Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers.
Movie ideas can be tricky things. Sometimes an idea seems great because you have the potential to surprise the audience at the end (The Sixth Sense). Sometimes an idea can be a way of telling an utterly familiar story, yet it can contain nagging anticipation and detail how people behave in crisis (Titanic). Or sometimes an idea can be just a value; simply a human emotion, like “madness” (Repulsion) or “lost in space” (Gravity) or “you can’t win against real power” (Chinatown).
- Don’t try to be clever.
- Don’t struggle to be original.
Clever can simply be a way of tricking the audience. That’s fine, but you can only do that trick once. That’s what “spoiler alerts” are about. A “one-trick” movie is simply that. And believe me, you’re welcome to try. There are some masterpieces among this type. Yes, The Sixth Sense. That’s because both Bruce Willis and the audience reach the same understanding at the same moment. But it’s an amazing value in the end. The main character learns to live with the final truth about himself.
I believe the concept of “originality” may just be a term that people on the business side of our world use to make their next project sound exciting. But in my opinion there’s about twelve ideas (maybe a few more) that screenwriters morph over and over into all the wonderful movies we’ve seen in the past one-hundred years.
I call these “Essential Human Values.” They haven’t really changed for over 2000 years. Hey—they’re dependable!
How do you know your story will hold up as a feature film? Fundamentally, if you can’t explain the story to yourself, who else will understand it?
So many of my students say, “I’ve got it all in my head, but I can’t explain it. Just let me write a script and it’ll all be clear.”
Creating your story is the process of creating clarity. Every movie you’ve ever loved is clear. Its story, its main character, and its value are always crystal clear. And yet, they appear to be “original” (they’re not) and they appear to be “clever and surprising” (not really) and they are said to be “subtle” (well, sort of). But when you go out afterward with your date or your friends and discuss it, you will always agree on major points of that movie. You will agree on what happened (that’s the plot) and you’ll agree on what it’s about (that’s the story). That’s because everything about it is clear—even David Lynch struggles to be clear, but on his own terms.
Good movies are thoughtful works of art. They have to be well thought-out because if they weren’t, then there would be a lot of money wasted. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get out there with a camera and a cast and a crew and just mess around until you came up with something?
That would be very expensive!
This struggle is shared by everyone who makes a movie or tells a story. Jim Jarmusch shares it with Sidney Lumet. David Lynch shares it with Martin Scorcese.
So, even though you’re a gifted artist, you must set out to create something that is clear and must in some way do something very important. This thing that we’re all struggling to do is…
It’s gotta make sense.
Your story must be coherent, cohesive, and in its own way, make its own sense. The Sixth Sense makes its own special sense according to the rules of the living afterlife. Star Wars makes sense in its own interplanetary Federation v. Empire thing. And certainly we accept everything in Gravity even though I’m not sure you can hop from space station to space station as if they were rest stops on the interstate. But the movie made sense. I believed it.
Most of all, what you’re focused on as an audience (and you will be as a screenwriter) is the struggle of your character in whatever ordeal you’re putting him/her through. That’s your initial concern. That’s the first thing that will determine if your story is working:
Before this thing is over, what will this cost the character?
In The Sixth Sense, it costs him his marriage, his relationships, his life. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker must sacrifice everything, be humiliated by Yoda, lose his hand — and still do the right thing, kill his father (I really like that one!). Yet, it all makes sense.
One thing you have in common with your audience; the quality that you are certain to share with all of them; the only predictive factor you can rely on; that one thing that you can dependably say you share with any movie-going audience:
Your story will be about a human being. Even if it’s about a fish (Finding Nemo) or a baby deer (Bambi) or a group of toys (Toy Story) or a hobbit (Lord of the Rings) or a hero with superpowers (Superman, Spiderman), your story will be about a person struggling with something important.
This important struggle will be generated from what appears to be the normal, everyday things in life: Work? Love? Adventure? Or how about Fear? Greed? Loss? These are all human conditions and circumstances that allow us to identify with some common human value. Something that we all think about. Something that we may have actually struggled with ourselves. Some of us may have been successful in this struggle. Others failed. But whatever it is, it’s what the story is about. It’s why we came to see this movie (besides the thrills, the laughs, and the emotions).
In the end, there are only a few possible outcomes for your story:
- “Wow! The hero really did it!” (happy ending, Gravity)
- “Oh no, the hero really messed up. That’s too bad.” (sad ending, Chinatown)
- “Oh well, even though the hero didn’t succeed, I bet they learned something from this experience.”(ironic ending, The Sixth Sense)
Believe it or not, any of these three might be the “motor” of the movie you just liked or what’s inside the idea you’re trying to develop right now. Whatever the case, you will need to know this at some point in your process before you go ahead with that script.
Of course, you can write a script right now if it makes you happy. But you’ll still have to go through it and make it something of value. Something that tells us about your character’s problem, his/ her struggle and why you are putting your character through this ordeal. This is what gets you and any other movie audience excited.
So, your first big question:
Does your idea generate value?
A human value is simply something that we believe and we want to reaffirm by means of telling our story. That’s pretty simple. All decent movies—even the The Fast and the Furious series or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—generate a human value. How about the movies we’re watching today? Here, in one short statement each, is the dramatic and emotional value of these Oscar nominees:
- Gravity: Under the worst kind of pressure, you can find within you the will to survive. She’s under time pressure, a threat to her life, and she has a problem in her head about her dead daughter. All are important in the story.
- 12 Years a Slave: A man’s freedom shouldn’t be taken for granted. Sometimes you have to fight for it! He’s trapped, can’t get out, and doesn’t want to die trying.
- American Hustle: Friendship, trust, and love are much more important than money.
- Blue Jasmine: Not facing the truth of your life is a disaster. People may lie in order to get the big score, but in fact they only need to empathize with and love each other to have what really matters.
- Captain Phillips: We need to be prepared that on certain days, things can go horribly wrong. The routine of life is sometimes a dangerous experience.
- Dallas Buyers Club: The path from selfishness to compassion is a worthwhile struggle. But first, you will have to face your mortality in order to see the truth of yourself.
A character facing the truth about him- or herself, and seeing clearly how s/he has failed, makes for the most powerful drama in screen storytelling. Moving toward this in your story gives you room to show your main character making the greatest triumph imaginable.
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JOE GILFORD is the author of Why Does the Screenwriter Cross the Road…and other screenwriting secrets. Feature screenplays Kalimantan and Moonbounce are currently in preparation. He has written documentaries for PBS’ award-winning American Experience. Since 1999, he has taught screenwriting at NYU’s undergraduate Film department. His story consulting at www.StoryRescue.com, has helped dozens of writers in every medium. He received an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant for his play Danny’s Brain. His play Finks was critically acclaimed and nominated for the Drama Desk’s Outstanding Play and the Off-Broadway Alliance’s Best New Play awards. For more visit www.joegilford.com. You can LIKE his new book at https://www.facebook.com/WhyDoesTheScreenwriter.
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