by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)
“What should I write?”
It’s the first question every writer asks themselves before they embark on a new project. Very often the answer to this question starts with a flash of inspiration that leads to a story the writer “just has to tell.” And while I would never want to be the guy who throws cold water on that flame, I can tell you this is not always the best plan for someone who wants to be a working professional. Inspiration alone is just too unreliable a source, unless you’re not worried about paying the bills. There are plenty of other considerations, and here are my top ten. Of course, you need not act on every one of these tips. It’s kind of like The Ten Commandments: obey six out of the ten and you still might make it to heaven. (Or did I miss that day in Sunday School?)
1. Start with a list of your four or five best story ideas.
If you have only one idea, you’re not a writer. You’re a hobbyist. A list of ideas will be the pool you draw from before you decide what to write. Of course this begs the question, what qualifies as a story idea? There’s a lot of debate about this topic amongst professional writers and educators. But my suggestion is to write a compelling logline for each story idea as a pathway to figuring this out. LA Screenwriter has posted many articles on crafting a logline, and of course there’s The Hollywood Pitching Bible, the book I co-wrote with screenwriter Doug Eboch. Doug and I spend ten pages in our book describing how to craft a good logline – a good indication of how complex it can be. Ideally, a good logline will be high-concept — one that embodies both succinctness and commercial considerations. Even if your idea is not high-concept, you should be able to express it in a way that sounds compelling. If you can’t do this, toss the idea.
2. Know your talent.
What are you best at writing? Comedy? Drama? There’s the old maxim, “Write what you know.” This doesn’t mean you can’t write a story set in space if you’ve never been an astronaut. Of course it’s possible to educate yourself about a topic. But here’s the better advice. No matter what the topic, try to bring some of your own knowledge and life perspective into your story. For example, George Lucas could have easily written Star Wars with Han Solo as the lead, and arguably that was the more obvious choice. But, having grown up in a small town, dreaming of a bigger life, Lucas chose Luke Skywalker for the lead, and that choice was much more authentic. You might think this advice is obvious, but you’d be amazed how many scripts I read where the writer seems to have no affinity for the topic or characters they are writing about. This is especially true for younger writers, where a lack of life experience can be a huge handicap.
3. Observe the marketplace.
Look at the films and television shows that are getting made and doing well, and use that as a barometer for what to choose. That’s the business you’re in. I’m not saying you should only write superhero movies, and in some ways doing so could be exactly the wrong choice. But you need to be able to justify how your story will fit into the current marketplace. I promise you that everyone in a position to produce your script will be concerned about this.
Screenwriter Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) likes to say that the story you choose is like a Venn diagram. And the intersection of “what you love,” “what you can write,” and “what you can sell” is the sweet spot you’re looking for. Paul’s a smart guy. Listen to him.
4. Look for existing intellectual property, or something in the public domain.
There’s no requirement that script you write must be original. And if you’re not good at coming up with your own ideas, consider acquiring the rights to something you love and think is viable. This might be a novel, short story, comic book, or something else. Or you can find a famous story or character in the public domain and rework it into something fresh. This latter suggestion can be a great way to access something well-known for free. Here’s a great list of stories in the public domain.
5. Think like a producer.
Yes, for some of you this means losing some IQ points, but I’m sure you have a few to spare. Thinking like a producer means considering all the facets a buyer or financier will consider when it comes time to write a check. These facets include casting, locations, budget, setting, international appeal, and so on. So your epic tale about an Inuit boy growing up in 1920s Alaska probably fails this test.
6. Think of a good title.
Some writers start with a good title and develop a story from there. This is not required, but a good, memorable title can be helpful in marketing your project. A good title tends to be either provocative, descriptive or echo/amplify some aspect of the core concept of your story. Oblique titles are not ideal. The last thing you want is an exchange like this:
Development Executive: “I read a great script over the weekend.”
Producer: “Yeah? What was it called?”
Development Executive: “Um, I forget.”
7. Test market your ideas.
Always run your story ideas by your trusted friends and representatives. I know a lot of writers hate to do this, most likely because they love their ideas and don’t want someone like me telling them, “Hmmm, I don’t know….” You should fight this impulse. First, you’re not required to take the advice you get, and even if you don’t you might glean some insight. Second, the last thing your agent wants is for you to drop a completed script on their desk that they have no idea how to sell.
As for what to test market, see #1 above about learning how to craft a great logline.
8. Develop with a producer.
Related to #7 above, consider testing your ideas with the goal of developing your new script with a good producer in the mix. Of course, this assumes you know a good producer, but there are a few good reasons to find the right one. First, instead of just having a sounding board for your initial story idea, you will have someone professional to consult with all along the way. Second, when it comes time to get your script into the marketplace and produced, well, you already have someone who is vested and who will help.
One note: Before you head down this path, make sure you have an understanding between you and your producer about the nature of the working relationship. Your business relationship on the project can last years, so always consult your entertainment attorney about the content of this understanding.
9. Learn to recognize genuine enthusiasm in others.
When you float your list of potential story ideas, learn to tell the difference between polite encouragement and genuine enthusiasm. Most of the people you enlist to help evaluate your ideas will be inclined to be polite and supportive. This does you little good if the goal is to write a killer script. What you want to see is real enthusiasm for your ideas. Believe me, when you see it, you will know.
10. Follow your passion.
At the end of the day, you must love what you write, if only to finish the damn thing. As screenwriter Doug Eboch (Sweet Home Alabama) says, “If you choose an idea you are passionate about, you will throw your heart and soul into writing it – and that means you will be most likely to do your best work.” This advice is not intended to negate the nine tips that preceded it. In fact, if you can cover some of these other bases, it’s possible it will fuel your passion for your own ideas. After all, it’s not just about the passion you feel for writing it, but also the passion you will feel when you sell your script and get it made. That’s the goal, right?