When a writer finishes a script, they generally understand that it’s time to get feedback on it, preferably from objective professionals—or others who are knowledgeable and serious about the craft—who will give them their unvarnished opinion, hard as that might be to hear.
What they usually don’t do is seek out the same sort of feedback on their idea for a story before they spend months or years writing it. But that’s the point at which they have the most leverage over what the finished product will look like. That’s when they’re making the most important creative decisions about it that they will ever make.
Why don’t they? Maybe they’re worried about their idea getting stolen. Beginning writers often obsess over this, whereas professionals rarely give it a second thought. While it’s true that one can’t copyright a one- or two-sentence idea for a story (as opposed to its specific expression in a longer document like an outline or script), it’s also true that ideas are rarely stolen, and even if they were, they would usually lead to very different scripts from the one the original writer would have written.
But I think the bigger reason is that for most writers, idea generation and evaluation is a painful and amorphous process, and it seems like nothing is really happening—until they’re writing scenes, or at least structuring a story. Playing with story ideas doesn’t feel like “writing.” But it is—and it’s the most crucial part of the process.
Agents and managers who represent professional (or near-professional) writers understand this and insist that their clients run their ideas past them before they commit to writing. They will shoot down most of them, and typically have lots of notes on the ones they don’t, because they know they can’t sell something if it’s not based on a really strong idea. And they don’t want their clients wasting time writing a script that is flawed from the get-go.
As a screenwriter, I have ignored this fact at my own peril. And as a mentor to other writers, I have seen how universal this problem is. Of the hundreds of scripts I’ve read from writers who haven’t worked professionally yet, virtually all of them had a central idea that was significantly flawed in terms of the principles I lay out in this book. Meaning that if I had heard the idea before they started writing it, I would’ve tried to convince them to rethink it in a significant way. Ninety percent of my most important “notes” or criticisms on a script are concerns I would have voiced about the basic idea if they’d run it past me before writing it.
So the number one piece of advice I now give to writers is this: get serious objective feedback on the idea before you launch into structuring or outlining—let alone writing the script. And expect people to have notes on the idea, and for you to have to do some substantial rethinking, before you ever get past that stage. This can go on for a long time and involve lots of different ideas that you get temporarily excited about. Most of these will never quite take or win over professional readers. This means that the finished script probably wouldn’t, either. Wouldn’t you rather fix that now, instead of months down the road? So whatever you would do to get high-quality feedback—whether it’s from writer friends or a paid consultant—do that with the idea.
The 60/30/10 Rule
I would say that 60 percent or more of what makes a project potentially successful (or not) is the core idea that could be communicated in a short synopsis of a few sentences up to a single page. And this is all that industry professionals will generally be willing to look at to consider whether they want to read further.
Think of it: 60 percent of what’s most important to our chances is what is contained in that mini-pitch of our basic idea. It’s mostly not about all those months of outlining, writing, rewriting, and getting feedback—that’s not the most important part. The most important part is what comes before all that.
But the work in coming up with that basic idea is not easy. It can take a lot of time and much trial and error to arrive at one that could garner the interest of professionals. Most of us don’t want to spend that much time questioning our core story premise. But the reality is that “the business” will question it, and will usually dismiss it—and all our hard work—unless we have an idea they see as viable.
Many if not most writers never come up with a story idea that solidly addresses the criteria in this book, despite years of pursuing the craft. And this is a big part of the reason most never end up selling anything or becoming professionally employed. They might focus on bringing their scene writing and narrative structure up to professional quality, but not on their understanding of what makes a viable idea. Which is arguably the most important thing.
If there’s nothing else you take from this book, please take this “60 percent” figure and reconfigure your efforts toward “basic idea” development accordingly. Spend more time and energy on ideas. Make it your number one goal as a writer to learn what makes a great one and to get better at generating them.
Once you have an idea that really works, and you feel reasonably sure (because you’ve vetted it thoroughly with others), then, and only then, does it make sense to turn to the other 40 percent of the process.
What does that consist of?
To me, 30 percent of what’s important in a project’s success lies in the structural choices, the decisions about what will happen, scene by scene, in a story—or what you’d see in an outline.
That means only 10 percent is about the actual words on the page—the description and dialogue that people will read in the finished product. The actual scene writing—that’s the last 10 percent.
This seems shocking to many beginning writers. Ninety percent of what matters is what’s behind those written pages—what the writer worked on before they ever fired up any script-formatting software.
Again, I’m not saying the writing doesn’t have to be really top-notch for a script to advance a writer’s career and move forward in some way. Of course it’s best if your scene writing is memorably great, and your structure and outlining choices are very strong, too. I’m just saying those two things are not the key factors that determine a project’s success. And in fact, those two things usually are never even considered or seen, because the project’s chances die at the earlier idea stage.
And when they die, it’s for one simple reason: the idea struck whoever read it as insufficient in one or more of the seven elements that this book will focus on—elements that are universally understood as key, even if different readers would use different terminology to describe them (or might not even be conscious of the fact that these are what they look for and respond best to).
So without further ado, here’s what they are . . .
At the heart of any story is a problem that takes the whole story to solve. It’s a challenge that the story’s main character is actively engaged with, which consumes their attention, energy, and emotion—and that of the audience. It usually starts by about 10 percent into the story and continues until essentially the very end (having built and become worse and more difficult along the way), when it’s finally solved.
