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Choose a Screenplay Idea That Sets You up for Success

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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(Can you tell I’m a little excited to do this?)

Now – if you’re hesitating because you’ve started screenplays before and gotten stuck or fizzled out before finishing them, the problem might be in the concept itself. So I want to share a quick tip for choosing an idea that will set you up for success.

Keep it simple

Movies tend to be about one person’s attempt to accomplish one thing and the transformative experience that is for them. Not always, but very, very often this is the case.

Yes, there are other characters involved in the story, of course. But look at something like the Hunger Games – it’s Katniss’s story. It’s about her, and the thing she’s trying to do, and her emotional journey because of it, regardless of how many or how few other characters she interacts with.

If you’re writing one of your first screenplays, you will make your job of finishing it easier and have a better learning experience if you practice on this type of story. So choose a simple idea – one that’s centered on one clear protagonist who wants to accomplish one main thing or engages in one main conflict.

Simple doesn’t mean boring

Writers sometimes panic or feel disheartened that their simple story will result in a boring screenplay. (So if you’re feeling this, you’re not alone.)

Simplicity isn’t what makes a story boring. There are a lot of things that can contribute to a movie that doesn’t really grab us. Lack of meaningful stakes is a big one. Overly-familiar execution is another. But these aren’t problems of a too-simple concept.

Some of your favorite movies are probably pretty simple stories at their core. Jaws is about a guy trying to keep his town safe from a killer shark. Silence of the Lambs is about a woman trying to stop a serial killer. Notting Hill is about a guy trying to date the pretty, popular girl. All very simple in concept. It’s the execution that makes them unique and memorable.

A simple concept just gives you a clear platform to showcase the special entertainment hooks of your story.

How do you know if your idea is simple enough?

Two quick tests you can try to see if your idea hits the simplicity target:

  1. Can you describe it in a nutshell? (Like I did for the examples above.) If your idea can be boiled down to “one person trying to achieve one main thing” odds are good that you have simplicity nailed.
  2. Is there an obvious endpoint that will tell us when it’s over? Killing the shark, catching the serial killer, riding off into the sunset with the guy/girl… these are all obvious endpoints for the thing the protagonist is trying to achieve. It doesn’t mean this is how your story has to end. But if there’s a clear and obvious way that the conflict could end, that usually means there’s a solid line of action to work with (even if you end up subverting it in your script).

To be clear – these aren’t the only types of stories we see in movies. These guidelines are aimed at helping you along your screenwriting learning curve. As with anything, we don’t generally start out tackling expert-level techniques. We learn and master the fundamentals and then hone those skills in more specific or advanced situations.

At the same time let’s never discount a simple story as being less entertaining than a complicated one! Sometimes the stories that move us the most are very simple concepts that provide a showcase for genuine character drama and a powerful emotional experience for the audience.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe