot of script floating around that where writers hit the mark in terms of plot points and page count, but have created formulaic stories with little or no emotional resonance. And where should that emotional resonance come from? Why, characters, of course!

So the short answer is this: Spend more time with your characters! How to develop them? Try these techniques:

Questionnaire: A series of questions about your characters. Here is an example:

What is your name?

How old are you?

How would you describe your physical appearance?

How do you feel about the way you look?

Who are your parents?

Describe your relationship with your mother.

Describe your relationship with your father.

Who is the most important person in your life? Why?

Are you in love?

If so, describe your lover and your relationship with them.

If not, why not?

Describe what your soul-mate would be like.

Do you believe in God?

If so, describe your relationship with God.

If not, why not?

When did you stop believing in God?

Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist? Why?

What do you do for a living?

If you like your job, explain why.

If not explain why not.

In ten years, where will you be and what will you be doing?

Please fill in the following…

My biggest strengths are…

My biggest weaknesses are…

I am most proud of…

I am most ashamed of…

I am most angry about…

And finally, be as honest as you can with this question…

I am most afraid of…

Biography: You act as historian and construct a life for your character, focusing on key relationships and events that may come into play in terms of their personality and events in your story.

Interview: Assume the role of a reporter, police detective, someone with a vested interest in getting information from a character, then go at them in the first person voice.

Sit-downs: This is the most ‘mystical’ of the techniques, but can also be one of the most valuable. Close the door, shut off your phone, sit at your computer, put your hands on your keyboard, close your eyes, and summon up an image of the character in question. If you can’t form a face, focus on one prominent feature — hands, hair, shoes, eyes. Then sit with them… and type. Don’t open your eyes, don’t edit what you’re typing, just write down the impressions, thoughts and feelings that come into your consciousness. Do this at least for a half-hour. Now what you end up with may be 90% misspelled crap, but even if just 10% of what you have on paper is gold, you’re ahead of the game. And in my experience, that 10% is often essential stuff, keys to the character. Do this exercise with all of your primary characters. You may choose to do it several times with your Protagonist and others over the course of your prep-writing as they evolve to check in with them.

Archetypes: At some point, it’s helpful to drill down and see what your main characters’ essential narrative function is, then you can ascribe to them one of the five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. But there are a whole host of other archetypes and you can consider each of your main characters in relation to them from a list like this one. For instance a Mentor who is a martyr is entirely different than a thief, an Attractor who is a virgin is different than a femme fatale.

Bottom line you are trying to do three things: (1) Go into your characters so you dig up key aspects of who they are. (2) Identify what their respective narrative functions are. (3) Understand how they work together as an ensemble especially in relation to the Protagonist’s metamorphosis journey.

Through that, hopefully the characters will come to life in your imagination and in your writing, it will be much more about them telling the story than you, and your plot will benefit from it.

Readers, do you have any other suggestions? Please head to comments and opine away!

Video: George Lucas on Star Wars and “psychological motifs in mythology”

October 30th, 2014 by

In a recent appearance with Charlie Rose, George Lucas got his theology on when talking about Star Wars. Check it out:


When I was trying to pitch Star Wars, I had an idea about psychological motifs that are in mythology. The great thing about mythology is it’s an oral medium, up until they learned how to write. But before that with Homer and everybody, they would just tell the stories… Passed down from father to son, father to son. And it told the people what the rules are. It’s the same thing as the Church, all the things we’ve got that make us a community, that we all believe in and share. What they used to go from a family to a tribe, and tribe to a city. So I said, “I wonder if people still think the way they thought then?” I think I proved they do.

It wasn’t until Freud came along that people realized that, “Oh, these are psychological motifs that have been around for a long time.” And they’re just as strong today.

What’s a hero. What’s friendship. What’s sacrificing yourself for something larger. They’re all very basic things. Well, why make a movie about that, it’s very obvious… but it’s actually not. Unless you have somebody tell you every generation this is what our country believes in. This is what we believe in. With Star Wars, the religion and everything was taken and put into a form that was easy for everybody to accept… It went everywhere in the world. Because they could say, “Oh, the things I believe in are the same as that.”

Most people in the world believe exactly the same thing. They share the same beliefs. Why do we think the way we think, why do we do what we do, why do we form our societies the way we do. It’s something I did when I was about eight years old, she was putting me to bed. I asked her a question. I said, “Mom, if there’s only one God, why are there so many religions?” And it’s a question that’s fascinated me ever since. If you really look at it and say, “What’s the difference between a Shia and Sunni? What’s the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant? They aren’t any different. We all believe in the Jewish God. But what about the Jewish God and the gods that came before? Buddhism is a little bit different, but in the end, everybody expresses it a little different, but basically it’s, “Don’t kill people” and “Be compassionate and love people.” That’s basically what Star Wars is.

