The 7 Elements of a Viable Story Idea
Save the Cat’s 10 genres are something of an obsession of mine.
It seems that when most people think of Blake’s book, they think of the Beat Sheet, which I also like. But I feel the genres are revolutionary. And they’re the best tool I know of for that crucial first part of writing anything: coming up with the basic idea or concept.
I believe this process gets short shrift from most writers and books about writing. We all want to dive into structuring the story, and actually writing the damn thing, as soon as possible. But I would submit that the early conceptualizing process is by far the most important work of “writing” that any of us ever do. And it’s where our greatest chances for success or failure are determined.
Sure, we need professional-level execution on the structure and script levels, too. But first we need a central premise that fulfills certain criteria that marketable story ideas tend to meet. Which means we have to first understand what those are.
In my years developing TV ideas with my agents at CAA (after my success as part of Band of Brothers put me “on the map”), I learned that agents and managers don’t want their clients working on any idea they haven’t vetted first. And they won’t send out a client’s idea or script if they think it’s flawed at the premise level. Which is very often the case!
It turns out that it’s hard to come up with something that ticks all the boxes that audiences (and industry professionals) need ticked, for something to really “work.” Producers and agents might not be able to articulate what all those boxes are, but they know when a logline, pitch or script has a good chance at selling, and when it doesn’t. I saw this over and over again. Damn if they didn’t end up usually being right! And the reasons were not usually things like “the industry isn’t buying that kind of genre right now.” They were about the merits of the story concept.
I think Blake did us all a great service in positing that successful movies tend to all fit within one of 10 distinct story types that he identified. Some scripts might have elements of more than one. But almost never does a successful idea fall between the cracks of all of them, and not meet his specific standards for any one genre.
But that’s what usually happens, with most scripts I read. In the past decade, during which I’ve started teaching the craft and mentoring hundreds and hundreds of writers, I’ve found that almost all of them know something of Save the Cat!, but very few are conversant in the 10 genres, or had one strongly in mind when they wrote their screenplay. And it shows, in that the script doesn’t quite fit any of them. And therein lies its most important flaws.
Invariably the bulk of my important notes on any script are notes I would have had on the logline and basic concept, had I seen it before the writer spent all that time turning int into a script. It seems too few of us follow Blake’s advice to pitch our loglines to strangers in coffee shops, and resist the urge to write anything that we haven’t thoroughly vetted first, at the “idea” stage.
I get why. That process can feel painful and murky, like you’re not really moving forward yet, as you mess about with dozens or even hundreds of ideas, then endless variations on a particular one before actually writing it. But that is work that typically needs to be done. It’s harder than it looks to get this part right.
And the 10 genres are so specific! People sometimes tell me, when pressed, that maybe their script is a “Dude with a Problem,” because it is, after all, about a “dude” (or dudette) who has a “problem.” But so is every story. Blake’s “DWAP” is about a very specific kind of movie – a life-and-death action thriller, about an ongoing battle for survival throughout. I’ve had writers tell me that comedies or dramas where life is never at stake are “Dude with a Problem” ideas. No. I’m sorry. They’re not. At least, not by my understanding of what Blake meant.
So my advice is to learn and study the genres and commit to only writing screenplays that really do fit one of them quite well.
Recently I’ve taken my obsession with getting “the idea” right a step further. I’ve written my own book. It’s called THE IDEA: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction. I’m proud to say it’s become a best-seller on Amazon in multiple categories since its September release. And all sorts of nice people have said many nice things about it.
As the title suggests, it focuses on this crucial and often rushed-past question of what makes a story premise that’s truly worth writing. It centers on my belief that a viable idea for a movie (or series, book or play) tends to focus on one big problem that takes the whole story to solve. So I use PROBLEM as an acronym to explain the 7 characteristics they need to possess:
These might seem obvious or self-evident, at first glance, but in my experience, most ideas for stories have trouble in one or more of these areas. And my notes on a story almost always focus on those issues, more than anything else.
So I’ve written down all the key lessons I’ve learned in my career about how to achieve each of these successfully, and the challenges we face in trying. I hope it makes for a valuable companion piece to Blake’s seminal work with the 10 genres.
I believe when a writer gives this part of the process the attention it deserves, and begins to get better at identifying what makes a great concept, and applies that knowledge to their work, they move ahead of the pack. It’s not easy. But through dedication, it can be learned and mastered, just like every other aspect of writing.