An Idea Is Not A Concept

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

by Craig Kellem 

The following is an excerpt from GET IT ON THE PAGE: Top Script Consultants Show You How by Craig Kellem and Judy Hammett. The book is currently available on Amazon.

This is a fast world in which we live. And how anxious we all are to get directly to our (hopefully) plentiful destinies. Perhaps I notice this with writers more than with others out there, but I suspect this aspect of contemporary existence is everywhere. What I’m trying to say is that too many writers are rushing projects, seemingly going for the final draft to get it read pronto by the powers that be before they’ve spent enough time spawning the prerequisite “art.” In fact, there are more writers than you’d believe who start writing screenplays before they even have a solid concept. I’m serious.

You need a real CONCEPT before you can DEVELOP a film or TV project. It needs to be thought through, examined, obsessed over, vetted, and coddled.

And please remember that AN IDEA ISN’T A CONCEPT!

A concept isn’t a one- or two-line notion. It’s a fleshed out “creative invention” brimming with potential and ready for the next step on the assembly line, namely: development.

Sometimes, on the heels of an underdeveloped creative flash, and on the wings of our longing to get there, writers commence with ill-conceived projects, and via the adrenaline which ensues, don’t realize their (often) fatal mistake until it’s too late.

Often writers can misunderstand what a solid concept actually is. For example, I was talking to a writer recently who tried to justify that his screenplay was “about nothing, just like” the TV classics Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm and the newer Kominsky Method

Boy was he ever off!

These TV shows have HUGE concepts involving tremendous strategies, which cleverly mine “the little things in life,” and frame them through a prism of a certain kind of convincing reality. What ingenuity it takes these showmakers to convince you it is all real, and what skill and preparation it takes to explore these kinds of niche creative areas that so few other practitioners have ever been able to exploit in such a way. Bet Larry David, Chuck Lorre and their gangs have all taken their time developing them. Lots of hit and miss, back and forth.

Another example that comes to mind would be a past contest winner, Jim Janosky, whose concept was about a guy intent on killing himself but who encounters a number of “delays” via a road trip prior to his big jump into eternity. There are many writers out there who might have built nicely onto this notion, but maybe not as much as needed, and this lack of depth and attention would have definitely ended up on the pages.

Janosky knew better and realized he had his work cut out.

THE IDEA WAS NOT YET A CONCEPT—he really had only just begun.

What followed included many brilliant and sometimes not-so-brilliant exchanges in the initial spawning process, followed by the slow carving out of the beginnings of terrific story threads and subplots, one involving a relationship with “a one-of-a-kind” mangy dog that our hero finds along the way and with whom he shares many dubious and poignant parallels; a string of unique and juicy encounters involving old rivalries, resentments, and lost-love situations; visits to outrageous, story-rich, compelling places; and finally a fateful hookup with an old guy, and some other nice folks from whom he derives new strength and sparkle (so much so that he finally decides to hang around on Earth a little longer). By the way, this film got made. It’s called Dark Around the Stars.

All these nuggets (plus many more) had to be invented and carefully placed into the mix, before the CONCEPT was fully realized and then more fully developed.

High-concept (i.e., very gimmicky premises) works are also serious candidates for real thought and scrutiny before a script should be started. An old favorite of mine is the movie Big. What a good idea it was to explore what would happen to a kid who makes a wish to be grown up and then that wish comes true. But did the writer know what he had when he first came up with this fanciful notion? Could it have been just another cute idea that might have made a good sketch on SNL, or a “C” subplot in a sitcom? Many might have declared victory after coming up with this idea and then started writing prematurely, doling out all the obvious shtick that comes to mind.

This writer didn’t.

The concept was explored and tested with the many possible ways to go, and tones to take, not to mention other important considerations, such as what level of reality should be maintained and how much humor should be injected or not—the whole nine yards.

The final choices worked well.

Ideas such as placing the kid (in grown-up form but with a kid’s “eye” and heart) in a job as a toy company maven; juxtaposing the grown-up lad with his little buddy (who’s totally aware of the situation, but can no longer fit in); and exploring the experience of a child trapped in an adult body vis-Ă -vis women, sex, and male culture, were all excellent choices. All worked to enhance the initial idea and help turn it into a real concept. At some point after all this labor, a solid story framework was decided upon and then, and only then, the next stage of serious development could continue.

The point that I’m trying to make is that one must fully dance with the idea, allow it to breathe, grow, and broaden into a fully developed concept before even thinking about the actual writing. And in doing these things, allow yourself to appreciate the wonderfully uncomfortable feeling of not commencing with the screenplay until the concept and all its adjuncts are FULLY realized.


Craig Kellem, formerly development executive for Universal and Fox, and Associate Producer and Talent Consultant for SNL, is an internationally recognized script consultant and co-founder of He is also the co-athor, with Judy Hammett, of the newly released GET IT ON THE PAGE: Top Script Consultants Show You How.

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