brad-pitt-was-bored-with-jennifer-anistonBrad’s bored.


So over the past few weeks, I’ve had some discussions with writers gearing up to write their next screenplay. Some of these were new writers with only a few screenplays under their belt. Others have been trying to break in for 10+ years. The discussions universally gravitated towards, what’s wrong? Why haven’t my screenplays sold or gotten me an agent, or even gotten my best friend to read them?

95% of the time it comes down to that the concept isn’t any good. And the fascinating thing I’ve found over time is that the writer actually knows this. They’ll actually say to me, “I know that the concept isn’t very good but this isn’t about the concept. This is about the characters and their journey they go through and blah blah blah…”

Hold up, hold up, wait a minute, hold on.

What did you just say?

Did you really just say you knew the concept wasn’t any good? And you still wrote the script?? Believe it or not, this answer is so pervasive in the amateur writing ranks, that I don’t know why it still surprises me. The only explanation I can come up with for why they do it is that they believe they’re different in some way. That they’re special. And the rules don’t apply to them.

Unfortunately, that’s not how this business works. This business IS a concept-driven business. Not only because the script has no chance of getting made unless the concept is good. But because Hollywood is a numbers game. Everyone says no to everything – EVEN GOOD CONCEPTS. A yes only comes along every once in awhile. Therefore, you have to spread the widest net and get the most reads in order to get that yes. If you have a lame (or boring, or uninspired) concept, you’re not going to get the number of reads necessary for the odds to pay off. A good concept gets 50, 100, 200 times the number of reads a boring concept does. Imagine how much better your chances are of breaking in with those kinds of odds.

So how can we ensure we have a good concept? Aren’t those hard to come up with? I mean, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it, right? Well, before we get to how to write a good concept, let’s start with how to avoid writing a bad one.

A new phrase I want you to add to your screenwriting vocabulary is: “The Potential of Boring.” If your idea sounds like it has the potential to be boring, don’t write it. This is not to be confused with the script itself. The script (or the movie) may in fact be the greatest movie ever. But if it SOUNDS like it has the potential to be boring, don’t write it. Because, chances are, nobody’s going to read it. One of my favorite movies of the last two years is Philomena. I loved it. I would never, in a million years, however, allow an amateur writer to write that spec. Why? Because it’s about an old woman who goes searching for her son. The average person hears that and they think, “That has a strong potential to be boring.” Ideas that sound like they have the potential to be boring will not get read.

Another good way to know if you’ve got a boring concept is to play the elevator game. Pretend you’re stuck in an elevator with a Hollywood producer and he asks you to pitch your movie. Go, do it right now. Pitch your movie to Imaginary Producer in Elevator Guy. It should become clear very quickly whether you have a good concept on your hands. If you’re sitting there going, “… and she goes on this road trip of self-discovery and meets this guy. And he’s a drug-addict and then she remembers that what really brought her happiness was her poetry so she starts writing poetry, going from town to town, performing on the street…” That script’s not going to get read. “A young family excited to start their life together finds the perfect home, only for the college’s biggest fraternity to move in next door.” That’s going to get you a read.

As far as how to come up with a good concept, there isn’t any one way. There are clever ideas (like Neighbors, which I just noted), there are ironic ideas (like The King’s Speech, about a man who can’t speak who must give the most important speech in history), but if you’re still stuck trying to find that big idea, start by thinking “LARGER THAN LIFE.” Focus on a scenario that’s bigger than what happens in your everyday life. Going to pick up groceries then coming home to have a fight with your wife isn’t a movie idea. Going to pick up groceries, coming home to find your wife spread out on the floor dead, and the cops think you did it so you have to go on the run. That’s a movie idea. But I’m going to take this one step further. The larger than life your idea is, the more likely it is that it’s a movie idea. The Hunger Games, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America, The Hobbit, Transformers, Maleficent, X-Men, Big Hero 6. These ideas take place in different worlds, different universes in some cases. They’re larger than everything.

Let’s see how this can be applied to a basic idea. Say you want to write a movie about sex. So you write about normal people obsessed with sex. The movie is called Nymphomaniac. It makes 10 dollars at the box office. Why? Because there’s no “larger than life” angle to it. In comes Fifty Shades of Grey, currently the highest grossing movie of the year. Let’s now make one of the characters a billionaire. How many billionaires do you know in your everyday life? I’m guessing none. This aspect gives it a “larger than life” feel.

That might not be the best example, you can always skew the numbers in your favor when making these arguments, and there will always be exceptions to the rule. But I’m telling you. By and far, over the last 30 years of this business, this is the formula that wins out for writers trying to break into the industry.

Now there’s one writer I was talking to in particular who had been writing for about seven years. He was a good writer too, and he was frustrated that he still hadn’t broken in. I pointed out to him that none of his scripts really satisfied the “larger than life” criteria. There were a few you could argue were close. But like I said, the MORE larger than life it is, the better your chances are. And he tended to keep his stories more grounded, more based in reality. Which is exactly what he said to me. “But Carson, what if I just don’t like to write those kinds of movies?”