Sounds like the Jedi-In-Chief would like my series Theology of Screenwriting.

Beyond the surprising connections Lucas draws between Star Wars and theology, there are three big takeaways from his comments:

* Universality: Stories that traffic in universal themes are more likely to resonate with big audiences. Or depending upon the theme, connect deeply with a small, but specific group.

* Psychological motifs: This is so much up my alley, what I teach, how I write because at the end of the day, while we want interesting plots with twists and turns, I am convinced what really compels us to respond to a movie are the characters and their psychological lives. We can identify with the characters and that sucks us into the story through their transformation-journeys.

* Mythology: Lucas sounds very much like Joseph Campbell in drawing the historical connection between stories passed on from generation to generation. Indeed, how it is incumbent upon each generation to come up with their own stories that will almost inevitably use mythological themes as part and parcel of their narratives.

Hopefully the new batch of Star Wars movies will find a healthy balance between technology and eye candy, and universality, mythology and psychological motifs to give each movie depth and emotional meaning.

HT to Indiewire for the link to the interview.

Movie Trailer: “Focus”

October 30th, 2014 by

Written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

A veteran grifter takes a young, attractive woman under his wing, but things get complicated when they become romantically involved.


Release Date: 27 February 2015 (USA)

Great Scene: “Local Hero”

October 30th, 2014 by

October is Great Scene month at Go Into The Story whereby we put a spotlight on notable movie scenes, then analyze and discuss them. Their structure, themes, character dynamics. Why do they work? What are their narrative elements that elevate them to greatness? Let’s face it: In a fundamental way, screenwriting is scene-writing, so the more we learn about this aspect of the craft, the better.

Today: The 1983 movie Local Hero, written by Bill Forsyth. IMDB plot summary:

An American oil company sends a man to Scotland to buy up an entire village where they want to build a refinery. But things don’t go as expected.

His business responsibilities over, Mac (Peter Riegert) sets off to leave Ferness and return home to Houston.

Local Hero may not, at first glance, appear to be a Hero’s Journey, but it most certainly is. Mac departs from his Ordinary World (Houston), then immerses himself in an Extraordinary World (Ferness). There he meets all sorts of new faces, new customs, and new ways of looking at life. He is transformed and we can see as much when he enters his apartment back ‘home’ in Houston. I say ‘home’ because it feels foreign to him. Note how he sets out artifacts from Scotland — sea shells, driftwood, photos — to try and make himself feel more comfortable. But then he steps out onto the balcony, his reverie swallowed up by the ambient noise of the city.

Then that final shot: The little town of Ferness. And the phone in the phone booth rings… and rings… and rings…

Sometimes, like Dorothy, the hero goes away, then returns home with a new appreciation for their Old World. Sometimes, like Mac, the hero returns and has been so influenced by their experiences, they cannot feel at home in their old digs. In both cases, the hero has been transformed.

To read all of the entries in the Great Scene archive, go here.

If you have an idea for this Great Scene series, check out the responses people have made so far here. If you have a different scene in mind you think would be worthy of analysis, please post it there or in comments for this post. Thanks!

Writing and the Creative Life: Perspiration and Inspiration

October 30th, 2014 by

An excellent book: “Stoking the Creative Fires: 9 Ways to Rekindle Passion and Imagination” by Phil Cousineau. The very first paragraph of the first chapter has a great description of creative inspiration:

Inspiration is a flash of fire in the human soul. Consider the marvel: the inrush of spirit, the flash of an idea, the flame of insight, the spark of imagination. It’s the Aha, Eureka, and Hallelulah moment all rolled into one. Inspiration is a message-in-a-bottle from the distant shore, a window into the other world, a tap of the muse’s finger, the grace of the gods. It comes when you least expect it, when your defense are down and your vulnerability up. It arrives in a dream, a conversation, a brainstorm–and leaves with out warning.

No doubt, writing is work. A daily grind. The challenge of depositing derriere on chair often the biggest struggle of all. It is making something out of nothing, putting black words down on white space. Pounding out pages. Slaving over each word.

So much of that is about intention, persistence, practice and study. Just describing it this way engenders a sense of weariness.

Compare to Cousineau’s description. Fire, marvel, inrush, spirit, flash, flame, insight, spark. That speaks to the vibrancy and spontaneity of creativity.

How to balance the two: Perspiration and Inspiration?


Oftentimes inspiration emerges from the work. Punching our way through the process. Hammering away at a scene over and over and over again. Grinding away at a variety of plot options. Our perspiration can yield insights, either a sudden flash or slow rising sense of awareness.

But sometimes, we have to step away. We have to cede control to other forces of nature. We can’t solve everything by slamming up against the story. We have to open our imaginations, a quest for the fire of inspiration outside the tiny perimeters of our writing space.