An idea for a story really is that central problem. It’s about what the main character is faced with and/or trying to achieve—its difficulty, its importance, what’s in their way, and what they do to try to resolve it.
These are the things that professionals want to understand from any logline and/or synopsis. Until they can see the problem in this way, and until they think it sounds really viable and intriguing, they won’t want to read anything else.
So what makes a “problem” (i.e., your basic story idea) viable?
It needs to have the following seven essential characteristics, the first letters of which form the acronym PROBLEM:
Not only does it take the whole story to solve the problem, but the main character spends virtually every scene trying to solve it. But they can’t, because it is so vexing and complicated—and it generally only gets more so as they try to address it. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t take a whole “story” to overcome. The problem defies resolution and besieges the main character as they grapple with it.
The main character of a story—and what they’re dealing with and why it matters—is easy to identify with on a human level. Because of this, we in the audience are able to strongly care that they reach their desired outcome, making us want to stay with the story. We even put ourselves in their shoes, such that it feels like their problem is our problem. We stay invested because they do. They remain active, and they keep trying to address whatever it is, despite all the slings and arrows that come at them in the process. If they didn’t, it would feel like things weren’t moving forward in a compelling way, and our interest would slacken.
Something about the premise of the story and its approach is fresh and brand-new—even though it also fits within the conventions of good storytelling and genre. There is a spark of uniqueness to the idea, and preferably to the writer’s voice, as well.
It’s easy for someone hearing or reading the basic idea to understand and buy into it, even if it requires taking a leap and suspending disbelief, in some clearly defined way. In other words, it all feels real. The characters seem driven by identifiable human wants, needs, and behavior. It all sounds like it adds up, makes sense, and doesn’t leave people asking any “why” questions or being skeptical or confused about anything.
The “mission” to rise to the central story challenge is of huge importance to characters the audience has come to care about. If it doesn’t get solved, life will be unthinkably worse for them. Something in their outer life circumstances, on a primal level, is at stake. And if they solve their problem, things will be so much better than they are. All will be right with the world. In addition, the process of going through this challenge may alter them internally, in a hugely important way. But it’s the external stakes that come first.
The process of trying to solve the story problem is fun to watch or read, consistent with its genre. Whether it’s comedy, action, suspense, etc., the material creates desired emotional experiences in the audience, of the kind that they came to the project hoping to have. So it becomes like candy to them—something they want more and more of, something they really enjoy and would spend time and money on.
The audience comes away feeling that value has been added to their life—that something worthwhile has been explored, which has resonance beyond the time they spent watching/reading it. It was really about something more than just its surface plot—something meaningful to them.
Sounds simple, and even obvious, right? Fulfill these seven characteristics with your idea, and you’ll have a piece of material that could get you the interest of a manager, agent, editor, or producer.
Or maybe it doesn’t sound so simple. Maybe it sounds impossible to do all these things at once. If you’re a little overwhelmed by the task, then you’re probably recognizing what a big job it really is.
There’s a reason such a tiny percentage of aspiring writers succeed, and why those who do are so handsomely rewarded. It’s rare to successfully achieve all of this in a script or in an idea for one.
When we look at our favorite stories, they probably do it so effortlessly that we didn’t even notice. These criteria are so basic to our experience of consuming good stories, that they might seem to be self-evident. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to pull off. The reality is that it takes a lot of work to create what might appear effortless. And writers don’t usually instinctively get what it takes to achieve this.
How “High” Is Your Concept?
In Hollywood, the logline is the standard tool for expressing the idea behind a movie or series. It is typically no more than a sentence or two, and it distills the premise down to the basic problem being faced. A good logline suggests a story that would clearly meet the criteria set out in this book. It presents a compelling situation for a character or characters that one can imagine audiences caring about. And it lays out a central challenge that sounds really difficult, and entertaining to watch, such as:
A slick German industrialist profiting from World War II becomes sickened when he sees what’s happening to the Jews, so he starts employing them, to try to keep them out of the clutches of a psychopathic Nazi camp commandant he’s become friendly with. (Schindler’s List)
A naive recent college graduate gets involved in a secret affair with a married friend of his parents, whose daughter they think he should date. (The Graduate)
A down-on-her-luck maid of honor seems to be losing her best friend to a richer, prettier, more confident married woman, so she sets out to defeat her and prove that she’s the better bridesmaid. (Bridesmaids)
When we talk about an idea for a story, we’re really talking about something that could be easily understood in this short form—which is generally true of the most sellable ideas.
Successful loglines often have a “high-concept” element. “High concept” means an outrageous situation of some kind, not necessarily fantastical, but extreme, unexpected, unlikely, and with obvious entertainment value and broad appeal. Usually they come from a “what if” question, like “What if there was a theme park with dinosaurs that got loose?” or “What if a teenager time travels to the past and gets in the way of his teenage parents’ meeting, so he has to get them together, then find a way back to the future?”
But even some non-fantastical premises can be called “high concept” if they are intriguing and clear and make the potential audience start conjuring entertaining images in their minds right away. “What if a forty-year-old man was still a virgin, and his sex-obsessed male coworkers tried to fix that?” Consider the original poster for this movie. Just the image of Steve Carell and the title alone is almost enough to make one get the comedy and challenges in this premise. It seems pregnant with possibility and makes one wonder why nobody ever thought of it before.
In a compelling logline with a high concept element, it’s clear what the idea is, and why it’s compelling. There’s enough there that one can really picture the story. No one needs to ask a bunch of questions to understand what it is. They instantly “get it.”