And I realized that some people just want to write about real human conflict, real human drama, without all the hoopla of a flashy concept. They’re more interested in reality. To these people I would start off by saying, “Understand that by taking that stance, you’re making your chances of success infinitely harder.” Once you’ve accepted that, we can go to the next piece of advice. And the next piece of advice would be this: “Stop bullshitting yourself.” It is completely possible to write a human drama wrapped inside a big concept. I’ll give you an example.

A couple of years ago, a writer broke through with one of the hottest scripts in town. It was called “Maggie,” and it was about a young girl who was turning into a zombie. Except in this take on the mythology, it took six months to turn into a zombie. I thought the script was okay, but that’s not the point. The writer was a genius. He wanted to write a story about cancer. But if he wrote a story about cancer, he knew no one would read it (keep in mind, this was before Fault in our Stars). So he placed the allegory inside of a marketable genre that made the story more high-concept. He told it as a zombie tale. And just like that, the concept is larger than life.

You can explore the human condition inside of ANY idea. So don’t fool yourself into thinking you have to write about a small town family who struggles to make ends meet after the dad loses his job in order to explore people. There was a script on the Black List a couple of years ago that did a wonderful job exploring a family amidst an alien invasion. Guess which one of those scripts is getting read? And they’re both doing the same thing – exploring the human condition. It’s just that one writer was smarter – he gave his story a wrapper that would make people interested. Hopefully, you can learn from him.

  • S.C.

    This is the logline for KICKIN’ IT OLD SKOOL (sic) released in 2007:

    A young breakdancer hits his head during a talent show and slips into a coma for twenty years. Waking up in 2006, he looks to revive his and his team’s career with the help of his girlfriend and his parents.

    This is the logline for SENIOR YEAR which was sold in January this year for mid-figures:

    Story centers on a cheerleader that falls from a pyramid and knocks herself into a coma. When she wakes up 20 years later (present day) in the body of a 37 year old woman, but having only aged physically and knowing nothing else, she returns to claim her seat at the cool table and win the prom queen crown that eluded her.

    As I see it, there are three potential aspects to an idea: world or subject, characters and plot.

    The writers of SENIOR YEAR (including Black List veteran Andrew Knauer), accidentally or by design, took the plot of KICKIN’ IT but changed the subject and characters from breakdancers to cheerleaders.

    Within reason, I think this is a perfectly valid way to generate ideas; take the concept of a film (well-known or unknown), keep the plot, switch the characters or setting.

    REAR WINDOW with a kid becomes DISTURBIA.
    NORTH BY NORTHWEST on a train becomes SILVER STREAK.
    THE GAUNTLET with two women becomes HOT PURSUIT.
    DIE HARD in a new location becomes every spec sold in the 1990s.

    The biggest weakness, I feel, in most people’s loglines is the staleness of the subject they have chosen, and/or the location. The plot is fine, but it’s not specific enough:

    A man travels to New York to avenge the death of his brother.

    Fine. Sounds very gritty, 70s-style crime drama. But “man” is generic, as every story takes place in New York. How about:

    A computer hacker travels to South Korea to avenge the death of his brother.

    I don’t know if that would be the greatest movie ever made, but it’s gets my attention more than the first.

    A lot of people go for plot in their logline, and that’s fair enough, but you can’t always put plot on a poster. Key question: what is the central image of your screenplay’s poster? A man in New York? Or a computer hacker in South Korea?

    • Randy Williams

      Kids in my circle are anxiously awaiting to see “Unfriended”. I thought the concept of Skype and Facebook friends and shaming videos in a found footage format seemed awfully dated. I guess those things still strike a chord with that age group.

  • Frankie Hollywood

    Go BIG or go to sleep.

    • S.C.


  • E.E.

    A lot of current movies could learn from this…

  • Buddy

    BTL : Bigger than life ideas that’s the difference between FEATURE FILMS and TV MOVIES.
    I agree on PHILOMENA : great film and great script. The concept might not be SEXY, but what’s makes it still “BTL” is the “true story” thing.

    • S.C.

      Very good point, the difference between TV and theatrical.

      William H. Macy and his writing partner (to this day) Steven Schachter were working on a feature script. Their friends joked that it sounded like an episode of “Thirtysomething”.

      So they turned it into an episode of “Thirtysomething”.

  • carsonreeves1

    It doesn’t even have to be aliens or superheroes. It could be a dead body that throws someone’s life into disarray.

    It could be a larger than life character too. Lots of ways you can go. :)

  • Paul Clarke

    Someone needs to pass this advice along to Ben Stiller.

    A middle-aged couple’s career and marriage are overturned when a disarming young couple enters their lives.

    Only a big name could possible ask for a 10 million dollar budget based on that title and concept. I mean it could be a perfectly good movie, but I can’t see the masses queuing up at the box office when it comes out.

    I can see the poor buggers in the marketing department all staring at each other.
    “What the hell are we supposed to do with this?”
    Ben comes along “Why not put me on the porch, with a blanket wrapped around me and an expression of deep thought on my face.”
    They nod, he leaves.
    Some bright spark “Let’s make the rest of the poster bright yellow. That’s the only way it’s going to attract any attention.”
    And so the poster for the world’s most boring generic movie was made.

    • S.C.

      Well, this type of film, it’s almost a separate thing, a different audience.

      I was talking on Monday about the importance of having a great cover for a book. Then I remembered seeing this in my local bookstore:

      If you’re the sort of person who wants to read a book by Miranda July, you’re not going to want a fancy cover. To me – me! – this cover (sans A.M. Homes quote, which can be removed), the white block letters on black, SCREAMS pretension.

      The lack of high concept, BTL concept, whatever, that’s the selling point. Same with a Noah Baumbach film. People will go to see that film to see Ben Stiller sitting on a porch, while the rest of us are watching Vin Diesel drive a car out of an office window or Tom Cruise clinging to the side of a plane as it takes off.

      • S.C.

        Had trouble seeing this.

      • S.C.
        • Buddy

          I LOOOOOVVVVEEEEE when the name of the author is in the same size as the title. Pretension you said ? ;-)

          • Casper Chris

            To be fair, “a novel by” is in the same size too.

      • Midnight Luck

        Miranda July = Portland = Pretentious = cooler than u = funky facial hair, wrapping bacon around your AK47 muzzle to cook i while you unload hundreds of rounds of lead, DIY hand made wooden eyeglass frames, drones serving Stumptown black coffee to the homeless, turning poor neighborhoods into gentrified plazas of shopping porn with a Salt & Straw ice creamery on every corner and in every Food Cart, pencil leg jeans for $500, and knitting your own plush vaginal womb for your 1oz Cockapoohuatriever.

        • Frankie Hollywood

          Can you order those “plush vaginal wombs” online? Web address would be nice. THANKS!

          • Midnight Luck


          • Midnight Luck

            damn i hate it when i am trying to do something and I upvote myself, can u say sooo “pre-ten-tio-us”?

          • S_P_1

            Yeah somehow I’ve made that mistake several times.

          • Marija ZombiGirl

            (You can unvote by clicking again ;) It’s still funny, though :D )

          • Midnight Luck


          • Randy Williams

            I don’t care how plush it is.

        • pmlove

          If Patrick Bateman was a hipster.

          • Midnight Luck

            yes. exactly.

        • S_P_1

          I just recently found out what neckbeard means. I will never again have facial hair greater than a five o’clock shadow. Honestly I want to be paid to come up with sarcastic, cynical meme’s that people with real lives don’t know they are being judged in the eyes of the internet.

          • Midnight Luck

            I have no idea what Neckbeard is either. Sounds like a Pirate.

          • S_P_1

            I wish. Basically any hair growth on your neck means you’re a fat-computer-game-playing-slob-who-lives-in-your-mother’s-basement. Anyhow after finding out that particular no-no I shall now stay groomed in the manner of Don Johnson Miami Vice Ferrari Testarossa coolness.

    • Eddie Panta

      This is a New York centric film. You could say that the same thing about most Woody Allen films.

      With the masses lining up to watch GIRLS… Neil B’s. While We’re Young, isn’t a far stretch, especially for A24 films, add to this the VOD success of GREENBERG ( also Ben Stiller), and FRANCES HA which had a great theatrical run here at the IFC theater. So you can’t really blame BEN STILLER for this. It’s more a personal story from the director, and Stiller plays a director in the film.

      While We’re Young is actually very close to the second act of Greenberg. But I agree the poster is really silly. It adds an unnecessary man-child aspect to the character that is already assumed when watching Ben Stiller movie.

      IF you take a close look at Woody Allen films of the 70’s and 80’s you’ll notice a much older crowd in the restaurants, night clubs, and they live downtown, in Soho or in the East Village. This is not the case anymore in NYC, back then, ppl in their twenties didn’t have the money, nor wanted to be seen in these upscale places. But now, everything in the city is geared to New York newbies in their early 20’s, who’ve moved to NYC from the midwest because of TV shows like FRIENDS or SEX and the CITY.

    • Midnight Luck

      his “larger than life” movie concept rebuttal to WW’RY

  • mulesandmud

    What Carson says here is very good professional advice, the profession in question being ‘Hollywood screenwriter’.

    If your professional goal is to become a studio scribe, then Carson’s advice can and should influence your next project. Tempering your creativity in a way that reflects your goal is always sound practical advice.

    Depending on who you are and what you write, though, there is an alternative path: change your goal.

    There’s room for screenwriters outside the Hollywood system. The game is slightly different, the pay is slightly lower, and you still need to be able to play the studio game to a degree, but there is less pressure to infantilize your concept and explode every story into a billionaire zombie nympho saga.

    There is still room in the world for projects like ‘Philomena’, which, astonishingly, I think Carson likes more than I do. In fact, there is more room for that kind of project now than there has ever been, since digital distribution has increased the visibility of niche films, and the blockbuster franchise obsession has pushed many low- and mid-budget producers away from the studio system, forcing them to find projects and financing elsewhere.

    If you enjoy great writing, innovative directing, and unique concepts, then most of your favorite movies from the past ten years were likely made outside of Hollywood. For lack of a better word, we call that the independent world.

    In the indy world, there isn’t any chance of the lottery-style paydays that screenwriting blogs drool over (which an unrepped writer has about a .001% chance of scoring anyway). Script sales are modest, paid for by patchwork coalitions of private investors, but if you do the work and get a little lucky, it’s enough to pay the rent. And frankly, the money isn’t that much less than you’d get from Hollywood, since most deals there scrape the bottom of WGA requirements anyway.

    Also, statistically speaking, you’ll find less competition in the indy world, since most young screenwriters would prefer to scramble over each other chasing the Hollywood mirage. Not to say it’s easier, just less crowded.

    On the other hand, you’ll find different (and arguably higher) standards for good writing, since there is a more active interest in finding challenging projects and pushing boundaries. Not that it’s all about quality; there are still market concerns, and timid or tasteless producers aplenty (they can survive in any climate, it seems). Still, the interest in legitimately original material is a far less token sentiment than inside the studio walls.

    Most importantly, to survive in the indy world, it becomes more crucial than ever for a young writer to actively cultivate relationships with directors and producers, since the social network is not nearly as centralized as in the studio system. It’s on you to create a community of peers, which is essential in a medium as collaborative as film.

    So, while today’s advice is valuable, just remember that it is not the only road. It is not creative advice, only practical advice for one particular path. It will not make you a better writer, nor will it automatically improve your script. It will only get you read. In Hollywood. In 2015.

    • Bifferspice

      how would you go about cultivating that community of peers? i’d very much like to go the indie route

      • mulesandmud

        Meet people. Lots of people. People who like the same things you like. I know how annoyingly simple that is, but it’s the truth.

        Be ready and willing to listen, and when you talk, know what you’re talking about. Trust your taste in the people you meet; if someone seems interesting, informed, and talented, it’s a good bet they know other interesting, informed, talented people.

        Now you’re building a network. It’s like making friends, only with a goal.

        If you can find a young director interested in your work, and who you think you can collaborate with, then suddenly you’re not just a script, you’re a package. Add an actor, then a producer, then an investor, and now you’ve got a movie made, because you met the right collaborators.

        This means being somewhere with a vibrant film scene – if not living there, then making regular visits. Even in the digital age, the best way to really build a relationship with someone is in person. Put yourself in rooms with people who are serious about filmmaking. If you can show them how serious you are, good things will happen.

        And meanwhile, keep writing and getting better at writing. Keep watching and reading and knowing what the hell you’re talking about. If you’ve been sitting on the same script for five years, you’re not a writer; you were a writer. Prove you’re serious, and then prove it again.

        The film industry, studio and indy alike, is a timid place. They need closers. If you can prove that you know what you’re doing and that you get things done, then you’re a person people want to meet.

        • JakeBarnes12

          “If you’ve been sitting on the same script for five years, you’re not a writer; you were a writer.”

          Line of the year, man.

    • W. X. Wall

      I respectfully disagree. While the concepts may be different (i.e. no indie has the budget to redo The Hobbit), every indie still has a “high concept” that appeals to their audience. I think this is what Carson is talking about. It’s unfortunate that he chose only blockbusters, many of which people would stay don’t have great stories, as his examples.

      For example, if you’re trying to write for the low-budget indie market (<$10mil) aiming for an arthouse release, then your script needs an appropriately interesting concept for the audience of arthouse moviegoers which can be executed for < $10mil. Even in this niche, excellent writing combined with a poor concept will still not get picked up, especially since you're still competing against scripts with good concept *and* good writing.

      So I'd guess I'd just modify Carson's advice a little and say that you should pick a concept that will be immediately attention-grabbing for the audience you're aiming at. If that's a global audience where the majority will barely speak english, then you'll need giant robots and spaceships and special effects. If it's an indie flick for adult arthouse audiences, then you'll need a different concept that appeals to them. Either way, I've never heard a movie watcher say "That was a great movie! Even though the concept was really boring I liked the dialog!"

    • Nicholas J

      Not to say it’s easier, just less crowded.

      But it’s also still very, very crowded. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Sundance receives upwards of 12,000 completed films I believe. 12,000! Not scripts, completed films. God knows how many scripts are floating around out there.

      • S.C.

        12,000, Jeeze!

        I think most spec scripts, though, you could probably eliminate high 90-something % as just being Looney Toons (not worth the DVDs they’re burned on).

        Still, doesn’t make it easy for the guy whose low-budget drama about legal-high addiction actually IS worth watching.

      • mulesandmud

        As I understand it, around 9000 of those submissions are short films, but your larger point certainly stands.

        I’m not selling silver bullets here. There’s no easy version of this game. It’s just important to decide which version of the game you want to play.