Get up. Go. Get out. Depart our story world for a while. Change of scenery. Change of pace. Change of head space.

Because the maddening truth is… sometimes inspiration has nothing to do with our physical labor of fingers on keyboard. Rather it has to do with letting go.

So maybe the question isn’t so much about how to achieve balance. Perhaps it’s more about embracing both. The ability and willingness to throw ourselves fully into one, then the other.

Sometimes it’s all about the work.
Sometimes it’s all about the un-work.

As Cousineau writes:

So inspiration may be an unpredictable friend, as inscrutable as an oracle and fickle as a weathervane. But if you’re serious about your own creativity, you have no choice but to try to make it…well…scrutable, to salvage a wonderful old word. What you can do is improve the odds that your spirit will be moved by being alert to whatever form inspiration may take.

You may learn more about Phil Cousineau on his website here.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

Daily Dialogue — October 30, 2014

October 30th, 2014 by


Barton Fink (1991), written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Madness.

Trivia: Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen after a trip to see Baby Boom (1987) while suffering writer’s block writing Miller’s Crossing (1990).

Dialogue On Dialogue: Barton goes through a slow descent into a metaphorical madness, but Charlie Meadows is madness personified. What better backdrop to explore madness than Hollywood where insanity seems to be the basis of the studios’ business practices.

Scene-By-Scene Script Breakdown Challenge

October 29th, 2014 by

The GITS community never ceases to amaze me. On October 16th, I put out this challenge:

Here’s what I’m thinking: We have 4 weeks in November. What if we choose one script per week from here, the free and legal screenplays we host on the site. I’m looking for one volunteer per week to do a Scene-By-Scene Breakdown for one of those scripts. Then over the course of the week, we would analyze the script’s structure. It might go something like this:

Monday: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown.

Volunteer posts their breakdown which we discuss.

Tuesday: Major plot points.

We go through the breakdown and identify key plot points, then discuss their importance.

Wednesday: Sequences.

We identify the groupings of scenes that feel like sequences.

Those are all about what transpires in the Physical Journey. Next we could take up this:

Thursday: Psychological Journey (Metamorphosis).

Here we would explore how various characters, most especially Protagonists, go through some sort of transformation.

Friday: Revelations.

Basically what did we learn through this process.

Anybody interested in this? You should be. If you’re not reading movie scripts on a regular basis, you’re not really taking this whole enterprise seriously enough. You need to read.

I’ll sweeten the pot for those hearty souls who would take up the challenge to compile an actual Scene-By-Scene Breakdown: You can take one of my Core or Craft one-week online classes for free.

I was hoping for four respondents. We ended up with this:

American Hustle: Jon
Argo: NB
Flight: 14Shari
Frankenwenie: Will King
Gravity: mattd_85
Hanna: John Arends
Lincoln: pgronk
Looper: erikledrew
Moonrise Kingdom: iamdaniel
Mud: Alejandro
Paranorman: OhScotty
The Artist: Traci Nell Peterson
The Social Network: N D
The Way Way Back: Ricky
Wadjda: iamdaniel

I’m wondering if this is something we can just keep on doing, maybe for an entire year? How great would it be to end up with 52 scene-by-scene breakdowns with extensive analysis, all of them posted in the site’s archives? That would be an excellent resource for screenwriters.

We begin next Monday with Argo. Anybody else care to sign up for another script from those we host on this site? Please let me know in comments.

Beyond that, I’d love to see folks participate in our daily analysis of these scripts.

If we do this right, the series could be a tremendous learning opportunity.

Thanks in advance. Let’s do this!

UPDATE: Now up to 12 volunteers. That’s nearly 3 months worth of script analysis. Plus we should be getting some 2014 scripts available here in the next few weeks as the studios roll out their For Your Consideration sites. I have a feeling this series is going to be a tremendous learning exprience for all involved. Thanks to the volunteers!

UPDATE #2: We’ve got 15 volunteers! Great job, everyone!

Spec Script Sale: “Midnight”

October 29th, 2014 by

Radar Pictures acquires horror thriller spec script “Midnight” written by Travis Baker and Richard Tanne. From Deadline:

The horror-thriller described as “I Know What You Did Last Summer meets Prisoners” centers on a small-town mayor’s daughter who goes missing and the detectives, family and friends who discover she’s just the latest in the town’s dark history of mystery and murder.

Baker and Tanne are repped by WME and Dobre Films.

By my count, there have been 52 spec script sales in 2014.

There were 83 spec script sales year-to-date in 2013.

Video: Jill Soloway Keynote Address | 2014 Film Independent Forum

October 29th, 2014 by

Screenwriter-director Jill Soloway delivers the Filmmaker Keynote Address at the 2014 Filmmaker Forum.

Via Indiewire.