Are you aware that 90% of all scripts are dead before the writer even writes the first word? Welcome to the “bad idea,” the quickest and most terrifying way to destroy a screenplay. The worst thing about the bad idea is that, after coming up with it, you are beholden to it for the next year, two, three, five. You could spend countless hours and endless rewrites on something that has no chance of success no matter how much you put into it.
Now some might argue that struggling through your bad ideas is part of the learning process. Your bad ideas are where you practice, where you fail, where you grow. You don’t have enough experience yet to know that the idea is weak, so you keep fighting the script, and in the process, learn how to write scenes and characters and dialogue.
But bad ideas are not exclusive to young writers. Anyone can have a bad idea. Animal Kingdom was one of my favorite movies a few years ago. It was raw and fresh and different. I recently watched the director’s newest effort, “The Rover.” As far as I can tell, it’s a dystopian tale about a man who wants his car back. Now we know David Michod can write and direct. We saw it in his previous film. But once he locked himself into that bad idea, there was nothing he could do. The idea wasn’t good enough to sustain a movie.
Now some of you may be saying, “Judging ideas is pointless.” “Whether an idea is good or not is subjective.” That’s sorta true. But I’d argue there are lots of ideas we can all agree on. Take, for example, these two that I just made up…
1) Payback – A famous White Supremacist Leader wakes up in the middle of a gang-infested African-American neighborhood.
2) The Tech – A well-known but reclusive tech blogger wakes up in the middle of Silicon Valley.
Which one of these ideas is better? I’m guessing that we’re all in the same boat here. The first idea knocks the second idea out of the park. Why? Let’s take a closer look at both ideas to find out.
The first thing you notice in Payback’s logline is CONFLICT. There’s a ton of it. A white supremacist in the middle of a predominantly black ghetto tells us there are going to be a number of confrontations, and they aren’t going to be pretty. Next we have stakes. There’s a good chance that our character’s life is in jeopardy. Finally, a good idea inspires the reader to ask questions. “Will he get out of this?” we ask. “What will they do if they catch him?” Questions put the reader in the story before they’ve even read it. If you can put readers in stories they haven’t read yet? You’re doing your job as a writer.
Now let’s check out The Tech. A reclusive tech blogger is dropped inside Silicon Valley. Doesn’t sound like there’s much conflict here, does there? If he’s a tech blogger, he probably knows a lot about Silicon Valley and should have an easy time getting out, right? Also, if he’s reclusive, will people even recognize him? And are those people even on the street? Probably not. This is sounding less and less interesting by the second. Actually, now that I think about it, does he even want to leave? As you can see, when there’s no problem, there’s no reason for the hero to act. So unlike our white supremacist, our blogger might decide to head to Starbucks and grab a coffee. Why not?
So the first lesson in writing a great idea is that there needs to be some sort of problem, and that problem needs to cause some ongoing conflict in the storyline. Stakes are important as well, and should come naturally if you have conflict in place. Alright, let’s see if this holds up with a few of the best ideas ever to grace the silver screen. Notice I’m not saying these are the best movies. Just the best ideas.
Jurassic Park – A group of people are trapped inside an island theme park for cloned dinosaurs.
The Hangover – Three groomsmen must retrace their steps after a black-out drunken night in Vegas to find the missing groom and get him back to his wedding on time.
Hancock – A depressed alcoholic super hero must fight off his inner demons in order to save his city from a rapidly growing crime wave.
Rear Window – A wheelchair bound photographer confined to his apartment starts watching his neighbors and becomes convinced that one of them has committed a murder.
Say what you want about these films. These are all quality movie ideas. And they all fall in line with our “good idea” requirements. A problem is introduced that creates conflict. The stakes are high (except for, arguably, Rear Window). And they get us asking questions (The Hangover and Rear Window, especially.) Now, here are a few amateur loglines I found on the internet for comparison.
Seven-Fourteen (drama) – A psychiatrist during the 1970s finds himself selling prescriptions to a vicious mob boss while being hunted down by an FBI agent.
The Quest For Triaba: Secrets of the Forbidden City – After Lucas and Alexa travel with Mattack to the Forbidden City, Zetra and Connor try to find their own way into the Forbidden City. Along the way, these different groups of survivors meet up with some of the Wasteland’s most hideous people. Can Zetra and Connor make it to the Forbidden City? Can Alexa and Lucas fight off the terrible Carga? What will happen?
Cold Snap (drama/thriller) – During Christmas season – three young, bored and jobless teens hatch a plan to rob a family man’s traditional takeaway shop.
A Mind Reader (Horror) – A serial killer who can read minds is terrorizing Las Vegas. Emma, a troubled young girl is receiving visits from the ghosts of his victims. She seeks solace with a group of young teenage psychics. For differing reasons, they decide to find the mind reader themselves. The only trouble is, it’s hard to stay a step ahead of someone who can read your mind.
Hmm, my theory for good ideas is crumbling as we speak. Three of these ideas do just as our professional loglines did – they introduced a problem. Seven-Fourteen has the FBI hunting our hero down. The Quest for Triaba has the terrible Carga wreaking havoc. A Mind Reader has a serial killer on the loose. The only one that doesn’t have a problem is Cold Snap.
And yet, it’s hard to argue that any of these ideas are any good. If I were pressed for the best idea, I’d probably say Seven-Fourteen. But it still feels weak. In order to figure out what’s not working here, we may need to dissect each idea individually. Maybe then we can add some more rules to our list.