        • Nicholas J

          After a quick googling, you are indeed right. The last couple years it looks like roughly 4,000 features and 8,000 shorts, for a total of 12,000.

  • S.C.

    PANIC IN THE STREETS. Criminal unwittingly spread a plague leading to a chase through New Orleans. Bigger Than Life. Box office success.

    Shot in semi-documentary style. Oscar winner. Artistic triumph.

    Commerce and art used to be friends, but they had a falling out some time ago and haven’t spoke since.

    • brenkilco

      Perhaps the ultimate example. The concept was big. But in Kazan’s hands the execution was pure kitchen sink. No mobs or big action. Lots of methody relationship scenes, grimy real locations, scuffling, desperate lowlife characters. Good drama. So so thriller.

      • davejc

        Most of all the promise of a premise, or lack there of. There was no panic in the streets. And there should have been.

        But there was some great shots of ’50’s New Orleans.

  • shewrites

    Some rock solid advice in this article, Carson!
    Perhaps we could have a day, today, another specific day, where we submit loglines and chime in on one another’s loglines to help with that Bigger than Life factor?

    • cuz Eddie said so

      Great idea. What we think is cool, others might find kinda lame.

    • S.C.

      We did that about eight months ago, I think. Wasn’t a huge success.

      Too many of the loglines – I’m not sure if it was as high as Carson’s 95%, but it was high – were either confusing, dull, derivative or a strange mixture of all three.

      There were some successes – last fortnight’s THY ENEMY was one of the loglines there. But I think there are a lot of people who can’t or choose not to pick a good or great idea for their screenplay.

      However, if anyone wants advice on their loglines – brutal, honest advice! – you’ll always find people willing to help on this board.

      (Preferably before you write the script. Those who submit loglines and have already written the script don’t want help with improving their idea. My experience.).

      • Bacon Statham

        ”There were some successes – last fortnight’s THY ENEMY was one of the loglines there.”
        I think you might be referring to my script there. I remember posting the logline for it back then. It’s called Against All Enemies (a title you actually suggested). It’s similar in concept, but not the same script.

        • S.C.

          Was your script, was the hero’s brother one of the terrorists?

          Don’t worry about my memory, it’s not the best! Inherited it from my dad.

          • Bacon Statham

            No, he was a rogue US Naval Intelligence Analyst who was killing various members of the U.S Government. After reading up on the ISA (Intelligence Support Activity) and realising they don’t get a lot of attention in films/TV shows/games, I decided to change him into an ISA operator.
            They’re similar in concept, but different in execution. There’s no crazy airplane stunts or clean nukes in mine. It’s Bourne meets The Fugitive meets State of Play.

          • S.C.

            Sorry, Bacon! I believe the expression is “My bad!”

            Actually that sounds like a really great idea. I love stories like that. Thanks for taking my title, sorry I didn’t remember right!

  • Felip Serra

    I really appreciate the timing of this article.

    Because it’s not just the daily struggle with improving my own work but it’s also the constant challenge into the assumptions of what I believe that work to be in the first place. Screenwriting IS NOT writing, just as movies ARE NOT books. Yes, the former are both craft as the latter involve story but their natures are independent from one other; they are only distantly related.

    So, when reading what the author did for “Maggie” I got it (or I’m closer to “getting it.”) And it’s the same thing I learned as my years as a cook: You can put ANYTHING on the plate as long as its PRESENTED in an appealing way. It could be an obscure animal part; it could be grass… Doesn’t matter. “Sell” it the right way and people will devoir it.

    So, what I got from this is that I don’t need to sacrifice (read: dumb down) my themes or characters or heady ideas, I just have to use them creatively. Sure, they might be hidden but they’ll still inform the work. A philosopher once said: “A good and serious work on philosophy could be comprised entirely of jokes”. Same thing.

    So. I start the day with some fresh optimism. Thank you for the article and thanks for the use of the soapbox.

    • S.C.

      Nicholas Meyer directed a film called COMPANY BUSINESS about an ex-CIA agent who teams up with an ex-KGB agent for a corporate espionage gig. Meyer wanted to say something about the end of the Cold War, and the need for cooperation between the two former enemies.

      The film was not successful.

      So when Meyer was offered the job of directing STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, he was able to take the same themes but play it out in a more fictional environment.

      If you have ideas, themes, characters you want to explore, but the world of your story is dull, consider putting them in a different world, battling aliens, stopping terrorist attacks, winning the lottery, and so on.

      • Felip Serra

        Right on! Excellent example, by the way…
        I was also thinking of James Whale, director most famous for the original “Frankenstein” (and “The Bride of…”) But the first film specifically was completely informed by his experiences of fighting in the first World War.
        The horror, the fear, the day to day survival… All of it was stitched into the fabric of the film, all those impressions behind every decision. But you never “saw” any of it.

  • cuz Eddie said so

    Everyone’s got a kitchen sink, how many people have aliens/demons/superheroes?

