the-hangover-4fe2074315423Is “The Hangover” one of the best ideas in Hollywood history?

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?

  • Alexander Felix

    Great article, Carson. A juicy idea gives you a solid foundation to build your script upon. Seems so obvious, but for some reason, a lot of writers don’t give this enough thought.

  • Random Comment Guy

    Carson, I’m surprised you didn’t like Dallas Buyers Club. It’s got a ton of irony. A macho bull rider who prides himself on banging tons of chicks finds out that he has HIV… a disease that, at the time, was thought to only affect homosexual men. It’s got conflict. It’s got irony. And it’s got obvious ingredients for character change: He ends up becoming a more emphatic person through the conflict and actually befriends people he would have beat the shit out of a year ago.

    • carsonreeves1

      Well you should’ve done the ad campaign b/c all I saw was AIDS and Oscar-baiting in the ads. Now I’m a little more intrigued (I haven’t actually seen it. Was only judging the idea).

      • fd

        you should see it, Carson. If only for Leto’s performance.

      • JakeMLB

        It’s really an excellent film and is rife with irony, conflict and GSU. It’d be an impressive for me.

  • Stephjones

    Good or bad?
    Title: School Nurse
    Genre: Dramedy
    Logline: Reality intrudes for an offbeat dreamer when the kids get sick in a new green school.

    My intention is for this to be an unlikely hero sort of story. The protagonist risks her job in order to get to the bottom of what’s making the kids sick at the new school. At the same time the admin/special interests are marketing the school as safe and healthy to drive up tuition prices.

    A unicorn gave me the idea ;) I wrote it with Melissa McCarthy in mind. It needs extensive revision but I wonder if the idea has merit.

    • Erica

      For me, the logline didn’t hook me. I’m not big on drama’s and have to be in the mood for one. Now your description was intriguing and I would probably watch.

    • Jonas E.

      Maybe what’s at stake should be more clarified in the logline?

    • bluedenham

      What role does the school nurse in the title play? What does “reality” mean in this context? What is an “offbeat dreamer?” What are the stakes? When reality “intrudes” does this mean the dreamer is forced to take action or just stop dreaming? This whole logline is very very vague.

    • ChadStuart

      It’s not really working for me. It doesn’t read with any hook or irony. It basically describes a person doing their job, i.e.a school nurse treats sick kids. There’s no irony in it being a “green school” since that only describes a building that’s designed to be environmentally friendly, not antiseptic or hermetic. People get sick in green facilities all the time. Then, what’s the reality that intrudes? And why would a school nurse being an “offbeat dreamer” prevent her from doing her job? If the script is about corporate greed hurting the health of children, then that needs to be in the logline.

    • Randy Williams

      My unicorn tells me it would have a bigger hook if the school nurse was forced to make kids sick to keep her job in a green school where no one gets sick.

      Let’s start with some head lice! Muahahaha

      Sorry, that’s a different movie.

    • Midnight Luck

      but you tell us more in your descriptive paragraph than you do in your Log. None of the stuff in the description is in the Logline, yet it is the more INTERESTING and PERTINENT information.

      So tell us HOW the Protag is doing this, or WHY.

      “A Teacher risks everything when she kidnaps children from the School she helped found after she discovers they are becoming mysteriously ill from something inside.”

      or something.
      of course I am adding things to a story I don’t know enough about yet.

    • Stephjones

      thanks to all who have replied so far. Excellent points!
      So, this is actually more comedy than drama and has some implausible elements that hopefully will go down better as comedy.
      It’s hard to write a Logline which reflects those comedic elements but here is first try:

      When investors shilly-shally about what’s making the kids sick at a new school, an offbeat nurse has to step up her game to keep them, and her job, safe.

      Thanks so much for getting the gears turning on this one! Hope this clarifies and intrigues a bit more?

      • Jaco

        Not really. So far not seeing any elements of humor here.

        Sick kids – No

        Offbeat nurse: No

        Investors hiding what’s making children sick – definitely not.

        Also your elements aren’t matching – why would uncovering the cause keep her job safe if the investors are downplaying what’s making them sick? Seems she’d lose her job.

        Maybe try focusing more on the main character and how/why she’s funny?Does she hate blood? Bodily fluids? Hates kids? Is there a way you can make her situation ironic? Fish out of water? Is she a medical school dropout trying to get back in? A failed doctor? A fake nurse? I think you’ll get a better hook if you try and figure out what makes her funny and her situation funny.

        Good luck.

        • Stephjones

          Really good stuff, Jaco. You’re right, the Logline still ain’t there.
          She does lose her job but gets it back after she proves what made the kids sick.
          What makes her ” funny” is she relates more to kids than parents. She’s good at her job but very politically incorrect with the parents and admin. What is ironic is she is more responsible than alot of the other adults despite being somewhat emotionally stunted. She’s a daydreamer who wishes for a time when life was simple, like when she was still a kid, so she really has to step up her game when the shit hits the fan.
          I’m going back to the Logline drawing board. Thanks! Really helps clarify my Logline weaknesses.

          • ChadStuart

            Before you pull your hair out anymore over the logline, perhaps you should really consider the point of the above article. Is this idea really strong enough to sell? From all the elements you’ve described, I’m not sure that it is. Even with the evil corporation trying to cover up the illness, the movie still sounds like a school nurse doing her job. This just doesn’t sound like a movie that there are any buyers for.

            But, if you really want to craft a great character, then, as Carson says, you’re in the indie market. But, that means you’ll be raising money and attracting talent on your own. If that’s what you’re after, then you’ll really need to nail a unique character and sell it solely on that character.

      • KyleGo

        “Offbeat nurse” is as vague and generic as “hilarity ensures” or “kinky neighbor”. Doesn’t allow us to visualize your lead character. Just seems like a shortcut for “I haven’t figured it out yet,” which you only get to do if you’re a Hollywood innie.

    • davejc

      Your idea reminds me of a 1971 film, The Hospital. Only instead of a school, it was a hospital, and instead of getting sick, people were turning up dead. But the tone and theme sounds similar to your idea. If you get a chance you should watch it for inspiration. It was nominated for several awards and penned by one of my all time favorite screen writers, Paddy Chayefsky.

