Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Talentville.com
by Angela Bourassa
I often hear writers say that they have more ideas than they could possibly ever write. Apparently these writers are just oozing with inspiration at all times.
That’s not me, and I don’t think it’s the situation of most writers.
In my opinion, coming up with a truly great idea is the hardest part of screenwriting. Anyone can learn the proper format of a script, how to beat out the action, where the act breaks should occur… But you can’t teach someone to have a brilliant idea.
Truly great screenplay ideas are rare. When you stumble upon one, it feels even better than completing the first draft of a script, because a great idea is just bursting with potential.
On the other hand, if your idea seemed brilliant when you first thought of it, but then you found six other movies just like it, or the idea failed to excite any of your friends, or – worst of all – you spent weeks working on it only to discover that it just… won’t… work… the consequences can be heartbreaking.
So how do you know if your idea is truly awesome or just pretty good? Here’s a three question test to help you decide. You need “yes” answers to all three questions before your idea is worthy of your time.
1. Is the idea high concept?
What people mean when they say “high concept” can be tough to pin down. I think Steven Spielberg defined it best when he said that a high concept idea is an idea that you can hold in the palm of your hand. In other words, it’s an idea that you can explain simply and people will get it and see its potential right away.
The main test of whether your idea is high concept is whether or not you can express it in a one-sentence logline. As head judge of the LA Screenwriter Logline Competition, I’ve personally reviewed over 900 loglines, and I’ve found that the ideal length for a high concept logline is 30-35 words. If you can’t get across a clear depiction of your main character and main plot in 35 words, that’s not a good sign.
Of course, your idea doesn’t have to be high concept. Pulp Fiction isn’t high concept. Neither is Adaptation. Some of the best movies ever made are not high concept. But you should really only write high concept scripts. At least at this point in your career. Once your movies have made millions and people in power trust you to deliver great films, then you can start writing scripts that aren’t high concept, but don’t expect to break in that way.
2. Does the idea feel familiar and unique at the same time?
An idea that fits into one sentence isn’t enough. A lot of very boring stories can be expressed in one sentence. In order to be a compelling film idea, your concept should feel familiar and unique at the same time. Put another way, it should evoke universal themes that people can relate to, but it should also bring something new to the table.
Terry Rossio of WordPlayer calls this unique but familiar piece of the puzzle the “strange attractor.” Carson Reeves of ScriptShadow has been a trumpeter of Rossio’s strange attractor idea. He defines it this way:
The “strange attractor” is basically what makes your idea unique. A couple of brothers going to a remote island to connect with their estranged aunt? No strange attractor there. A couple of brothers going to an island of dinosaurs to connect with their estranged aunt, who runs the place? Now you have your strange attractor.
Take the time travel out of Back to the Future, the superheroes out of Avengers, the ‘stuck alone on Mars’ out of The Martian, and you’ve lost all of their strange attractors. Now you might say, ‘Well duh, Carson. You don’t have a movie if you take those things away. They’re the entire film!’
Yeah but see here’s the thing. I READ all those scripts that have those things taken away. I’ve read that indie script about a guy who tries to reconnect with his parents. That is, essentially, Back to the Future without its strange attractor. I’ve read that boring script where a group of friends get into shenanigans in their middle-of-nowhere town. That is, essentially, The Avengers without its strange attractor.
Bear in mind that the strange attractor doesn’t have to be some sort of fantasy element. For example, in Memento, Guy Pearce devotes his life to solving his wife’s murder, but he suffers from short-term memory loss. In Lethal Weapon, Danny Glover has to partner with a young hotshot cop to catch the bad guys, but his new partner might be even more dangerous than the criminals.
So does your idea have a “strange attractor”? Is there something about it that feels truly unique and compelling?
3. Is the idea exciting?
Even if your idea is incredibly clever, feels familiar, and has something amazingly unique about it, it still might not make a good movie. You need to think about whether or not the idea is cinematic. Are the characters active? Do they take physical actions that you can photograph? If they don’t, you might have a brilliant novel, but probably not a movie.
The idea also has to excite you and, ideally, most of the people that you describe it to. People should respond to your idea with, “Wow, I would definitely go see that!”
But your excitement is more important. You have to be so enthralled by the idea, so motivated and inspired by it that you’ll happily dedicated the next three to six months of your life developing, writing, and rewriting it until your scripting efforts finally do justice to its awesome potential.
If you can’t answer “yes” to all three of these questions, keep searching for that big idea. Don’t settle for an idea that you’re not completely excited about or that doesn’t have anything fresh or original to offer audiences. Keep pondering, keep writing down interesting news items you hear and conversations that spark your imagination. Keep actively seeking out that brilliant idea that has the power to turn into an unforgettable script. That’s how you’ll break into the big leagues.
Correction: This article originally attributed the idea of the “strange attractor” to Carson Reeves, but that concept originated with Terry Rossio.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.