Seven-Fourteen (drama) – Okay, so like I said above, the writer creates a problem here. A psychiatrist is being hunted by an FBI agent. But there’s something very bland about it. FBI agents are in every single movie. What’s so special about this one? Not only that, but the elements don’t come together in a cohesive manner. What do the 70s have to do with this idea? How would it be any different if he were selling prescriptions today? And why would the FBI hunt down a psychiatrist? Isn’t the way more important catch here the mob boss? This idea is missing both excitement and logic.
The Quest For Triaba: Secrets of the Forbidden City – At first glance, this appears to be more of a logline problem than an idea problem. But logline or not, the idea is unfocused. I mean the title is “The Quest for Triaba,” yet there isn’t a single mention of Triaba in the logline. How could that be if Triaba is the goal driving the story? It’s pretty clear to me what isn’t working about this idea. It’s unfocused and confusing.
Cold Snap (drama/thriller) – The problem with Cold Snap as an idea is that there’s no story problem. Our main characters decide to do something because they’re “bored.” Boredom is rarely a good starting point for a story. You want a character who’s in peril, who’s in trouble. That way their motivation is strong. They must act to solve a problem. Also, this idea, like Seven-Fourteen, is too plain. Look at a comparable idea done better, the Sidney Lumet film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. “When two brothers organize the ‘perfect crime,’ robbing their parents’ jewelry store, their mom is accidentally killed during the robbery, leading to the implosion of the family.”
A Mind Reader (Horror) – Surely an idea about serial killers who can read minds is good, right? Not really. Whenever you complement strong elements, you want to do so with irony. The Billy Bob Thorton Christmas movie isn’t called “Dolphin-Loving Santa.” It’s called “Bad Santa.” There’s no irony in a Santa who loves dolphins just as there’s no irony in a serial killer who can read minds. Here’s another serial killer idea – A serial killer who only kills serial killers. That’s the premise for Dexter, the HBO show. That’s an idea. “A Mind Reader” is a muddled beginning to an idea that hasn’t been explored enough. Also, once you add ghosts, the idea becomes too crowded.
Okay, so we’ve learned a few new things. An idea works best when it’s big or exciting (as opposed to bland). This seems obvious but I can’t express how often I see this mistake. The addition of irony always makes an idea better. It’s why Hancock was such a big spec sale and huge movie, despite the execution being so lackluster. The idea must be clear. The idea must be focused.
But wait a minute. Not every idea can be Jurassic Park, can it? What about movies that don’t sound good in idea form? Like The Skeleton Twins! Which I loved. The logline for that was, “Two siblings both try (and fail) to commit suicide on the same day, later coming together to try and resolve their complicated relationship.” The “problem” here is their “troubled relationship,” which is hardly the kind of big idea that drives people to theaters. And yet the movie turned out good. How can that happen if it’s not a good idea?
The Skeleton Twins, like a lot of indie movies, is an “execution-dependent” film, which is code for “character-driven.” These scripts are built less on ideas as they are on characters. Once you have strong characters in your script, you attract strong actors. The marketing of the film then focuses on those actors, as opposed to the concept itself. If you watch any publicity material for The Skeleton Twins, it’s all about Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader as opposed to the story. You’ll find that these scripts almost NEVER make it through the spec market because the ideas aren’t big enough. They have to be made on the indie circuit and are usually done by writer-directors.
That doesn’t mean you can’t write character-driven ideas. You just need to come up with good concepts for them. That way you get the best of both worlds. Like 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed. A man puts an ad in the paper claiming he can time-travel and that he needs help. This is the starting point not for some Edge of Tomorrow knock-off, but an exploration of four characters and the problems holding them back in life.
All of this leads to the big question. What are the definitive traits that make up a good idea? We can never say for sure. But we’ve certainly seen crossover elements in the good ideas. Here are the big ones in list form. By no means must your idea include every item on the list, but it should definitely have a few.
1) There’s a big problem facing your hero(es) (the Nazis are trying to get the Ark of the Covenant to use as a weapon!).
2) There is lots of conflict inherent in the idea (The Walking Dead – everyone’s life is constantly in danger from both zombies and other humans).
3) There are high stakes (Jaws – if they shut down the beach because of the shark attacks, the town won’t make any money during tourist season).
4) There’s something unique/original about your idea (memory zapping in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
5) The idea feels big (A town and their fuel is in jeopardy from a rival band of raiders in Mad Max is a much bigger idea than a man who wants his car back in The Rover).
6) There is some irony in the idea (A king who must make an important speech has a catastrophic stuttering problem).
And let it be said that ONLY meeting the bare minimum of this criteria isn’t enough. I wouldn’t create a tiny problem to set your story in motion. I’d find something big. I wouldn’t be okay with a little bit of a conflict. I’d add a lot.
Does this article end the question of “What makes a good idea?” Of course not. Ideas are subjective creatures. What’s appealing to me isn’t always appealing to you. I thought the idea behind Dallas Buyers Club sounded melodramatic and outdated. But others liked it and that’s part of the subjectivity of this business.
With that said, you have a much better chance of creating a good idea if you follow today’s advice. What about you guys? What do you think makes a good idea? And to take that question a step further, how do you come up with your own ideas?