  • Adam W. Parker

    A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

    You said it perfectly – you can explore the human condition inside any idea. Fictional movies are first and foremost metaphorical. We already have things that cover real conflict and drama – journalism, documentaries, reality shows (to a lesser degree). Our focus it to make these things poetic and beautiful.

  • carsonreeves1

    Written by someone with 40 years worth of credits. It’s a different ballgame when you’re a part of the industry and can pitch your ideas in full (as well as give people an idea of your work with past films).

  • brenkilco

    “There was a script on the Black List a couple of years ago that did a wonderful job exploring a family amidst an alien invasion.”

    Working on something similar. Big concept. Deep human truths. Epic scale. “Star War and Peace.”

    • Eddie Panta

      I believe the article was referring to the screenplay EXTINCTION, which for three quarters of the script is War of the Worlds until the big third act reveal.

      • Bacon Statham

        It wasn’t on any recent Blacklist, but I really liked Uprising (Independence Day meets The Great Escape) by David Twohy. It was a clever concept and I think that’s the kind that people should be aiming for if they’re the kind of scripts they wanna write.

        And the script itself was quite good too. I really appreciated some of the smaller details that an amateur writer would probably never even think of. For example, the newly arrived prisoners are forced to kneel, but the protagonist chooses to squat as an act of defiance instead. When I read that, I immediately said ”shit, I wish I thought of that”.

        • Eddie Panta

          It was on the 2013 Blacklist

          • Bacon Statham

            Yeah, Extinction was, I downloaded it, but Uprising wasn’t. It’s much older, it was reviewed on here a few years ago.

  • klmn

    For the record, my concepts will drag you outside and kick your ass. And then go after your family.

  • Randy Williams

    “Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes
    sense, doesn’t it, in your head. You never meet anybody that thinks
    they’re a bad person.” – Tom Ripley in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”

    You never meet anybody that thinks they have a bad concept, either.
    Like Tom, I’m just trying to impersonate others and hope things work out.

    Thanks for an inspiring article and those of us writing something specifically for you appreciate the countdown to the deadline reminders as an extra push. A countdown clock on the page would be nice. Something intimidating.

    • S.C.

      It bothers me. Some people say it shouldn’t, but it bothers me. When someone says they’ve spent a year writing, rewriting, polishing a screenplay, says “Does anyone want to read my script? I’ll read yours in return.”

      And you ask ‘em what the logline is and they tell you and – slam! – you just think you have spent the last 12 months of your life working on something that is D.O.A. – Dead On Arrival. If you’d shown me this idea before you started writing, I would have advised you to change it or pick a a better idea. But you didn’t. You wrote it all in solitude.

      And it hurts me, as it should hurt most writers who know the pain of planning, writing, rewriting a script, to know that it was


      • Linkthis83

        It bothers me that people think they know the full outcome of a story’s past, present, and future based on a logline. The numbers are on your side because of how many scripts are written vs. the amount sold/made.

        However, there are films still being bought and made that don’t do everything to the degree by which many state around here as “musts” for scrtips/stories.

        Using the position you take lots of times, BACK TO THE FUTURE wouldn’t have become what it is. And that thing went through multiple iterations over like 7 years. And hell, even during actual shooting. They were weeks into shooting before they replaced Eric Stoltz with Michael J. Fox.

        THIS. SHIT. TAKES. WORK. ALWAYS. AND. FOREVER. UNTIL. IT. BECOMES. SOMETHING. OR. DOESN’T. (and it’s still possible for it to become something always – ALWAYS)

        • Bifferspice


        • S.C.

          Loglines are used to choose the candidates for AOW.

          Loglines are used to choose the candidate for Scriptshadow 250.

          Producers are aware that a lot of people choose what movie to see based on the idea.

          But, if you think you can circumvent all that, go ahead. Clearly this is stuff I’ve just made up. I’m wrong. Carson and his “95% of the time it comes down to that the concept isn’t any good”, he’s wrong. We should all be CHALLENGED.

          Don’t have great idea for a movie.

          Don’t plan the shit out of your story.

          Just count on your own enthusiasm!

          Good advice as always, link.

          • Linkthis83

            Spot on with the quotes by me :)

            Don’t outline and don’t have a great idea are my bread and butter round here. Oh, and have a winning attitude.

            Having a great idea will probably get you a read. Doesn’t mean you executed. And having someone say that they can definitively tell you your future and claim that you wasted time is something I feel should come with a Surgeon General type warning. This advice may be hazardous to your career. So I focused on testing/questioning the advice before putting it into application.

            And Carson isn’t the only definitive resource. He’s had an opinion on a few things that turned out to be “great ideas” after all. Doesn’t mean he was wrong either. Just didn’t work for him. That’s okay. Saying it doesn’t work overall is the issue.

          • S.C.

            If the idea is dull, your screenplay won’t get many reads.

            If the idea is dull, it follows that your story will also be dull.

            If your story is dull, your screenplay, if it is read, will be rejected.

