Perhaps one of the most frustrating things that can happen to a writer is having someone in power tell you that your writing is great and your story is entertaining, but your concept isn’t sellable. Or it’s not quite compelling enough, or too complicated, or whatever. Having that perfect concept is the first key to writing a script that people will actually want to buy. But how do you find your concept? And how do you know when it’s strong enough?
Terry Rossio has weighed in on this very subject on his website, Wordplayer:
As a screenwriter and novice film producer, people send me screenplays. Like everyone else in town, I’d love to find that next great script, discover that next great talent. And having read and commented on several hundred scripts, let me tell you the single most common problem I’ve found:
Lack of a good concept.
Very often the screenwriter has picked, right from the start, a concept that even in its best form isn’t the type of story that sells to Hollywood.
It gets frustrating. There I would sit, reading a screenplay in which the structure, characters, dialogue, and descriptions were all passable… even, in some cases, very good. And yet, in my heart, I knew that there was virtually no way the screenplay would ever sell, let alone get made. It was doubly frustrating because it was hard to explain exactly why it wouldn’t sell. All I could say was that the original idea for the film was lacking in some way. In what way? I didn’t have a word for it —
But now I do.
I made one up. Stole a phrase, actually, from fractal geometry. This mysterious ‘thing’ that most spec screenplays need is… the STRANGE ATTRACTOR.
What good is a short, simple idea for a movie if it doesn’t also attract people?
What it is — and why you need it?
I know this sounds a bit silly, but bear with me. Put ‘strange’ (meaning ‘unique’) and ‘attractor’ (from ‘attractive,’ meaning ‘compelling’) together and you get ‘strange attractor,’ or ‘something unique that is also compelling.’
Which is just a quick way of saying that the concept of your movie should be unique — something that hasn’t been done before — and at the same time, it must ‘attract’ people to it. There must be some aspect that is compelling, enticing, and intriguing. Some element that is so inventive, so alluring, it has people in Hollywood kicking themselves for not thinking of it first. Kicking themselves so hard, in fact, that they’re willing to give you lots of money because you did think of it first.
You could call it a hook, or a gimmick, or a twist. Hollywood sometimes calls it a ‘high concept’ — an idea for a movie that can be stated in one or two sentences. You could substitute ‘high concept’ for ‘strange attractor,’ but I think strange attractor is more precise. What good is a short, simple idea for a movie if it doesn’t also attract people?