How do you decide what to write next?
It’s the single most important decision you will ever make as a writer.
Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall building in a single bound, a great idea is the most powerful thing in the film business. A terrific idea can catapult you from “the outside looking in” straight into the center of the film industry. Possibly one of the toughest occupations to break into, you need a lot of leverage just to get your to toe in the door. A great film concept is the best crowbar imaginable. Ideas are the key to breaking into the business.
How important are ideas? Don’t take my word for it. According to George Lucas, a guy whose understanding of powerful movie ideas has left an indelible mark on our culture, “A movie is a success or failure from the minute you solidify the concept. Execution is 50 percent. It is the primal attachment to the concept that makes the movie work or not work.”
But hey, let’s not take George’s word for it. Try this one by Terry Rossio who with writing partner Ted Elliot wrote ALADDIN, SHREK, and the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN FRANCHISE. That includes a couple of number one world wide box office hits and an Academy Award®:
“The very first decision you make as a writer – ‘what is my film about’ – will define your creative instincts in the eyes of the industry. As a screenwriter, your choice of film premise is your calling card. Not your witty dialog, not your clever descriptions. Not your knowledge of structure and subplot and subtext… You must – you MUST – choose well. 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.”
A great idea for a movie is the most powerful thing in the film business. I call these story concepts “Hooky Ideas.”
A Hooky Idea immediately intrigues our minds. It makes you want to know more, gets you hooked and sticks with you. When it comes to story, human brains, developed over millions of years of telling stories, love to be surprised by something we never saw coming. We adore clever twists, and our minds are turned on by a completely new spin on something we’ve seen before.
A Hooky Idea puts images, feelings, tone into your mind in just a very few words. When you hear a hooky idea, you know what the movie will FEEL LIKE. And you can tell who the audience is. You immediately know if this is a movie that you want to see. Or not. But you can tell right off the bat.
So how to you target the what write next? Here’s an essential check list for determining if you might have for a Hooky Idea.
THE LITMUS TEST: A hero we can ROOT for trying to achieve a tangible goal (LOVE, SUCCESS, POWER, SURVIVAL, THWARTING ALIEN INVASION…) despite OBSTACLES (I.E. CONFLICT) that stand in their way.
CONFLICT IS KEY: It’s what makes movies. It drives the story forward. If you aren’t sure if a short story or an article in the newspaper has the potential to become a movie – this is the surest test. Without conflict you not only don’t have a Hooky Idea, you might not have a movie idea at all.
EVERY GOOD STORY HAS STAKES: Without something meaningful to be gained or lost, who cares? Not the audience.
THE “COOL” TEST: Is it new, clever, fun, a unique twist on something we’ve seen before, give us something new, something fresh even uniquely derivative?
Is it VISCERAL? Movies should move us. We go to the movies to have a visceral experience. Horror movies better be scary. Comedies should make us bust a gut. Mystery should be filled with twists and reveals that astonish and amaze.
TIMELY OR TIMELESS? Hooky ideas have a timeless quality to them, whereas, other ideas may be timely, these films are viewed again and again by subsequent generations. THE THREE MUSKETEERS has been filmed at least twice every single decade since the invention of the medium. Beware of timely ideas about current events or issues, as they limit you and may not speak to a large audience.
IS THERE A PROTOTYPE? Can you think of a successful film in your genre? A strong prototype film exemplifies their genre. Their big structure beats will be the same no matter what details are original to you.
AUDIENCE: Will anyone else feel the way you do about your idea? Don’t be afraid to pitch it. Pitch it to your friends, your partner, your kids. Strangers, someone you’ve met on a blind date. Do they want to know more? Would they go see this movie? If it’s only of interest to you and your mom then there’s no audience for the movie.
IS IT PITCHABLE? Your best chance for success is with a high concept, pitchable idea. If you choose an Execution Dependent idea, the charm, the appeal, the deliciousness, and the ultimate success of the film is in the details not the concept making it nearly impossible to get industry attention from a query or pitch.
THE PASSION TEST: Are you passionate about making this movie? You’d better be – you’re going to spend years of your life on it. Is this idea worth spending years of your life on? And what doesn’t excite you, can’t possibly turn someone else on.
More powerful than a locomotive, a Hooky Idea is best way to decide what to write next and muscle your way into the industry!