            If you cannot excite me with 25 words of logline, you’re not going to excite me with 20,000 words of screenplay. That doesn’t mean battling robots or street racers. It just mean something interesting.

            The problem I have with you, and a few others, is that you’re telling people exactly what they want to hear: do what you feel, no matter what.

            The reality is somewhat different. I know, I’ve been there. Blew my chance, don’t want others to blow their chance.

            You’ve got four months ’til Scriptshadow 250 deadline. Pick your best idea, experiment with the story choices, write the first draft quick and rewrite slow, eliminating all extraneous scenes. That’s my advice.

            The rest is up to your talent.

          • Linkthis83

            I’m not telling them what they want to hear. I’m telling them not to take such advice as fact.

            You tell them that they have wasted a year of their time because you can tell if they have a great concept or not. Which is subjective to each individual person: reader and writer. You don’t have the ability, and you especially don’t have the RIGHT, to tell someone what to do with their script story. You are quick to tell people they’ve wasted time or to give up on a project and move on.

            However, someone’s relentless belief in a script/story is sometimes the very thing that gets them where they want to go. Sometimes it doesn’t. There’s no definitive solution or approach. That’s what I’m always saying, and using actual examples as references.

            The rest is fear based strategies and assumptions. If a person believes their concept has value and you don’t, you think they should listen to you. That’s some audacious stuff right there. And you have the gall apply a negative value to what they’ve done up until this point. That’s certainly not helpful.

          • Levres de Sang

            Valuable insights here, Link! Indeed, I always appreciate your perspective and having glanced at your reading list the other day can see that you certainly have arrived at it via “a relentless consumption of stories”.

            I also know you listen to Scriptnotes so imagine you caught that one the other week where they were going through all the so-called “rules” (i.e. you’re not allowed to write CUT TO) and concluded by saying how most of the screenplays that actually do break through are “outliers” in some way — and that amateurs spend too much time striving for an accepted “middle-ground” by arguing about formatting etc. Needless to say, middle-ground screenplays are by definition not the aforementioned outliers.

            I spent over two years on my European arthouse vampire script (and have over 100 iterations if not drafts to show for it!), but don’t see that as time wasted at all because I learned so much about the inherent process of screenwriting and all the pitfalls to avoid next time around; whereas if I’d thought (as soon as I discovered SS) “this hasn’t got a hope of selling so best scrap it and move on” then I wouldn’t be able to apply all that learning to my current project. In fact, I recall one of the Disney screenwriters (possibly Michael Arndt) saying that a truly great screenplay should either take one screenwriter ten years or ten screenwriters one year each!

          • Linkthis83

            Overall, Scriptnotes is one of the best resources available. That episode alone was great. Not just because they put the “rules” in their proper place, but because of what you highlighted; the middle ground.

            I especially appreciated when they discussed the problem of analyzing a script that doesn’t work and then taking those issues from those scripts and applying them broadly across scripts.

            The trend I’ve noticed since I arrived here at SS is that “negative” feedback gets more credibility. I think that’s more of a mindset than reality. And I certainly understand the mindset, but don’t subscribe to it. That’s also informed by my own biases and projections though. I can’t sit around second guessing and wondering about choices I’ve made. I think it’s just a valuable to boost a writer’s confidence :)

            And also because when I read professional scripts, they are written in a bold, declaritive state. “This is the world and this is what is happening.” It’s unapologetic. I like that. And that’s what I liked about yours. You wrote it the way you wanted and that already makes it better. I feel like a lot of amateur scripts I read are written with hope, instead of just outright declaring this is the story (if that makes any sense).

          • Levres de Sang

            I don’t catch every Scriptnotes episode, but I try not to miss the 3-page challenges and the reader Q&As. I wish they did more 3-page challenges as I gain a lot from these kind of line by line critiques.

            I love that you encourage people to write the script they want to write — to be the outlier!

            That’s especially interesting about the “declarative” style of professional scripts. I should read more of them than I do.

          • Linkthis83

            It’s likely that “declarative” style is really talent. The ability to convey the story effectively. As you saw, I didn’t give the types of “story” critiques that I do most scripts. Although, I also would have no idea how or where to start :)

            It’s also possible/likely that I just prefer scripts delivered a specific way. The ones that are popular that still read like someone writing with hope, probably just comes to delivery style more than anything. In those cases, the responsibility is on me and I need to be better at being open to that delivery style.

          • Levres de Sang

            For me, last week’s AOW scripts may have come down to “delivery style” being that I struggled to get a handle on Jeff ‘s script; whereas I had no trouble completing The Demon Within.

            By the way, I’ll take that “declarative” as a compliment! :)

          • Linkthis83

            Ha! You should. That’s how I meant it. It’s kind of difficult to explain. A lot of amateur scripts come across as they are trying subvert things but don’t want to leave room for their reveals. When they should just flat out lie and be called a cheat ;)

          • Levres de Sang

            For me, that’s where the 100 iterations come in… In short, it takes a long time to achieve the clarity of that declarative style (especially when the narrative is also undergoing subtle changes at the same time).

