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What to do about a half-baked screenplay concept

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A writer client recently brought up this question:

“I feel like I spin my wheels on half-baked concepts. I can come up with a decent setup, but I can’t figure out a twist that floors me and makes me think, ‘Wow, I need to see this movie!’” Even if I come up with a logline, later I realize everything after the setup is too vague to really mean anything in story terms. And then I’m stuck.”

Are you suffering from half-baked-concept-itis?

If your logline sounds good but leaves you hanging when you try to tease the actual story out, you’ve probably done a bit of writer sleight-of-hand. That’s when we convince ourselves an idea is stronger or more complete than it really is, especially using some catchy turn of phrase. (We are writers, after all.) It’s common, so don’t beat yourself up over it.

A half-baked concept is a valid concern. You don’t want to get stranded in Act 2 because you didn’t have enough story juice built in, or to finish the entire screenplay only to realize the concept doesn’t hook anyone’s interest.

Lack of a twist isn’t necessarily the issue here. A good twist is a great thing to have, but the story itself has to work long before a twist would come into play. So set the idea of finding a twist aside for now; we’ll come back to that later.

What you want to worry about first are the story essentials.

Story essentials are screenplay concept essentials

If your concept is missing parts of its DNA, it can’t grow into the story you want it to be. What are the essentials?

  • Protagonist
  • Goal
  • Stakes
  • Conflict / Antagonist / Opposition

The interaction of those four things drives your story forward. They create the engine of the story. Without that engine, your story’s not going anywhere.

A lot of times the spark of an idea will be a “what if?” setup, or an intriguing character. So you might have a situation, or a character, or maybe both — but we don’t know what comes after that. Where’s the story?

Well, it comes from getting the rest of the essentials in place.

Strategies for shoring up a screenplay concept

Okay, so you know you need the essentials or you don’t have a story. But how do you fill in those holes? That’s really the question our writer friend is asking:

How do I find those missing parts of the concept? And especially, how do I make sure the parts I add are good?

It’s always a process of iteration. There isn’t a formula, so you have to try a lot of things, test them, and then adjust as needed.

Still, that advice can feel overwhelming. The world is full of possibilities, so where do you even start? Here are two strategies to send you off with purpose:

1. Go for irony

I’d start here, because a bit of irony almost always helps a concept. Take your expectations about your idea so far, and create a gap between expectation and concept.

For example, there’s irony in a character being the person who is least prepared or totally unsuited to take on a situation. If you’re starting with situation, who’s the least likely person to find there? If you’re starting with character, what is your character least suited to do? What would be the last situation she’d ever want to get herself into?

You can even brainstorm irony in story stakes. Who would be the last person to care about a particular consequence? Coming at it from the opposite direction, what would be the consequence your character would be least likely to try to stop (and then how can you make him care enough to try to stop it)?

Or perhaps the goal is where you inject the irony. If your situation is “What if a guy suddenly finds out Santa is his dad…”

Start with expectation. What do we know about Santa? He’s jolly, he delivers gifts, he only works one day a year. And then create a gap. So my irony brainstorm might end up with something like:

What if a guy suddenly finds out Santa is his dad…
…But the jolly thing is all an act, and the guy has to help miserable Santa bring down his nemesis or no one’s getting presents this year.

What if a guy suddenly finds out Santa is his dad…
…And the guy gets roped into helping Santa steal excess gifts from rich kids to give to the poor.

What if a guy suddenly finds out Santa is his dad…
…And Santa’s so bored on his 364 days off each year that he moves in with the guy and his young family to “help out with the kids”, upending their home and life with his ultra-permissive grandparenting.

Alright, so I’m not really trying to develop an idea about Santa-as-dad. But! I hope you can see how brainstorming from irony can help you generate possibilities. And possibilities are what you need in order to find what does excite or inspire you enough to write about it.

And note: these concepts still may not be complete. You’d want to keep finessing them to make sure that each of the essentials is in place and as strong as possible.

2. Use common story types as a starting point

Another strategy for expanding your idea nugget into a full concept is to use the story types you’re already familiar with.

What story types can you think of? I’ll start:

Buddy movie, heist, road trip, haunted house, wish fulfillment, comeuppance tale, mystery, competition / contest…

I’m sure there are more, but these came to mind. I’m familiar enough with the tropes of these movies that I could use them to quickly test out different versions of my original idea nugget. Seeing what each one might look and feel like. And, most importantly, seeing if there’s anything that excites me.

Let’s go back to the Santa-as-dad idea. With this “story types” exercise you might come up with:

Heist: After his family heirloom is stolen, a guy learns Santa is his dad and now the guy has to help Santa’s crew steal back the heirloom from the mysterious billionaire who has it.

Buddy: An efficiency expert gets an opportunity to reunite with his estranged father when he’s hired to help turn around his dad’s failing business, only his father is Santa and the Christmas reunion becomes a ridealong that goes south.

Haunted house: Santa’s reluctant son accompanies Santa on his delivery run for the first time, but the two become trapped in a house haunted by ghosts of kids who never got to have a Christmas, and Santa and his son must work together to escape before Christmas is ruined for all the living kids.

Story types can give you a start. But of course you don’t want any old trope-y concept. How do you remedy that?

Dial up the freshness

Getting the essentials in place is really just the start. Then it’s time to test them, to “plus” them, to see if you can make the concept stronger or more unique.

Twists

Remember, one of the concerns of our original writer friend was finding a twist. He wants something exciting enough in his concept that he’s just burning to write it.

So we want to address that. But asking yourself to come up with a twist can feel like telling yourself to manifest a gold brick.

And you probably know my go-to solution: brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm. If you want to have a good idea, it helps to have a lot of ideas.

But where to start? It helps to know what you’re aiming for. If a twist is really just a surprise, then how do we surprise? By subverting expectation. So why not focus your brainstorming on where in your story you can subvert expectation?

Say you’re writing the Santa heist movie we brainstormed above. What’s one expectation of that type of movie? That a small team of highly-skilled criminals will pull off the heist? What if, instead, the heist involves a flash mob of thousands? Thousands of mall Santas! Oh, I’m starting to like this idea more and more…

Relevance

Another way to bring some freshness to a concept is to think about what makes it relevant. Why tell this story now? What makes it relevant today? Can you tweak any of the elements to make it more relevant? You might also ask what makes you the right person to tell this story, and can that be brought into the concept even more.

How can you tweak the concept to make it feel like right here, right now, is the time to tell this story?

Leveling up

When you have all 4 essential elements in place you can also push your concept by trying to elevate or escalate the components.

More iterating! Can you make the irony stronger? Can you make any of the parts more unique? Is the external conflict absolutely clear? Are the stakes relatable and compelling?

And can you find a hidden hook by targeting additional brainstorming on aspects like the protagonist’s profession, age, or phase-of-life?

Remember, we’re really just trying to find that concept that excites YOU. Then, once you land on that, you can test it to make sure it has what it needs to excite other people too.

Test your screenplay concepts with questions like:

  • Are ALL the essentials in place, and are they clear and compelling?
  • Is it “simple, but difficult and important“?
  • Is the concept fresh but familiar?
  • Is there something relevant or universal about it?
  • Will it give the audience the kind of entertainment they want from this type of movie? (i.e. if it’s a comedy, we should be able to see where the laughter comes from, if it’s an action movie we should see where the adrenaline rushes come from, etc.)

Now, go forth and write what excites you!

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

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