Choice Making Is At The Heart Of Creative Expression
By Daniel Dercksen, writing coach and mentor
If you take a closer look at the Oscar-winning screenplays this year, best original screenplay went to Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight, best screenplay adaption to Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for The Big Short.
- Other nominations for Original screenplay were for Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen), Ex Machina (Alex Garland), Inside Out ( Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley; Original story by Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen), and Straight Outta Compton (Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff; Story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff).
- Nominations for Adapted screenplay went to Brooklyn (Nick Hornby), Carol (Phyllis Nagy), The Martian (Drew Goddard) and Room (Emma Donoghue).
What all these screenplays have in common is a great idea.
And what all winning ideas have in common are important elements that make them worthy of accolades and awards.
Many beginning writers don’t understand how important it is to be original. Reading hundreds of scripts and listening to thousands of pitches showed me how most of them were derivative of other movies, with familiar characters, uninteresting ideas, and clichéd plot twists. Beginning writers tend to develop the easiest idea that comes to mind, rather than working hard to generate original ones.
Karl Iglesias, The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters
If you want to build your story on a solid idea, this is what you need to take into consideration when coming with an idea to write your story:
In the 20th Century four major issues have governed screenwriting and screenplays:
- The Notion of God – religious and spiritual issues
- Democracy – freedom
- Male/ Female relationships
- Issues of identity in terms of class, culture and sexuality
Take a closer look at what it is you want to write about. See if any of the above issues are present; if your idea deals with all four of the above issues, the chance of failure is non-existent.
A resonant Theme
Most stories that are dramatically successful, have resonance, and are universally relevant, express some underlying idea that has universal appeal for audiences and readers, who can identify with the characters and situations.
- What is the Thematic Purpose of your story?
- What are you trying to say by writing your story?
- What is your point of view?
The theme is the glue that holds your story together and resonates throughout the telling of your story.
A true theme is not a word, but a sentence,” states McKee in his book STORY. “One clear, coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning. The Controlling Idea shapes the writer’s strategic choices. It’s yet another Creative Discipline to guide your aesthetic choices toward what is appropriate or inappropriate in your story.
Robert Mc Kee, Story
Something in mind
Don’t pick ideas where most of the drama or comedy happens in the mind. Don’t select boring heroes whose inner conflicts are not easily
The idea must promise conflict. That is the heart and soul of screenwriting. Never put two people in a scene who agree with each other. Pain is always the result of conflict: “My wife is leaving me.” “I have cancer.” “My lover came back.” “I want to go home.” Personal conflicts have become wonderful drama and comedy.
Conflict can mean:
- A problem to be solved
- An obstacle to be overcome
- A threat to be handled
- A decision to be made
- A challenge to be met
It can include:
- Man versus elements: Can mountaineers reach the top of Everest before the storm descends?
- Man versus time: Can the rescue team find the boy lost in the potholes before he dies of hunger?
- Man versus himself: Can the students who cheated at her exam accept the scholarship?
Sex and violence
In his Screenwriting 434, Lew Hunter says that a painter has three primary colours on his palette: red, blue and yellow. As a screenwriter you have two primary emotional colours: sex and violence.
This does not mean the horror-slasher genre. Look at the plot lines of such classics as Medea, Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, King Lear, and works by Ibsen, anything by Tennessee Williams, and Shakespeare.
In screenplay terms, the words sex and violence means sensuality and dramatic action, not blood and gore and naked bodies.
The most extreme form of violence is psychological violence. Even in The Sound of Music: the Nazi’s were the overall threat and the feelings between Maria and the children’s father were sensual. Make sure your idea has the potential for sex and violence.
Will the story be interesting for an hour and a half to two hours? Is it the type of the story the public will pay to see? Will it be interesting two years from today when the film will go into production?
Something that hasn’t been done before
Is it something already being done on television? Remember that everything has been done before. It’s not what you do but how you do it.
Also, consider this when coming up with ideas
Can you possibly get it sold?
If you do sell it, you do. If you don’t, you’ve created another property for your inventory. Even if any of the screenplays you write on speculation never sell, you must love the process. That should be more important to you than acceptance or sale. Make your principal reward the very act of writing
A screenplay that is good for you to write
Focus on the best development of your potential. Will your idea serve the necessary end? When you’re a new screenwriter you must ask yourself if the idea will significantly help you develop your potential. Can you best learn from this screenplay? Will it show people what a good writer you are? A “calling card” screenplay? The calling card screenplay can be submitted to show someone that you can write their project or your idea. It is important for the new writer to have a calling card screenplay.
You should always say:
- That’s the idea I want to do.
- That’s the idea I can do.
- That’s the idea I believe is worth doing.
Before and after want, can and worth comes quality.
Does my idea promise quality? Demand for yourself quality.
Can the idea be communicated better by a novel or stageplay?
Pick the most effective medium.
Remember that the screenplays is always about
- A person, or persons – your character (s): All stories are about people who want something, or have to solve a problem. The storyteller needs to ensure that we (the audience) care about the characters so that we would want for them to have what they are so desperately pursuing.
- In a specific place – the setting: The story must take place somewhere, in and against a world the audience is able to identify with, and a word that will reveal character.
- Doing his or her thing – the action: When you write a scene or sequence you are describing what the character says or does – the incidents and events that tell the story. Action is character.
- Or wanting something – physical or emotional desire: In your screenplay the character will want something, and someone else (or force) will oppose that desire/ goal. Most stories star off with a character wanting something, and discovering at the end what is really needed.
The Write Title
Your title is a vital phase and decision in your screenplay.
A catchy title will get people to listen to your story or read your script.
A dull, confusing, or pretentious title will put people off
A title must:
- Be catchy and memorable
- Say something about the story or theme
A bad title can kill your project.
If you do not have a tile when you are working on a story, it is acceptable to write ‘Working Title’ and the date of the project.
A title that tells you what the story is about.
- Names of Famous People: Titles like Bonnie and Clyde. Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia and Robin Hood tell us exactly who the story is about and the stories have historic relevance that empower the title
- The Premise: The basic premise of titles like Shakespeare in Love, The Great Escape and The Day The Earth Stood Still clearly evokes a story with characters and action.
- Types of Protagonist: If you look at titles like Gladiator and The Graduate we have a clear essence of character, of who the story is about.
- A Situation: The titles of On The Waterfront, Star Wars and 2012 gives us a clear sense of a situation unfolding in a specific place or a specific time.
Titles that might not tell us much about the story, but will make sense at the end of the story, or not.
- The Matrix questions: What is the Matrix? At the end of the film we have an understanding of how the matrix works and the logic of its complex world.
- The Green Mile questions: Where is the green mile? At the end of the film we understand that it is the final mile leading to death row.
- Invictus questions: What is Invictus? At the end of the film we understand that it a quote from a letter written by Nelson Mandela.
Titles like Amadeus and Chinatown don’t give much away about the story and don’t really sell.
These titles tell you what kind of feelings the story deals with, titles like Raging Bull, Run Loa Run and Apocalypse Now.
These titles are usually derived from quotations, like Once Upon A Time in the West, The Sixth Day, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Loaded phrases from popular culture
These titles are familiar and say something about the story, titles like Enemy of the State, Internal Affairs, Unlawful Entry and Basic Instinct
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