      • Stephjones

        Thanks, Dave! I’ll check it out.

    • Citizen M

      I thought the title was a bit band. My effort:

      Title: Health Fail

      Logline: A daydreaming school nurse is given a shock when investors charging high fees for their new ultra-healthy, environmentally conscious school blame her, not the school, for children falling ill.

      • Stephjones

        Thanks for weighing in. Actually, that’s an angle I haven’t considered before, with them trying to pin the blame on her. I’m going to mull that one over and see how it might enter into my rewrite. Thanks, Citizen M.

        And, I’m embarrassed to admit this, the title is in line with Mall Cop, a sucky movie but with the Everyman hero aspect I’m trying for.

  • Dale T

    Half of being able to sell an idea is, in my opinion, deeply tied to preferences and personal experiences. Putting characters in amusing or precarious situations, no matter how interesting they are, doesn’t hold that much weight when the person reading it doesn’t care about the characters in the first place, which is a shallow judgment we can make through its logline.

    “An Aztec Warrior comes home from a grueling war against the Mayans, only to discover that his wife has fallen in love with a Mayan, and everyone in the community has accepted the Mayan as one of their own.”

    Just for the sake of it let’s assume that everyone thinks the situation of this story is interesting. For me it falls apart due to the fact that it concerns an ancient indigenous race of people, people I just can’t relate to nor care about.

    I concede that the Payback logline is far more interesting, but there are people that probably find The Tech the more appealing story because they’re technicians themselves and they can relate to it better. Silicon Valley is at the heart of the app market, and for a shy well known tech blogger to suddenly be thrusted into that environment, some people might be genuinely curious how this situation will unfold just cause they can relate to this person better than they can a white supremacist.

    The Hangover? There could be people that are, in their lives, repulsed by drunkards.

    Some ideas are transient dependent on its time period, like prohibition, and others that are hot no matter the era. Racism seems very ripe especially nowadays with Donald Sterling and Ferguson.

    TL:DR version, creating an interesting idea is creating a story that people can relate to and/or care about.

    • Logline_Villain

      “An Aztec Warrior comes home from a grueling war against the Mayans…. it falls apart due to the fact that it concerns an ancient indigenous race of people, people I just can’t relate to nor care about.”

      I probably thought the same thing initially about the idea involving Spanish-Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius coming home from a grueling war against the Germanic tribes in AD 180… and then I saw Gladiator.

      • Dale T

        At the same time what made Gladiator interesting was, well, the gladiator fights.

        • Casper Chris

          To me it was the character dynamics/drama. And the music. The fights were the cherry on top.

    • ArabyChic

      I think the Aztec warrior is actually much more relatable than a racist in predominantly black, underprivileged neighborhood. I don’t give a shit what happens to the racist. The Aztec/Mayan story actually has a lot resonance in today’s world, and the main character — at least from the log line — is very sympathetic; I don’t know how historically accurate this story could be, but emotionally it’s gripping.

  • leitskev

    Excellent analysis. Not much to add. Maybe two tiny things.

    First: don’t let the lack of a high concept idea prevent you from writing a screenplay.
    High concepts are hard to come by. Make your idea as high concept as you can.
    But keep writing scripts.

    Second: an idea also has to resonate with people. Very subjective.
    And very much a contemporary thing. What resonates now won’t resonate for long.
    For example you don’t want to write about a hacker. Not now.
    Hard to know what resonates, so try to test your idea with friends and see what they say.

    But keep writing!

    • Random Comment Guy

      I agree. The high concept shouldn’t keep someone from writing. Though with a high concept you can get a sale.

      Regarding the idea of resonance, I think the key to a resonant story is universality. I feel like a story needs to contain some core idea or emotion which any person can relate to. Even though I’m at risk of sounding like a middle school english teacher… there’s a reason Shakespeare still resonates to this day. The guy explored fundamental aspects of the human condition. Jealousy, Wrath, Pride, Ambition, etc. Who can’t relate to that? Also anyone who had a clingy girlfriend should read Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra. It’s the ultimate “bro’s before hoes” story.

      But then again, Shakespeare would never make it in Hollywood. He’d be homeless.

      • leitskev

        Thanks for the thoughts. What resonates is very mysterious to me. Like Carson, the concept behind Dallas Buyers Club did nothing for me. I figured maybe it was a niche market aimed at those more interested in the subject.

        I talked to a woman yesterday who was relating a book she just finished that was about Alzheimers and suicide…and which left her in tears. I’m thinking myself why would I want to read that? But people seek different things in their books and movies. I guess the one commonality is emotional reaction.

        There is both a universal aspect to what resonates, and often something more contemporary. Space alien movies resonated more in the 50s because of our insecurities due to the bomb. After Vietnam, movies where the government was the villain resonated.

        I predict that in the coming years things like steam punk might resonate as a reaction against modern technology. Who knows.

      • Dale T

        Maybe those that are able to click with people on a deeper level is the true mark of a great writer. I was reading through an argument between Friends and Seinfield a while back and a pro Seinfield guy argued that Seinfield is still relevant today while Friends already feels like a relic in the past, even though it’s newer. Weeks later I happened to catch a Friends and Seinfield episode on different occasions, and realized that argument rang true for me. And I’m a Friends fan. With Friends it still resonates with me, but it’s a decade away from being “your dad’s show”. With Seinfield the episodes feel fresh. That masturbation episode can probably still be watched years and years and years from now. I don’t think Seinfield will ever feel like “from a different time.”

        Some stories rely on ephemeral pop cultural trends, and then there’s others that connects with people at an innate level.

        • leitskev

          Seinfeld is a great show built on recognizable and identifiable situations. But not every show can be that way. The idea is not to capitalize on “pop trends”, but successful movies usually occur within a place and time and might not be successful taken out of that place and time.

          Also, I want to tiptoe about a problem I see with people analyzing scripts. And it’s a fine line. What happens is people bring up the Godfather or Chinatown or some other classic. I do it too. But there’s a constructive way and an nonconstructive way. In the constructive approach, these movies are used to make a point. In the nonconstructive approach, these movies are set up as models which all other films that don’t live up to are considered failures. This is harmful because it sheds no light on whether or not the film would succeed.

