Everyone has a great idea for a movie. Just ask. Actually, you don’t even have to ask. Go to a party, mention that you’re in the Business, and nine times out of ten someone will pull you aside and say, “You know, I’ve got a story that’s a sure-fire Academy Award-winner. It’s about this real-estate agent…” Oh, yeah, and the guy will be a real-estate agent.
So what’s the difference between the bore you meet over cocktail weenies and the writers, directors, producers who go into Hollywood studios to pitch their projects? If they’re amateurs, probably not much beyond the label on their designer jackets. It’s not unusual for fledging filmmakers to enter the lion’s den bearing nothing but the germ of an idea and visions of their faces gracing the cover of Fade In. As you might imagine, this is about as smart as facing Patton’s 3rd Army with nothing but a loin-cloth and a peashooter. And the results can be just as bloody.
Those who know the Hollywood Rules know better. They know that everyone else has ideas for a movie, but few have developed that idea sufficiently to turn their idea into a bona fide story. To do so requires several key ingredients:
Structure: The process of properly laying out a screen story is complex enough to fill volumes…and it has. By now you should know, when you talk about your film project, you’ll be able to express it in terms of an Act One (the set-up), an Act Two (escalating conflict) and an Act Three (climax and resolution). At the very least, you’ll be able to tell your buyer how the story ends and what the protagonist wants.
Character Arc: Buyers usually want to know how the hero changes over the course of the story. “He goes from being suicidal to embracing life.” “She learns to accept love.” “He comes to accept his son as an adult.” Producers love stories in which people think and behave differently at the end from how they did in the beginning. When buyers ask you, “What’s the arc?” you not only have to know what they’re talking about; you need to give them an intelligent answer.
Theme: This is an area we’re constantly hounding would-be filmmakers to put more thought into. Far too many screen stories are really nothing but a series of actions diced toward solving a particular problem: Two cops pursue a bad guy. A young woman wants to marry the unattainable man. Someone tries to get away with murder. These stories may work moment-by-moment, but when they’re over, we’re usually left feeling empty and unsatisfied.
In addition to structure and character arc, you should also be able to talk about your movie in terms of its theme. This theme should be designed around a provocative statement, or a question for which there is no easy answer. For example, Schindler’s List wasn’t just a recreation of the Holocaust. It dramatically addressed the idea that, “He who saves one life saves the world.” Its theme heroism. On a lighter note, the following year’s Best Picture winner Forrest Gump had an explicit theme of fate expressed by the oft-quoted line, “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.” In other words, life is just one damned thing after another.
For a theme to be dramatically viable, one needs to be able to effectively argue either side. A theme such as “Murder is bad” isn’t very interesting because you’ll find few people who can effectively argue that “Murder is good.” On the other hand, many people lead their lives on the premise that one man really can make a difference, or that life is just one damned thing after another.
When trying to sell your story, you need to be able to present your theme in a natural, organic way. Perhaps you include it as a snippet of dialogue, or use it as the “moral” or “lesson” your hero learns at the story’s conclusion. Whatever route you take, you should know ahead of time what your theme is. If you don’t have one, your story will be about nothing.
Story Credibility: Here’s where details are critical. In their eagerness to make a deal too many writers, directors and producers fail to take the time necessary to make sure that their stories actually make sense. They don’t bother to research their subject matter, or talk to people who might provide them with invaluable insights on the subjects they’ve chosen to dramatize. As a result, these stories never get sold; if they do, they’re not nearly as effective as they otherwise could have been.
As screenwriters, we must recognize that we’re in the business of lying. We ask our audiences to believe – even though they know it’s all artifice – that what they’re seeing on the screen is really happening. (“Willing suspension of disbelief.”) As any good ad man, used car dealer, lawyer or politician will tell you, a really good lie is ninety-percent truth. Support a statement with known facts, and your audience will accept the bits you’ve fabricated. A kernel of truth can “sell” even the wildest of scenarios. For example, in their sic-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were able to explore the very nature of God by first grounding their story in hard scientific principles.
Research can also lead to character facets or story twists you might not otherwise have considered. Truth often really is stranger than fiction, and the real world is rife with people, plots and dramatic ironies that you’ll never discover by simply staring at a blank computer screen. For example, much of Dustin Hoffman’s memorable portrayal of autistic-savant Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man was based on his spending time with actual people afflicted with autism. The elderly Rose in Titanic throws clay pots because director James Cameron met and interviewed 103-year-old sculptor Beatrice Wood while doing background for his historical epic. Matt Damon’s amazing mathematical prowess in Good Will Hunting was credible only because he and co-author Ben Affleck took the time to research the real world of advanced mathematics. (You think anyone could make that stuff up?)
Yet despite the obvious value of research, you’d be surprised to discover how many screenwriters concoct their story lines with only the most rudimentary knowledge of their subject matter. They figure, “Hey, if it sells, then I’ll do the research.” Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.
If you’re going to develop a medical drama, learn something about medicine. If you’re going to develop a legal thriller, learn something about law. Don’t write a military drama without some exposure to the military. It doesn’t matter if you’re developing a story about cops, crooks, bricklayers or trapeze artists; know what you write and write what you know.
This holds true even in such fantastical genres as science fiction. It’s amazing how many people write, pitch and/or develop sci-fi and techno-thrillers without even the most basic knowledge of science and technology. They have people flying to the moon in space shuttles, doing DNA analysis in seconds and dodging flaming meteors in the vacuum of space. They figure, “Hey, no one knows about this stuff so they won’t care.” But what they’re really saying is, “I don’t know about this stuff, and I’m too damned lazy to find out.”
The bottom line is, most of us have at least a high school education; we read newspapers, watch television and we live in a world of high technology. We may not all be rocket scientists, brain surgeons, trial lawyers or master detectives, but most of us can smell something fishy. As screenwriters, we owe it to our audiences not to insult their collective intelligence.
To reiterate: Frame your movie in terms of structure, character and theme. Then research, research, research. Know what you’re talking about. Remember, knowledge is power. And in Hollywood, power is everything.
– Reprinted with permission of Fade In Magazine