Concept, Concept, Concept
I have read a lot of scripts lately that are well-written, show passion and thought, and yet ultimately I must get on the phone or write an email to its author or authors with not so pretty news.
Despite being very funny or dramatic or exciting, there is no overarching idea at play that can arouse attention or interest.
And the really sad part is, this is so easy to overcome BEFORE you write 110 pages of script.
It is the premise of STC! and the grounding of all my efforts out there teaching: please, please have a good pitch!
Because if you don’t, no matter how great the writing is, you will have a helluva time getting it set up.
Yes, this goes for Indies, too, and blockbusters, and everything in between. Because no matter how earnest you are about your work, it boils down to communicating an idea succinctly.
And as aspiring spec screenwriters this must be our Golden Rule.
Here are some hints that the idea you are working on is not the high concept sale you think it might be:
1. You haven’t told anybody the idea but have kept it to yourself. Why? Well, it’s so good someone might steal it!
2. When asked to tell about the movie you’re writing at the Fourth of July picnic, you tell it from the Fade In: and you go on, and on, and on about it, all the while waiting to get to the good part, which is in there, you swear!
3. The idea you’re working is based on certain “conditions,” the return of the popularity of ice hockey, or casting Jack Nicholson, or the ever-burgeoning spread in the knowledge of and interest in stamp collecting. These conditions are excuses. And shouldn’t be. Blaming not selling a script due to Jack not being attached or the reader not “getting it” is hubris. It’s either a great movie everyone gets — or it’s not.
If any of this sounds familiar, beware! Check your concept. Make sure it really satisfies the 4 elements of a successful logline as outlined in my book, and for God’s sake, pitch it. A lot. Trust me, no one is going to steal your idea. And the sad truth is, once you expose that idea to air, you may well watch its shimmer fade like fool’s gold.
But better to have that happen BEFORE you toil away on your 110+ pages than after.
Know the condition of your screenplay first by knowing and getting great reaction on its concept — It’s the law!
- Blake Snyder
I still think those are both very pitchable ideas, Scott. The pitch of Lost is basically: a washed up movie star goes to Japan to earn a big endorsement contract and falls in love with a young woman searching for meaning. I think there is real irony there. Same with Sideways, the earmark of a good hook. Also at play in the Lost line is a hero we can root for, and a clear conflict in what he finds versus what he’s seeking. I will be breaking down several “indies” in my upcoming sequel to STC! which is called Save The Cat! Goes To The Movies. Napoleon Dynamite, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even Open Water, all fall within the BS2 and within the parameters for a solid movie idea. A good story is a good story and all follow the rules. Don’t let the renegade image of most indies dissuade us from thinking we don’t have to be good story tellers. We do!
- Mike Rinaldi
I’m glad that Lost in Translation came up, because that was the first movie I thought of when I read Blake’s blog. Although Blake just did a far better job pitching it than Universal did.
Blake, I’m very intrigued by which movies you don’t think are good. Especially because I don’t always agree with you. Since I doubt you’ll start reviewing movies any time soon, will you perhaps have some examples in your new book of critically acclaimed or popular films that don’t fit the BS2?
- Blake Snyder
I don’t think it’s a matter of good or bad Mike. I get a lot out of every movie to see how they tell the story. I’m always interested in new ways, but keep coming back to the tried and true of storytelling that resonates. It is my passion! But thanks for the compliment on LIT, a nice primal story in my opinion. Let me know if there’s any movie in particular you want me to break down or think can’t be, love to hear it! And maybe it will work it’s way into the sequel. Thanks!
Well, I think it all depends where you are starting from It’s not Mr. Newbie Screenwriter with no contacts in the industry that’s pitching the Lost in Translation concept it’s Coppola’s daughter. How do you think she would have got on if she’d sent out query letters and gone through the slush pile? I’m not saying she wouldn’t have got the film made but it might have taken a lot, lot longer. And isn’t Sideways based on a novel? A lot of novels that get made into movies are low-concept but there is already a pre-exisiting audience, it then gets picked up by a director like Alexander Payne and there you go. More interesting examples would be out-of-nowhere spec scripts by unknown writers that were low-concept but well executed and then got picked up. Can’t think of anything right now :-)
- Scott Kreeger
“American Beauty” comes to my mind, though Alan Ball wasn’t a complete Newbie (a playright and TV writer). My understanding is that his script became a very “hot” commodity in Hollywood — i.e. talked about by everyone. I do wonder why this was the case. Was it the pitch? Seems to me it would have been a challenging pitch (though it does have the clever hook of a dead man looking back upon the last year of his life and leaving the audience wondering who killed him) I can’t help wondering if the excitement around the script had more to do with Ball’s execution than with a tight log line.
- Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Can you really have an entire script, well written with a good story, that doesn’t have a concept?
I’ve yet to lay hands on a copy of SAVE THE CAT! (but it’s on order) — so I’d like a quick thumbnail definition of “concept.”
For example, is “concept” actually “theme”? (I don’t think so.)
A “theme” can be easily defined.
Theme is the reason you want to write this story, and that is the same as the reason anyone would want to pay for this story.
Your theme is what you are saying with the story, what you want the viewer to understand at the end.