          I am a fan of Seinfeld for the reason you mentioned. So it’s a good point. And while I am not a fan of Friends, it was a very successful show for a long time. So both approaches were successful. And neither of those shows would have resonated 30 years ago.

          Some of the greatest films of all time involve story plots that would not resonate today. Most of the greatest films of all time. Yes. the have elements that are effective now and then. Such as the romance or the underdog aspect of Rocky. But Rocky, a great film, would not work today.

  • ChadStuart

    Honestly, I think there’s a difference between a “good idea” and a “golden idea”. Both can be high concept. Both can be loaded with conflict. Both can make you instantly visualize a movie. But both are still very different for unsold writers.

    For an unsold writer, a good idea (even a great one) will place you well in a contest (if it’s also well written). It might even get you a manager. But it’s not going to swing the gates of Hollywood open for you. There are several proven writers with contacts to fill up the pipeline with good ideas. Most movies you see that are merely “good ideas” are written by established writers.

    Golden Ideas are the key. They are what you almost must have to break through. Those are the movies (“The Purge” comes to mind) that are so unique and exciting, they can overcome being poorly written. There’s enough juice in them to make the budget back on the first weekend. And then if they’re also good? Then it will break records.

    The problem is that those are near impossible to come by. Believe me, I’ve been trying, and I’m still an unsold writer.

    • Ken

      Yes – even though The Purge ultimately didn’t make the most out of its idea… the concept itself was so intriguing it made you want to see the film.

  • NajlaAnn

    Reading this analysis triggered an idea to improve my sci-fi logline. :)

  • Casper Chris

    The Equalizer getting a lukewarm reception from critics.

    Why am I not surprised. While a decent script (craft-wise), it was ultimately unimaginative, clichéd and had nothing interesting to say (an artistic failure).

    • Scott Strybos

      I haven’t seen The Equalizer but I read the script. I found one of its strength becomes its biggest flaw by the end. And that is Denzel’s character is TOO good. At the beginning of the story it is fun to watch him dominate. But the story suffers because he is so skilled. There is no moment where I thought he was in trouble, outmanned, or not five moves ahead of the villains. The Equalizer had NO CONFLICT.

      • Random Comment Guy

        I only watched the trailer, but it struck me as another middle-aged-man-fantasy of “doing the right thing through any violent means necessary”. I think the people who will go and see this don’t really care about denzel being outmanned or outskilled. They just want to watch a guy kick ass.

        • Scott Strybos

          True. And now that I think about it there are other films like The Equalizer that I love. Like Taken. Bryan Mills is a freight train barreling through that film and nothing comes close to stopping him. And I love that film. I don’t know what the difference is; why The Equalizer is so lackluster and a film like Taken is so much fun through to the end.

          • Random Comment Guy

            Well Taken has a very specific conflict that is more personal. He wants to save his daughter. From what I gather with The Equalizer, it’s just like “hey, there’s problems in the world we need to fix and I’M going to fix it”. It’s less personal in my opinion.

          • Scott Strybos

            You are right; the difference is the stakes. The equalizer had bad stakes and bad conflict

          • Eric

            It might just be the difference between screen and paper. If you look at RT, Taken and Equalizer have roughly the same borderline reception.

          • Casper Chris

            Taken is not exactly great art either.

    • jw

      Not to mention it’s basically Denzel playing the same role again, no? Man on Fire anyone? Training Day? Denzel plays a bad ass motherfucker who kicks people’s ass and likely not in a fully legal way. It’s strange the level of repetition in roles for actors lately. With Neeson doing Tombstones and Denzel in Equalizer, is it a comment on the sad state of offerings for film actors or is it just two old guys who don’t have the energy anymore to really give a shit whether they’ve done a role before or not? Sign the check, hand it over and I’ll show up to set. Done.

  • UrbaneGhoul

    Seven-Fourteen is best of the amateur ideas since it is like the pro movies above it, short and simple. Now, it is unimaginative, but as an idea, it can springboard to something decent. There has already been a log line article, so I’m just going to look at it as someone telling another person an idea, “I got an idea about a psychiatrist sells prescription drugs to mobsters and obviously the FBI will investigate and stuff in the 70’s.”

    So then what next? This idea has been seen before, most famous being The Sopranos, but there has been some recent shows like the terrible Mob Doctor. But the idea reminds me more of Breaking Bad. Not that you add a FBI agent brother-in-law, but Walter White as a chemistry teacher turned drug cook who begins a descent into the criminal underworld. It’s the conflict, so what if the idea isn’t the psychiatrist isn’t doing something illegal already, selling prescription drugs, but is willing to treat these mobsters, but keep his practice legal. So the idea could be

    “A psychiatrist deals with temptation as he tries to keep his practice legal as he treats the worst scumbags in the Mafia.”

    Again, this is just an idea to springboard the rest of the story and characters. Instead of a Tony Soprano mob boss he treats, make it the violent enforcer who has PTSD who wants it to remain a legal practice. The mob boss wants to make a partner in the criminal enterprise, some of his mobster patients try to steal his script pad to forge for prescription drugs, and yes, the FBI begins questioning him and his family.

    An idea has to be simple, but not the story. The story has plot, subplots, characters and what not. That spark of inspiration that becomes an idea should be simple and easy to say. And then you branch out. Quest for Tribia and The Mind Reader are too long and uses “and then” too much. Okay, not literally “and then” but “along the way” and “differing reasons”. It’s like being at a party and hearing story with the the person telling it with a bunch of “and then” this happened.

  • Sebastian Cornet

    What makes a good idea? When you tell it to a handful of people (moms are not included) and their faces brighten up. Simple, quick, and effective. Spares you from months of fruitless work.

  • Randy Williams

    With access to the Black List 3.0, I read as many readers’ evaluations
    that were made public by the writers that I could, to try to grasp any
    common threads about the marketability of an idea. The only thing I came
    up with is that you want to make the roles in your script attractive to
    A-list actors 30 years old and over and preferably male.

