Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Screenwriting 101: Good Idea, Bad Idea

Good ideas are never so clear-cut as bad ideas.

An idea might seem a lot better on the page or in your head or in an outline than it might actually be. Bad ideas do not immediately make for bad scripts, but they certainly do not help make a good script any easier to write. So why add another problem towards making a great script?

An idea isn’t like an orange or a Jedi, you can’t tell when it’s gone bad. (Hint: If a Jedi has gone bad, his eyes will look all yellow and glowy. The orange will look brown and decayed. Both, however, smell awful. Do you think Darth Vader can bathe with that thing on? Also, what is the deal with airline food?)

Here are some ideas about how to tell if you have a good idea:
1) Make a Movie You Would Want to Make

Really, this should be a no-brainer, but it bears mentioning. A good idea is one that you will be excited about writing yourself, and nothing makes you more excited than writing a movie you yourself would like to see. Pick a genre, your favorite genre, and write a movie in that style. Nothing is more painful to write or watch than something not even the writer is interested in. If you don’t want to write it, no matter if it’s a good idea for somebody else to write, you shouldn’t write it. Furthermore, this extends to your own personal interests. You like vintage cars, make a movie set in the 50s full of drag racing.

2) Make a Movie People Already Have Seen Before

At the risk of sounding positively reactionary, if worse comes to worse, safe sells. Although many of us claim to be discerning filmgoers, a great percentage of people, and I know this because I worked for video retail, rent Jean Claude Van Damme movies and want to hear Will Smith say “Oh hell no!” and movies you may think are god-awful ideas (cf. Over my Dead Body or The Hottie and the Nottie) are popular and oft-requested titles. A lot of bad movies get made because they’re based on a good idea that’s been done to death. But you don’t have to be so blatant. Take an idea that’s been done before and make it another genre, or add some other twist, something you’d be interested in writing about (see #1.)

3) Talk to People

This might seem scary. People, as anyone who went through junior high can tell you, can be very cruel. But, people will be watching your movie. So talk to some friends about an idea you have, people you trust (and people who won’t steal your idea.) If a vast majority of them think it’s a bad idea, odds are, it is actually a bad idea. That might mean your pitch needs some work, so in case that’s an issue, before you run it by people, just write up your logline and memorize it before you hang out with your friends. If they really don’t like the idea (Juno in Space with a Sassy Robot,) then maybe it’s time to retool the idea, or drop it entirely. This is the entire premise behind focus groups, which are what Hollywood uses to retool ideas for mass appeal. However, be warned: this kind of focus group approach is best if done sparingly, or else you end up making something that tries to please too many people, and thus fails in the process.

4) Write an Idea List

Don’t just start with one script idea and start fleshing it out. Come up with a list of 4 or 5 or 6 or more ideas for screenplays. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart said about obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” And the same holds true for good ideas. Against a backdrop of mediocre or poor ideas, a good idea shines out like a beacon. But, what if you like all your ideas and think all of them are good ideas? After you’re done patting yourself on the back, go and ask this question: which one is your favorite idea? You have one, you know it. Start work on that one.

If you really can’t decide, go and use strategy number three and ask 10 or so people which of those ideas is their favorite. If 5 or more pick the same idea, odds are that’s the one to go with.

5) Read. Read. Read./Watch. Watch. Watch.

Take in media. Read a few novels, watch a few movies, besides being fun, it’s educational. Pick out some ideas you like, or retool a bad idea you think could be better. Let’s say, for example, I thought the idea behind Anonymous Rex (a Forgotten Filmography Friday title, go back and read my review ) was really clever, but it was lacking in some kind of aspect. I could use the idea of a group of secretive individuals living parallel to humanity in a bizarre undercover society as a backdrop for my own idea (werewolves? Nazi robots? Whatever.) The more familiar you are with what people like (in additional to what you yourself like) the better you can craft an idea and a screenplay.

6) Steal. Steal. Steal.

But steal discerningly. Don’t lift whole patches of dialogue (unless you’re looking for guild arbitration or are writing a very insightful [and in-cite-ful] parody.) But, if you like parts of an idea, mash them together, throw a bunch of ideas against a wall and see which ones stick.

That’s it for this time. Next week, I’ll be starting a special series, “Diary of Spec Script,” which will chronicle my attempt to write a new script from scratch. Keep writing!

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