Keys to the Craft: Think Concepts

November 26th, 2012 by

It started with this GITS post a years ago:

Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages.

Long-time followers of my blog are familiar with this screenwriting mantra. In fact Annika Wood was kind enough to send me a coffee cup with these very words inscribed on it. I have it on my office desk as a personal reminder.

Reminder of what?

How important these activities are for those committed to learning the craft of screenwriting.

Over time I have added two more to the list: Think concepts. Live life.

This week, a series on all five.

Today: Think concepts.

If you write a spec script based upon the first story idea that comes into your mind, that script will likely suck. Even if it’s decent, it probably won’t sell.

Why? Because almost assuredly, it is not a strong story concept.

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of a story idea to the eventual success of a spec script.

A good story concept enables producers and studio execs to ‘see’ the movie.

A good story concept provides ammo for marketing departments to advertise the film.

A good story concept emboldens managers and agents to sell the crap out of your script.

I believe a script’s concept can represents about half of the value of a screenplay to a potential buyer. That’s right, half.

Are you thinking of story ideas every day? Do you have a master list of story ideas that is… growing? Is one part of your brain on auto-pilot, always sifting through the daily data that comes your way in search of possible story ideas?

Nobel Prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling said this: “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

We, as writers, should be generating “lots of ideas.”

How to do that? Perhaps the single biggest key is two simple words: What if?

Consider anecdotes from three screenwriters:

Bob Gale: “The inspiration for coming up with the story [Back to the Future] is that I was visiting my parents in the summer of 1980, from St. Louis Missouri, and I found my father’s high-school yearbook in the basement. I’m thumbing through it and I find out that my father was the president of his graduating class, which I was completely unaware of. So there’s a picture of my dad, 18-years-old… The question came up in my head, ‘gee, what if I had gone to school with my dad, would I have been friends with him?’ That was where the light bulb went off.”

James Hart: “The secret, the great key to writing Hook, came from my son. When he was six, he asked the question, ‘What if Peter Pan grew up?’ I had been trying to find a new way into the famous ‘boy who wouldn’t grow up’ tale, and our son gave me the key.”

Marc Norman: “The Shakespeare in Love screenplay was written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard, although the original idea was rooted in a third creative mind – one of Norman’s son’s, Zachary. It was in 1989, while studying Elizabethan drama at Boston University, that the younger Norman phoned his father with a sudden brainstorm of a movie concept – the young William Shakespeare in the Elizabethan theater. The elder Norman agreed it was a terrific idea, but he hadn’t a clue what to do with it. Two years later, with bits of time stolen from other projects, the notion had formed – what if Shakespeare had writer’s block while writing his timeless classic, ‘Romeo and Juliet'”?

What if I had gone to school with my dad? What if Peter Pan grew up? What if Shakespeare had writers block?

Want to jump start your ability to think concepts? Make the words “what if” an essential part of your brainstorming vocabulary.

Tomorrow: Watch movies.

Comment Archive

3 thoughts on “Keys to the Craft: Think Concepts

  1. Malibo Jackk says:

    Love this.
    It’s a reminder to keep the brain working.

  2. […] Think Concepts If you write a spec script based upon the first story idea that comes into your mind, that script will likely suck. Even if it’s decent, it probably won’t sell. […]

  3. Alejandro says:

    From the “From Russia With Love” Blu-ray commentary: “Cubby Broccoli had some bad ideas and some good ideas – but a lot of ideas. The trick was convincing him out of the bad ones”

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