    So, with that in mind, “Seven Fourteen” with the psychiatrist during the ’70’s would probably be the best bet of your amateur loglines!

  • jw

    I sort of feel this could have been split into 2 categories: How to create great commercial ideas and then How to create great indie ideas. These are 2 VERY different things and I believe should be looked at differently. Will there be “all encompassing” elements for both? Yes. But, at the end of the day, the idea process for Let’s Be Cops, versus This is Where I Leave You is going to be extremely different even though both are comedies. I think the #1 encompassing element that has to really reside in story (and has been mentioned) is taking your main character(s) and putting them into a situation they normally wouldn’t find themselves in, nor wish to be a part of (and yes, irony can be a part of this). This is sort of the 1 constant between Commercial and Indie, whether you’re looking at Hunger Games or Out of the Furnace, someone gets dragged into a situation they’ve tried not to become a part of, in fact, may have gone out of their way to avoid. And, that really helps with arc, because we all know that if your character starts off in a place they don’t want to be and don’t connect with, the shift in who they are as a person in the end is more organic. When most writers start writing, from my perspective, they don’t naturally come up with these things. They say, I want to write about a firefighter and what the main storyline ends up being is about a firefighter battling fires, the fires being the antagonist. Whereas if you had a firefighter who was burnt out, didn’t want to do it, was afraid of heights, was putting in a request for a desk job, couldn’t stand those around him and hated the neighborhood, you’d have much more in the way of contrast (& conflict), with the fires being the least of the antagonist. Not only that, but when you do this as a writer, the audience responds much more. They don’t want to see someone who’s used to their surroundings navigating in a usual fashion, they want to see Frank Underwood plotting to take down the very fabric of everything that surrounds them because they can’t sleep at night knowing where they’re at.

    • pmlove

      Good point. How do you think this stands up to, say, something like Guardians of the Galaxy? There’s not a lot made of the main character’s reluctance in that (to my mind). I suppose the gist of my question is – are there certain genres that form exceptions (eg ‘Macguffin films’), or are they not really exceptions at all?

      • jw

        2 things — 1. I haven’t seen Guardians, so honestly I can’t speak to that story. If we look at it from the perspective of story though, many “critics” have argued “what the fuck is actually happening in this story?” Thus, commercial success in the form of the box office doesn’t always translate to a great story. My theory on Guardians box office success is that it comes during a time period where the box office is at an all-time low while simultaneously it’s an action-hero Marvel film that doesn’t take itself seriously (and timing wise that is spot-on, as audiences have been bombarded with the “please take me seriously” action-hero films over the past few years) 2. Absolutely, you’re correct. I’d say that there are definitely plot devices that work well with some genres and not others. But, like I said prior, rather than genre differences, I think you have more difference between Commercial versus Indie. Let’s take a film that has been talked about on this site, and the name escapes me, but it was about the couple who went away to a small cabin in the middle of nowhere to revitalize their relationship, and the whole sci-fi element that encompassed it. Now, the main difference is that with an indie treatment, that film remains as-is, but done in a commercial sphere would have been entirely different in terms of approach and plotting. I think most writers / movie-goers can see an indie film and say to ourselves, wow – that could have worked commercially too (and potentially even think up ways it would have happened). That’s where I believe those indie / commercial differences lie, more-so than genre differences.

        • Ken

          You haven’t seen Guardians but you still have an opinion concerning why it did well (“it’s an action-hero Marvel film that doesn’t take itself seriously”). If you had watched it you’d know it was successful because it was well plotted.

        • Midnight Luck

          I think you are talking about “The One I Love” with Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass. Maybe? Maybe Not, haven’t seen it yet.

          • jw

            Thank you, Midnight! That is the one I was referring to.

      • ChadStuart

        Sure there is. Peter Quill’s a thief and an opportunist who’s thrust into the role of being a hero. He doesn’t want to be a hero, he just wants to make money. He’s very Han Solo that way.

  • klmn

    I don’t think Carson’s Payback idea is any better than The Tech. There’s enough real racial conflict in the news – there’s no need to create it in fiction.

    I feel the same way about war movies. The U.S. has bungled its way into another war – I think war movies will have tough sledding. It will be interesting to see how Fury does at the box office.

    • Kirk Diggler

      Yeah my initial reaction to Payback is, who cares? I can root for neither a white supremacist nor violent gang members. There would have to be a third element introduced to make it remotely interesting. Like a young black teenager who heads an anti-violence crusade that comes between the two factions. That would be the irony. The hood wearing idiot can only be saved by the very thing he abhors.

      • Nate

        The thing is though, would you want the young black teenager to save the white supremacist? I mean if you don’t care about the white supremacist in the first place, then what difference will it make if someone is trying to save him?
        Whilst the original idea isn’t a bad one, it’s flawed in that the protagonist is someone you don’t want to see succeed.
        If it was about a white rookie cop trying to take his racist partner into custody for the murder of a black teenager in South Central and getting caught up in a vicious war between the gangs and police, I could buy it.
        I’d take the end of Training Day where Ethan Hawke’s character tries to arrest Denzel’s character and make a movie about it. But instead of having the rookie cop succeed in arresting his partner at the end, he’d say fuck it and let the gang have him.
        To me it makes a bit more sense than a white supremacist because the protagonist is someone we can root for and because his goal is quite noble. He wants to see justice done. Eventually he realises that street justice is much better than his kind.

        • Kirk Diggler

          “The thing is though, would you want the young black teenager to save the white supremacist? I mean if you don’t care about the white supremacist in the first place, then what difference will it make if someone is trying to save him? ”

          Good question. I don’t know the answer. The problem is that with a concept like this is that the black teenager would be the ‘noble kid’ trying to save everyone from their own worst behavior. Which in the wrong hands is a recipe for treacle. We’re seen films like this, cast with good intentions but cloying and sentimental where everyone learns a life lesson and comes out of the scenario a better person. <>.

          Which is why I would never attempt to write something like it. I was just trying to throw something into the mix to make it more interesting but it’s apparent the idea itself might be DOA.

