A well-written script with a bland, uninteresting idea is a bland, uninteresting script. A producer won’t know how brilliant your writing is until AFTER they read your script, and no one is going to read your script if it sounds dull. You need a great story idea to make them read your script, and great writing so they don’t STOP reading.
Everybody thinks they have a great idea for a movie, but how many of these ideas will attract millions of viewers without a star or amazing special effects or fantastic stunts? Your script is going to come into a producer’s office “naked” – just words on the page. That producer is going to ask to read your script after reading a synopsis, logline, or hearing a brief pitch that distills your 110 pages into the basic idea. At this point your story idea is everything. Why would they want to waste their time on a script with a dull idea? But how do you find these great ideas?
On spec scripts I usually use MAGNIFICATION. I find the thing my protagonist most fears – his biggest emotional problem – and I construct a story that will force him to deal with that fear. By magnifying the situation – taking it to the limit – I can usually find an interesting high concept idea. If my protagonist is afraid of being alone, I strand him on a barren planet. If my protagonist is afraid of commitment, he’ll have to get married by the end of the day or be trapped on that barren planet with the woman who wants him to commit.
The other method is to start with a high concept idea and find the character who will be forced to deal with the emotional issues required to resolve the conflict. But how do you get those cool high concept ideas in the first place?
A simple way to come up with a high concept idea is to drop in a “high concept phrase”. Basic substitution. You take the familiar – the universal – and you add a unique element. Take your story or a basic story idea and add “In Outer Space”, “With An Alien”, or some other high concept phrase. So your story may be High Noon in outer space (Outland) or High Noon with an alien (Sam Irvin’s Oblivion) or High Noon with a dragon (a spec sale from a couple of years ago) or High Noon with wizards (Roger Corman’s The Raven). This may sound silly and artificial to you, but all you are really doing is taking a familiar story and changing one element… which only changes everything. Obviously if our version of High Noon is against a dragon, our protagonist isn’t going to be a cowboy, our story won’t take place in the American west in the late 1800s. That one difference changes everything else.
Take your average High School romance… make it a musical.
Take your average High School romance… make it about Vampires.
What we’re doing is taking the familiar and adding a twist. Taking a story that the audience understands and finding a new and imaginative way to tell it.
If you change any element of a story, it will change the whole story. You want to find an exciting and imaginative change – something unusual. Elmore Leonard has a novel that’s subtitled “High Noon In Detroit”… that change isn’t wild enough to make the story high concept. We’re used to seeing cowboys like Clint Eastwood face off against modern day desperados in urban settings. Clint has even done it in cowboy garb in Coogan’s Bluff. To create a high concept idea you need to substitute a WEIRD element instead of another normal element. The weirder the better! You could do High Noon with knights in armor, but that’s not as cool as High Noon pitting a modern fireman against a dragon. Brainstorm a list of weird things – vampires, dragons, aliens, wizards, werewolves… let your imagination run wild. Come up with the weirdest things you can imagine, don’t censor yourself. Then plug those things into a story archetype.
How about Romeo & Juliet with a werewolf? His family are werewolf hunters, her family are werewolves… and their relationship works until there’s a full moon. (That’s Underworld).
Of course, a big problem with vampires or werewolves or zombies is that it’s been done before. If it has been done before, it’s not unique and that means it’s not a high concept. High concept ideas are unique and universal. This is the reason why just being about vampires or zombies isn’t high concept – in fact, you really have to work twice as hard to have a unique idea if you’re using something like vampires or zombies that we’ve seen a million times before. The best vampire idea I’ve seen in the past five years is 30 Days of Night that takes place in Alaska where it’s night for months… that’s something we haven’t seen before. When you have a vampire problem there, it’s a big problem! Vampires in High School? Not so much of a problem… though Twilight is still a huge hit.
There are some things that are “surface ideas” – the ones that everyone thinks of, so they end up done to death. I’m sure The Omen remake dredged up every devil script in Hollywood… until it flopped.
Your mission (should you decide to accept it) is to find something that has never been done before. Find a fresh supernatural legend or element – one that hasn’t been done to death. You know how many cultures there are in the world? How many legends each culture has? So why does it always end up being the same handful of supernatural characters and ideas in script after script?
If you do something with an over-used element (like vampires) you have to find some amazing new idea that re-invents the whole vampire story. That comic book about vampires in Alaska where they have months of night is a good example…. but now that’s been done. They’ve also done vampires in space (where it’s always dark).
You can also look at a story element and rif on different possibilities. I’ve got a half written sci-fi script that began with me thinking about space SHIPS. I thought of all of the ship stories that could be told, and put them in space. Hey, that Sargasso Sea of wrecked ships is a creepy idea… Bingo! I also came up with a plague ship idea that’s pretty good. We’ve seen ghost ship movies like Event Horizon, but what about pirates? What if a fireman had to deal with a fire breathing dragon?
Here’s a random, off the top of my head, list of things to plug in:
Changing Forms or Species
Talking To Animals
Talking To Dead People
Passing As Human
Seeing The Future
Seeing The Past
Inanimate Objects Come Alive
Super Heroes or Super Powers
Take your average High School romance… but he’s an alien foreign exchange student.
You should brainstorm up your own list, because your life and experience and mega-themes will result in a personalized list. The subjects that interest you. Even a high concept story needs to be a personal story. Remember, once you’ve plugged in some element like this, you have to rethink the story with this element… and it will change everything. EVERYTHING.
When we break a story down into elements and let our imaginations run wild we can come up with stories that are both unique and universal – familiar and weird. An idea so interesting producers can’t wait to read your screenplay.
This Week’s Assignment: Romeo Again?
There have been a million versions of Romeo & Juliet – your mission is to come up with version one million and one. Update the story! Just a logline, please, no novels!