If your story idea is not sufficiently remarkable, it really doesn’t matter how well you write it. The story will not sell.
That’s nothing new, yet it is the costliest mistake a spec screenwriter can make – especially writers that have developed some writing chops but have yet to make a sale. It is costly because it leads to months and months of useless work.
At one point in my producing duties, I ran across an excellent writer who had ten completed scripts, no sales. I requested one script after the other, looking for something our company could use – really wanting to give the guy a break because he wrote incredibly well. I really liked his scripts – but one after the next, they were not remarkable. We had to pass. It is impossible for almost any producer to get a story made – no matter how well written – that is not remarkable. It was a valuable lesson and one I take to heart every time I start to write a new project.
The question I ask myself is, “If this script is written very, very well, will it make a great motion picture?” The answer is “NO” unless the story idea is remarkable.
So what does that mean – “remarkable”?
Dictionary.com defines “remarkable” as:
1. Worthy of notice.
2. Attracting notice as being unusual or extraordinary.
These are good definitions – only make the standard even higher. A remarkable idea demands notice. The best way to explain it is by example. Here are three recent spec or pitch sales (as reported by Done Deal), all of which are remarkable:
A SWAT team’s top cop, who is incapable of feeling emotional or physical pain and is thereby revered for his fearlessness, undergoes surgery that will allow him to feel everything he’s missed in life. (“No Pain, No Gain”)
The chief executive of a company is demoted to the mailroom and has to work his way back up. (“CEO”)
A man learns to appreciate his life when everything in it is suddenly the opposite of what it normally is. (“Opposite Day”)
Whatever you think of the film that may ultimately result, what there is to learn is that these concepts are (a) highly focused, (b) fresh, (c) whole and complete in themselves, and (d) engender emotional values that are familiar and known.
So how do you create a remarkable concept? People do it differently. There is no one right way.
Here’s how I do it. I think of interesting ideas, write them down, then from the list, pick the one that most interests me. Now the real work starts. I write the idea usually as a single sentence in the form:
When a ______ does _______, he or she _________(active verb) in order to ___________.
Then I begin to hone the idea, sometimes for hours at a time, day after day, removing the clichés (we all write in clichés until we force them out), changing concepts that are not particularly interesting to ones that are more interesting, changing general ideas to specific ones. I write one version after the next, resulting in pages of versions of the concept. I usually arrive at more than one version that suggests a remarkable idea. When I get to one, I check it against what I thought I wanted to write – see if this version is still something I want to write (just because it is a remarkable concept does not mean it is for me), and either stop if all is good, or keep going. Sometimes I back up, if it has gone off track, and take it in a different direction.
I keep going either until the versions lead me in hopeless circles and collapse or until I get to a finely polished concept that excites me and will now lead me through outlining and writing the script. This process involves a great deal of thinking ahead – looking at where the concept will lead me in the writing – and stepping back and looking at just the concept as a producer or agent or audience member would look at it. I try to be very hard on myself and say, “Would I go see that? Would my friends go see that?” I do not cheat on the answers. Unless the answers are both a LOUD yes, I keep developing.
If you don’t create your own process for getting to remarkable concepts, you are likely to create your own mountain of well-written unmarketable scripts.
Enough. Now go write.