  • Midnight Luck

    Thought it might be on topic, if anyone can write a script about an Angry Unicorn.
    Saw this yesterday:

    Carson has a new hangout to go to

    Hot Fresh Angry Unicorn Burgers served up Daily!

    • klmn

      Logline: A unicorn seeks revenge on a pair of virgin hunters who are decimating his herd to run their burger truck.

      • klmn

        I’ve got a title for it, too. THE VICIOUS VIRGINS VS THE UNICORN OF DEATH.

    • Poe_Serling

      And the potential script already has its backstory in place.

      From their website:

      “Did you know that Portland was built atop an ancient unicorn graveyard? The rumors are true. Why else would you see random tall bikes commuting downtown or Darth Vader playing the bagpipes while riding a unicycle. Unicorns are magical and at The Angry Unicorn, they take that magic and make burgers.”

      • Midnight Luck

        They have a website?

  • G.S.

    I’d also add to that list “Have a hero the audience can root for.” While that first random idea Carson shot out there was good in terms of conflict and problem establishment, it gave us a white supremacist as the hero. Now if you add the word “reformed” to the mix, you not only have a hero we can get behind, but we have the irony of his peril being tied to an ideology he no longer holds.

    In more general terms, I’ve seen a number of decent to good ideas being derailed by the choice of protagonist even before execution of character becomes an issue in the writing itself. Sometimes, it’s a matter of approaching the story from the right point of view. From the ballet drama pilot a couple weeks back, the writer chose a pretty stale template for the protagonist while the much more interesting ballet-dancer-by day-stripper-by-night character was relegated to the supporting cast. Switching up the protagonist there would have made the idea really pop.

    Note: I haven’t read any of the other posts yet, so please forgive if I’m just repeating someone else.

    • Midnight Luck

      great, great thoughts.
      I agree, it might be difficult to get behind the white supremacist.
      Like you say, If you switched it up to a reformed white supremacist it would add the irony, and offer someone for us to root for, all while hoping they get out, and maybe, just maybe, someone will understand what they believe now, and who they are. Then, somewhere near the end, they possibly can right some of the wrongs they have done in their previous life.

      • pmlove

        > they possibly can right some of the wrongs they have done in their previous life

        If only the last IISC logline was still open…

  • JakeMLB

    I don’t know Carson, you’ve barely scratched the surface on what makes a strong idea and haven’t really given us many examples to work with. That’s probably because breaking down what makes a good idea is almost the same as asking, “what makes a good script/story?”.

    Not all the elements of a good story will be obvious from the logline or even at the onset of developing a good idea.

    Take the stakes in your Jaws example. The idea of a monster terrorizing a community is a fairly straightforward concept. Do the stakes somehow make this idea stand out? Of course not; needing money for tourism is a fairly obvious solution to the question “well, why don’t they just shut the beach down?”. These choices on their own don’t make a strong concept. It’s the sum of these choices that ultimately make a concept strong.

    A strong concept is one for which such solutions are elegant, meaning they are simple and somewhat obvious. A strong concept will allow for such solutions to feel obvious.

    The Walking Dead is another example. There are countless zombie movies some of which are good and some of which are horrid. Does the threat of zombies in itself make the concept strong simple because it provides conflict? Of course not. If it did, every horror logline would pass for a strong idea. I’d argue that’s more about stakes anyway. In horror, the stakes are typically well-established as it’s almost always a matter of life and death.

    Ultimately it comes back to GSU and more. I posted this in another thread but my personal checklist for a premise is this:

    a) what is the protagonist’s external goal?
    b) what is their motivation?
    c) what are the stakes (internal/external/off-screen) if they fail?
    d) what the story is really about?
    e) what is the off-screen movie?
    f) what is the ticking time bomb or other forces of urgency?

    Simply run through that checklist and apply it to most of the films you know and you’ll quickly see why a premise is strong or not. Of course there’s more to it than that. A strong idea will be one in which the protagonist’s internal goals are somehow connected to the external as well as the theme. A strong premise will be sure that these factors are somehow linked to the universal human condition. The off-screen movie is another key concept particularly in high-concept ideas: in Jaws for example, the fact that they can’t shut down the beach tells us that there’s a greater world and greater conflict occurring outside of the intimate story.

    • klmn

      …”needing money for tourism is a fairly obvious solution to the question “well, why don’t they just shut the beach down?”. These choices on their own don’t make a strong concept…

      That’s the idea behind Ibsen’s An Enemy of The People.

      Ol’ Ibby didn’t need a shark.

      • Poe_Serling

        Did you ever see the Steve McQueen version? I tried to watch it once, but just couldn’t get into it.

        • klmn

          No, never saw it. I prefer McQueen driving cars out of control.

          The only reason I know about it is I had to read it in high school. Why a teacher would select a translation of a Norwegian drama to teach literature is beyond me.

    • Poe_Serling

      Excellent post!!

      “The Walking Dead is another example. There are countless zombie movies
      some of which are good and some of which are horrid. Does the threat of
      zombies in itself make the concept strong simply because it provides
      conflict? Of course not.”

      Just to add to the conversation:

      Night of the Living Dead

      “The dead come back to life. Several people barricade themselves inside a rural house in an attempt to survive the night.”

      Back then, a pretty solid/good idea in my opinion…

      But what makes it a classic film is all the little touches that Romero and company put into the development of the overall story to take full advantage of their original premise.

      >>We meet Barbra and Johnny in the graveyard… the protags of the story?
      Nope. Johnny is killed almost immediately. Barbra goes off the deep end.

      Enter Ben in his pickup truck.

      >>A true sense of helplessness to the situation unfolding. No sign of the usual suspects to the rescue… namely the military or medical establishment.

      >>Instead of the typical ‘slave-like’ zombies from the few horror films before it, these living dead are free roamers and flesh-eaters.

      >>Finally, one stunner of an ending.

      So, not only does Romero run with his zombie notion, but he also plays around with a lot of the standard conventions of the genre to create quite a memorable movie experience.