Theme is a statement about life, the universe and everything, a position on the nature of reality and humankind’s place in reality.
“Love conquers all” is the main theme of almost all Romance.
“Crime doesn’t pay” is the main theme of most mysteries/ detective stories.
You can’t have a story without a theme — it’ll just fall apart into little bits and flashes of nothing and leave the viewer bewildered. “Why am I sitting here watching this?” flick. Change the channel.
So what’s a concept, distilled down to its essence?
How do you make sure you have one, and that it’s commercial?
Let’s not even reach for “High” — just nail “Concept” in a concrete way you can point to and identify.
I thought the posts on “High Concept” nailed “High” pretty well — especially Sarah Beach’s comment:
SARAH BEACH WROTE:
“Iâ€™ve always felt that High Concept was like seeing a line of mountains on the horizon. You know exactly what is in front of you, and even at a distance, you can see the main features of it. Low Concept was like a rolling landscape where features are hidden, waiting to surprise you.
Notice that High Concept can also have surprises in the detail (like hidden canyons and rivers). But you still have a very clear idea of what youâ€™re heading into.
But I think High Concept also asks for a certain degree of credibility to what weâ€™re seeing. To reference Speed again, a bus that you canâ€™t slow down or else it will blow up, stuck in the urban landscape – that is easy to grasp. Speed 2, not so much. A â€œspeedingâ€ cruiseliner? Where 35 knots (nautical miles per hour) is fast? The bulk of the ship and the simplicity of aiming the thing toward open sea undercut the credibility of both the threat and the difficulties in solving the problem. It was a â€œhigh conceptâ€ that was a cardboard cutout, and not real mountains.”
THANK YOU SARAH! I can really visualize what “High” means — a change of perspective on the concept.
But now, with Blake’s post saying he’s read scripts that have no concept, I’m stumped on exactly what is (or more specifically what is NOT) a “Concept.”
How can you write an entire script and NOT have a concept?
I thought I was getting a grip on what “concept” really means.
I pitched 9 things I thought might be concepts at 2 complete strangers while sitting in a car repair waiting room and asked them to pick the 2 best. The results surprised me.
So I think I’ll adopt your method of pitching at strangers. They liked 7 of the 9 pitches well enough to ask more about them, narrowed it to 4 with great difficulty, and finally chose 2.
So maybe I did make 7 concepts — nevermind “High” — that’s hard. But how do I tell if I did it or not?
What’s the test? (OK OK I’m going to read that book!)
- Blake Snyder
I am doing American Beauty for the sequel btw! It’s an example of Institutionalized. And yes, though there are many ways movies get made that are not available to everyone — nepotism being a long standing Hollywood tradition — that doesn’t stop us from being clever, concept conscious writers of great stories that meet an audience’s primal needs. Love storytelling, and keep focused, with a great attitude and a joy of creativity, and good things will come — I promise!
- Sarah Beach
Thanks for quoting me, Jacqueline! I’d forgotten I’d said that, and coming back to it cold … Heh. I guess I can be smart occasionally.
But yes, I think it’s possible to have scripts that are moderately well written but have no Concept.
A while ago, I read a script about a saint’s life (we’re talking very early Middle Ages here), wherein the writer had the events laid out in a fairly dramatic sequence. The conflicts were fairly well defined. The problem with it was … well, I told him that reading the script (which should have been about belief and conversion), I got the feeling that the writer didn’t believe in belief. The crucial core of the story was missing.
I suspect he wrote the script having done the research, just saying to himself, “Well, it was a dramatic life, so all I have to do is just lay out the events.”
But I don’t think he could have pitched the story log, without saying “It’s the life of St. Famous.” If he’d had to say “It’s about a young arrogant pagan aristocrat who gets snatched from his home, is made a slave, and then learns about a new sort of life” — well, if the writer had done that, he might have handled the script better.
Blake, you might remember back when we first met (gosh, almost a year ago now!), I’d said that reading your book made me stop working on a pet story of mine, because I couldn’t yet pitch it according to your guidelines. I haven’t been able to get back to it, and I still haven’t sorted out the initial problem (“Is it her story, or his?”). But at least I know what I need to do to bring the whole into focus. Once I know that, the plot I’ve gotten laid out can be tweaked according to the “Concept”.
- Blake Snyder
Sarah Beach you are so great!! And I know those ideas of yours will come to fruition soon. But you’re absolutely right. If you can’t get a grip on your “what is it?” it may need more work before starting on the script. Thanks! And thanks for all the response on this topic. Good discussion.
- Mike Rinaldi
I think an excellent movie to analyze in STC2 would be In Good Company. That is such a well written movie and is one of the scripts that should serve as an example of how to do it right.
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I hear what you’re saying, Blake, and I think it makes a lot of sense. But at the same time I wonder if a pitch for a subtle wonderful (in my opinion) movie like “Lost in Translation” (two lost souls meet each other in Japan and have an intimate but sexual relationship) or “Sideways” (two buddies take off for the wine country and all kinds of stuff happens) would meet your standards. Maybe you’re saying that we neophyte spec writers shouldn’t be attempting to break into the Bis by writing a script such as those (both of which were writer/director projects). But unfortunately these are the sort of things I seem to love and therefore want to write. Any advice for me?