    • Ken

      You could create a different logline for Jaws that would add irony, something like: ‘A cop who hates the water must go to sea and hunt down a man-eating shark’

  • E.C. Henry

    Carson, I think you hit the nail on the head; CONFLICT is the key to having a great idea. Express conflict in an interesting way and you have a “big idea” to build off.

    The interesting thing is is that some great movies have had some “big ideas” that can sound run-of-the-mill at the logline stage, like “28 Days Later…” A zombie flick, right? YET this was a zombie movie unlike any other I’ve ever seen, and its key hook was “infection”: a man-made disease that some well-intentioned animal rights patriots unintentionally released. I bring “28 Days Later…” up because SOMETIMES the real “big idea” hook isn’t apparent in the logline.

  • Stephjones

    I can completely see where you’re coming from. The sickness drives the plot and the kids get symptoms which resemble a bad stomach virus but also mimic symptoms of poison. Not all of the kids get sick. It’s random because of the source of the illness so it’s hard to pin down but enough get sick to red flag the school for parents who thought they were paying a higher tuition for a safer sort of school. The illness puts the investment at risk so concern with the bottom line is putting the kids at risk

  • mulesandmud

    One strong suggestion: keep a journal of ideas, and force yourself to generate at least one new concept every day.

    It’s not enough just to write down a kernel of an idea, though. You have to investigate your thought. Find its strengths, its weaknesses, the parts of it that you would be most excited or intimidated to write. Noodle with the shape it might have as a movie, pose questions, use the logline test if you like, anything that helps you decide whether you’ve found the makings of an engaging story.

    Commit to a minimum length for each entry: a paragraph, a page, something you can hold yourself to. 500 words is a nice round number.

    Every single day. More than one a day if you can, though in the end it’s not about quantity. It’s not even about quality, really. Most of the ideas will be bad, and that’s a good thing.

    Get the crap out of your system. Learn to see it for what it is. Try to find a new twist if you can, but mostly get comfortable letting the bad ideas go, as well as the mediocre, fair, and pretty good ideas too…you’re only hunting for the best.

    Generating a good idea doesn’t guarantee you’ve found your next script, but it’s still a great workout for your story muscles, on both the artistic and editorial sides. Very soon you’ll find yourself generating ideas more naturally, and analyzing them more sharply.

    And to top it all off, you’ll quickly find yourself accumulating an impressive database of ideas that you can flip back through and potentially incorporate as peripheral elements in whatever project you do commit to.

    Oh, and don’t put the journal away because you’ve found your next great idea, or even once you’re neck deep in that script. Force time for the exercise, embrace the opportunity to step away from the project you’ve obsessing over to riff on something new. Keep the habit alive.

    Writing is a minefield, and bad ideas are the missteps; weaving through those danger zones should be a daily task. Finding good ideas and avoiding bad ones never gets easier – in fact, the more you work, the thicker the mines get – but perfecting the ways in which you avoid those missteps will help define you as a writer.

  • Midnight Luck

    I went and saw The Shawshank Redemption on the big screen last night. It is the 20th anniversary, and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen in forever. It proved itself once again to be my favorite movie (along with When Harry Met Sally) and for good reason.

    The problem is, it would never stand up to any of these “rules”.

    It has NO GSU.
    It takes place over the course of 10 years.
    There’s no mystery box,
    No bomb under the table
    It doesn’t have that BIG CONCEPT.
    It doesn’t do any of the things we are told to do.
    It has a Big Twist at the end, but we have no idea about it, until the last 20 minutes of a 2 hour and 22 minute movie.
    We aren’t fed these questions that are needed to be answered as it goes, yet it is unbelievably suspenseful and entertaining.

    The entire movie is watching what happens to two convicted murderer’s (one rightly, one wrongly accused) as they go through life (10 years in prison) and all the happenings on the inside. Andy doesn’t try to prove his innocence, we just watch these two become best friends and see what they have to deal with in prison life.

    None of this should work. But it does.
    It is listed as the top favorite movie on just about every list. There is a huge following for a movie that breaks just about every single rule of what to do and what not to do when writing or making a Hollywood movie.

    Riddle me that.

    • Logic Ninja

      Hmmm. It does feed us a few big questions. Right off the bat we want to know: Is Andy guilty?

      Then we wanna know: Will Andy break?

      Then we wanna know: Will Andy ever get out? And if so, can he adjust to the real world?

      Sure, they’re not the big, earth-shattering mystery box questions we’re so often asked to create. But they’re there.

      • Scott Strybos

        Are we supposed to be in the dark as to Andy’s guilt or innocence? I don’t think there was any part where I didn’t think Andy was completely innocent.

        • Midnight Luck

          No, I am pretty sure we are supposed to know he is innocent.

          I guess one could make an argument it isn’t proven that he is innocent since the gun was never found and he is convicted.

          I still think it is pretty straight forward that he has been wrongfully convicted and we are going to be in his corner.

        • Logic Ninja

          Haha maybe I was just slow! The opening sequence left me with a question mark, but I was probably just being clueless.

      • Midnight Luck

        Yes, that is true in some ways. But in the intro, the credits are still rolling, we go through Andy’s conviction, and the next thing we see is Red NOT getting paroled and sent back inside with a very definite sign that NO ONE is getting out. Then it is shown that this story isn’t about Andy proving his innocence. When he meets Red and talks to him for the first time and tells him he is innocent, everyone laughs and says “you’ll fit right in, every man in Shawshank’s innocent”. Right up front they are saying, it doesn’t matter if you are innocent or guilty, no one cares, you are seen as guilty anyway.

        While most of the mysteries or questions you are talking about are raised, they are all very minor and shut down Very quickly.

        This is a story about friendship and male love, along with corruption and pain, and illogically, Hope.

        Very different kind of story than what we are told to write.

        I know, it was 1994 many will say, different time, the rules now don’t apply.

        I disagree, storytelling hasn’t changed.
        And Shawshank was a master class in storytelling.

        —-Although, now having read 1/2 of Linda Obst’s book “Sleepless in Hollywood”, my whole argument might have to be thrown right out the window.

        She is in-your-face saying that, in 2013 when the book was released, basically:
        “Amateur Screenwriters are just screwed”.

        Unless you can be lucky enough to be Evan Daugherty and write that coveted known property-fairy-tale-mash-up that gets vaulted around town and goes for the highest bidder million dollar prize, or get lucky and are Nicole Perlman and given free reign to choose whatever Marvel property isn’t bought and in production and just write a spec script that is pre-bought (so it really isn’t a spec) for a bunch of money, well, there is almost no chance in the New Hollywood that your little spec will get bought, because Hollywood is ONLY looking to Foreign sales, and if it won’t OPEN in the $600 million to a $billion dollar sales realm, it isn’t going to work and won’t be bought.

        So, the New Abnormal of Hollywood, as Lynda calls it, doesn’t look the same as the Old Abnormal Hollywood at how specs are judged. And in her eyes, things like the Blacklist are basically antiquated notions, and that there’s no room for the Amateur Spec script AT ALL anymore.

        Does this seem Depressing?

        And I have another half of the book to read.
        Might just kill myself instead, sounds like more fun.

        • Logic Ninja

          I love your point here–we tend to get a little bogged down in rules, whether they be page numbers, beats, or GSU (though of the three, I’d say GSU is most useful). But as with most things, you learn the rules so eventually you’ll know how to break ‘em.

          If you haven’t liked the Nicholl Fellowship on FB, I’d highly recommend it. They put out at least one interesting screen-writing related tidbit every day. The last week or so they’ve been posting the first page of Oscar or Fellowship-winning scripts, to show how those scripts may not follows the tried-and-true “rules” of writing. Great stuff!

          • Midnight Luck

            I am on their Facebook feed and get these posts every day.

            I agree that people get bogged down in the piddly stuff. The problem is, it only matters once you have figured out how to make a great story. Then it matters. So, if you have a solid story, if you have written something really creative and has a killer storyline, then go make sure all the spelling is right, the beats work, all that other B.S.

            They do matter. They just don’t matter much if the story you are writing doesn’t work or is a less than worthy subject. But once you have all that going and working, then all these little p’s and q’s really do matter.

            At least to me. I have a really hard time if I mess up with spelling or something banal when I am ready to submit something or have turned it in. When I have sent something in and then find an incorrect word or a misspelling it drives me insane, “how could I have missed that!”.

        • Erica

          So what your saying is we are all “Andy the Amateur writer” who is in the prison’s of Shadowscript, Blacklist and more, just looking for Red, that he will provide friendship love, illogically and hope. One day we may breakout. It doesn’t matter if we are guilty or innocent, we are all the same in here…

    • Scott Strybos

      Shawshank works for the same reason Carson says The Skeleton Twins works: an abundance of plot points; there is always something interesting happening; the film is not just Andy moping in his cell. Andy Durfresne is an extremely ACTIVE protagonist.

      Also we also identify with him immediately. The first thing we see is his wife cheating on him–it doesn’t get worse than that, right? Wrong, because the very next thing we witness is him being wrongfully convicted of murder and being sentenced to a living Hell. That forges a strong connection. After that we are bound to him for life….

      • Midnight Luck

        Great points. Thanks for that.
        He IS a very active Protag. And he is served up a slice of the world’s worst living hell. That is for sure.

    • Kirk Diggler

      I think Andy was in prison for 19/20 years before breaking out. Red was in for 40.

      • Midnight Luck

        Yes, when I posted, for some reason all I could think about was Andy and Red’s conversation where Red says it has been 30 years and Andy says yeah, 10 years and you wonder where did it all go. Where Andy has bought a harmonica as a Parole rejection present for Red.

        It seemed like it had to have been longer, maybe I was drunk and am mis-remembering what I just saw and know. I was pretty sure that Andy was in the clink for more like 20 years, but I just can’t seem to remember, even after having seen it a 100 times. Damn.

    • Kirk Diggler

      Simple answer is: Make us care about your protagonist and the journey he/she is on and we’ll watch anything.

      • Midnight Luck

        Yes, too true. I definitely will.

    • Random Comment Guy

      I’m not gonna argue that Shawshank isn’t an amazing movie, but can you remember the 1st time you watched it? I can remember mine. And, at least for me, I was bored until getting to the end when it all connected and worked on an emotional level. That’s how I feel about most great movies which defy traditional conventions. Taxi driver was terrible until the ending. Same with Harakiri. And now when I re-watch these movies I love them at the 1st minute. Hindsight is an odd thing.

      I’m curious if you had a similar experience.

      Carson, maybe you should start analyzing the necessary ingredients to make an amazing ending…instead of the necessary ingredients to have a great introduction/selling point?

      • Midnight Luck

        Here is the thing. I seem to be one of the only people I know who LOVES pacing in a movie. I really dislike a movie where Everything has to be GO, GO, GO, GO all the time.

        Shawshank does an amazing job at this. It moves at different speeds. It allows itself really slow thoughtful times. It is ok with a snails pace for much of the story. Which to me allows the view to think and take more in.

        I absolutely remember it. I loved EVERYTHING about it. From the first minute on. The music, the Cinematography (from arguably the BEST Cinematographer of all time ROGER DEAKINS), to the dialogue, everything just struck me as absolutely perfect.

        It had everything I loved going for it. Deakins, Robbins, Freeman, dark story, wrongfully accused, corruption. I love dark, moody things. SEVEN was a favorite. Shawshank was like it was written just for me.

        I was never bored. Not once. I loved seeing everything that happened. Loved watching the relationships. But, then again, I am a huge Indie movie lover, and love movies about relationships and people as well. Not the My Big Fat Greek Wedding kind, but the CRASH or little known movie called PLAYING BY HEART (which was originally called DANCING ABOUT ARCHITECTURE and had Angelina Jolie, Sean Connery,, Gillian Anderson, Gena Rowlands, Madeleine Stow, Ryan Phillippe, Dennis Quaid, Ellen Burstyn, Jay Mohr, basically anyone who was anyone at the time) or When Harry Met Sally kind.

        When the ending came, it just took an amazing movie and vaulted it into the stratosphere of undeniable perfection.

        • klmn

          Good post. A lot of the people here want to get the whole story in the first act, the first ten pages, or sometimes in the logline.

          • Midnight Luck

            I am a proponent of having the first Ten pages be of utmost importance, and that the First page should absolutely kill.

            That said, I mean something very specific when I say that. I don’t mean to cram all the important stuff into those ten pages. I don’t mean to have it be full tilt non stop action either.

            No. What I mean is, you have to GRIP the reader, in whatever way YOUR particular story needs to. Whatever way this individual story needs to be told.

            ARGO is going to be different from GRAVITY is going to be different from HIGH FIDELITY.

            Those first Ten Pages need to give us Vital information, but do it in a way specific to the story being told.

            I feel like all the writers are trying to do it in an orchestrated, lifeless, cliche’d and by the numbers way. A way that they feel it “should be” done. A way that they believe a Producer or Reader, or Agent wants it to be done. So everything ends up being the same. The same car chases, the same talk around a table, the same DIALOGUE, the same jokes and the same banter, the same idea of what a romance is for a 20 year old, a love interest is, a bad guy should be.

            Mostly though, they seem to believe those first ten pages, and like you say, that first act, even the Logline must contain everything about the entire story in an overloaded way.

            I think it should be choice, selective, meaningful; not overtly verbose.
            (choice – adj: of very good quality)
            (selective: relating to or involving the selection of the most suitable)
            (overt: done or shown in a readily apparent way)
            (verbose: expressed in more words than are needed)

      • Malibo Jackk

        The most important part of a SCRIPT is the first 10 pages.
        The most important part of a MOVIE is the ending.
        — William Goldman

    • Erica

      While I love “Shawshank Redemption” and of course I watch “When Harry Met Sally” every year at Christmas, one of my movies I absolutely love is “The Mosquito Coast”

      “We eat when we’re not hungry, drink when we’re not thirsty. We buy what we don’t need and throw away everything that’s useful. Why sell a man what he wants? Sell him what he doesn’t need. Pretend he’s got eight legs and two stomachs and money to burn. It’s wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

    • Ambrose*

      Before I saw Shawshank for the first time when it originally was released I read the novella, ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’ by Stephen King that it was based on.
      It’s been many years since I first read the novella but I know I was struck back then by how much Darabont contributed to flesh out the story into a screenplay that eventually became the great movie that he directed.
      Of course, casting always plays a major role in any movie and Shawshank is no inception.Tim Robbins had the right amount of innocence (no pun intended), grit and determination as Andy. And Morgan Freeman as Red, originally written as an Irishman, really shined.
      Maybe that dynamic of the naive white fresh meat in the hellhole being taken under the wing of the older, hardened, without-hope con was lifted up not only by changing the Irishman to a black man – a much different relationship – but by choosing the right black actor for the role.
      Who can ever forget Morgan Freeman’s performance in that movie? That was the movie that put him on the map and elevated him in the eyes of the public and Hollywood. (He had Clint Eastwod’s ‘Unforgiven’ two years earlier but I don’t think anyone remembers his role in that film anywhere near as well as they do ‘Shawshank’.)
      That’s one adaptation that Stephen King probably still is amazed by.

  • Thunk24

    Ferris Bueller’s Day off is one of my favorite movies and I’m pretty sure what makes it so special is that it’s about Ferris Bueller. That’s a character I want to spend time with. I want to hang out with Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle because they’re just awesome characters. This might be really obvious, but the more I wrote the more I’m convinced it doesn’t matter how good your idea is compared to how good your characters are. Actually, I’m not even sure you can separate the two. That said, I was so pissed with the Rover. Great characters but an unbelievable let down.

  • hickeyyy


    2014 Nicholl Finalist Loglines got released today. I have to say United States of Fuckin’ Awesome sounds like the winner to me. Anyone here on this list? Anyone happen to have any of these?

    • Poe_Serling

      According to the info below, it looks like the script Road to Oz was recently sold to New Line.

      Road To Oz

      Josh Golden

      Tells the life story of “Wizard of Oz” author L. Frank Baum.

      Market September 19, 2014 Sold September 19, 2014
      Producer Beau Flynn, Nellie Bellflower, Michael Mislove
      Executive Scott Sheldon, Michael Disco, Sam Brown
      Agent Pamela Goldstein, Rich Cook (Resolution)
      Studio New Line
      Production FlynnPictureCo.

      • klmn

        Josh Golden must have either found or made up some interesting shit on Baum. Looking at a Wikipedia article nothing stands out.

        • Malibo Jackk

          There was a tv movie.
          Stared John Ritter.

      • hickeyyy

        Must’ve been well-written to be a finalist and sell in such a short time frame.

  • Kirk Diggler

    Off Topic: Saw “The Drop” the other night. Tom Hardy (what an actor), Jame Gandolfini (his final role, good as always) Noomi Rapace (the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).

    Highly recommend it. Great example of giving your characters a back story that comes out gradually and seamlessly. It’s not heavy on GSU (it is there however, just not on overload), but there are menacing villains and a likable character (full of shades of grey) that you can get behind. Also a lovely mystery box reveal that never felt like a mystery box but when it’s revealed it’s truly a great moment. See it.

  • Andrew Orillion

    I’m surprised no one seems to have pointed this out, but Dexter was on Showtime, not HBO.

    Other than that, good article. I think it all comes down to conflict. It has to be their in the premise in some way or you don’t have an idea.

  • Eric

    At the end of the day, I think a middling idea can be saved by the execution of it. I think a more pertinent question might be, “What makes a BAD idea?”

  • John Leith

    Not to be nitpicky, but for the sake of clarity … wouldn’t the irony in the examples above represent a category of conflict, either moral (Dexter, Bad Santa) or practical (The King’s Speech)?

    Irony would seem to be a *tool* for injecting subtle conflict into a story.

  • Ken

    If having a poor plot doesn’t harm a big budget movie’s success then why didn’t Battleship and John Carter do well?

  • Ken

    You haven’t watched it, though, have you?

  • Ambrose*

    Thanks for another interesting Thursday article, Carson.
    Food for thought, as usual.
    I’m already looking forwatd to next week’s installment. (No pressure.)