        • Nicholas J

          Time spent writing is never time wasted.

          • S.C.

            Certainly, if it’s your first script, yeah no problem. Write anything! More concerned if someone is spending a year in the dark writing and it’s their tenth script, their tenth year of writing, and they’re still getting the same response:

            You’re a good writer. I didn’t like the story, but you’re a good writer.

            Something wrong there, wouldn’t you agree?

          • Malibo Jackk

            I think it was John Irving who said
            — I can spends hours, days, months, years writing a single sentence.

            Scary stuff.

      • Randy Williams

        I don’t think you can change people’s minds about how great they think their idea is even if they did share it with you before they started writing. People get protective of their ideas as you are with screenwriting demands. What you can work on is countering their expectations. Life doesn’t owe us anything. Success is often random. A script that gets sold is capturing lightning in a bottle while soaking wet. It’s very rare and it’s not all painless.

        I think once they let go of that “protectiveness” and see it’s hindering their creativity, they’ll do much better and so will you.

        • S.C.

          It’s a tricky one. This whole “share your logline” is not actually my idea, it’s Carson’s! I think it’s a good one.

          The two important things for me with an idea that I have, for example, is first of all to make sure I’ve plenty of loglines to choose from. Well, after twenty-three years of writing, I’ve got hundreds of ideas to choose from, so much I can sometimes throw away some of them as examples on Scriptshadow!

          You need to pick your best idea from at least a couple of dozen solid loglines.

          A lot of people, i get the feeling, they’ve had one or two ideas and this is one of them. They’ve got nothing to fall back on.

          The other is to test drive the concept by writing out the story, developing it and seeing if it works before committing myself to it.

          Now, my problem is – my personal problem – is that I spend too much time outline, too much time criticizing my own work and haven’t finished a script in ages. What I’ve got to do is figure out where I’m going wrong, and I think it has a lot to do – I’ve been back and forth on this one – with not enough focus on the characters. Specifically, why are these characters here. Because if they belong in the story, the story could fall apart.

          Some people will know what I mean, though it’s hard to explain. But recently I put a story I was writing on the backburner because I just couldn’t justify figure out what these interesting characters were doing in this scenario I had created for them. So you gotta do both, characters and scenario AT THE SAME TIME. Tricky, but not impossible.

          And I’ve gotta figure out where solid and good are acceptable substitutes for perfect if it gets me writing. Again, tricky but not impossible.

          • Malibo Jackk

            Not sure there is only one answer.
            (Some people start with character. Not sure how that works.)
            Have always thought that a great concept will dictate what characters you will need to tell the story,
            It becomes a matter of — what characters will work best for the concept.

            Sounds like what you’re saying is that you want to tell the story of a character and you want to tell a story of the concept — but the two don’t have much to do with each other.

            Again I’ll mention the tv FARGO. (Sorry to bring it up again.)
            If you watch the first 2 or 3 episodes, you’ll notice how each character has to behave in a certain way for the story to work at a high level.
            And here’s what’s interesting — the show is rated mostly 5 stars. But 10% of the people rated it low..And some of those found reasons to complain about the characters.

            It’s possible you may find yourself among the 10%. Maybe that’s why you may be developing characters that may not best fit your concept.

            Maybe you want to write character pieces.

          • S.C.

            I think I need to write more character RELATIONSHIP pieces, yes, while still staying in the genres I like and are comfortable with.

            The whole POV thing you brought yesterday is definitely I need to look more at, as well as, like I said, working more on stories in which the characters are a more active part of the proceedings rather than just being witnesses to the machinations of the plot.

  • Nicholas J

    The Hunger Games, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America, The Hobbit, Transformers, Maleficent, X-Men, Big Hero 6. These ideas take place in different worlds, different universes in some cases. They’re larger than everything.

    Yes, but you’re forgetting the important ingredient here, which is they are all adapted from pre-existing material. These are not movies made from spec scripts by unknowns. (Minus Big Hero 6, but animation doesn’t count as those are always developed in-house.)

    If The Hobbit or Captain America did not exist, and I wrote those movies as spec scripts, they would not sell. Hollywood has no problem spending $200 mil on making a movie (and millions more marketing it) like Captain America because they know people will go see that shit. Nobody wants to take a chance on my $200 mil superhero script Toothpaste Man.

    I think if you want to write a BIG movie like those above, as an unknown writer, you have to either come up with a new angle on existing IP (Snow White and the Huntsman) or come up with a concept so ridiculously appealing that they can’t say no. (Good luck with that.)

    If you just come up with a regular robot action movie like Transformers, I would argue that you have even less of a chance of people noticing you than if you write Safety Not Guaranteed or It Follows. These movies are far, FAR cheaper to make, and therefore a much smaller risk.

    So as amateur writers, I think just saying “Write a BIG MOVIE!” is a bit misdirected. Just because that is what’s out there, doesn’t mean that is what we should write.

    And without that missing element of RISK, this advice is incomplete. I think as an amateur writer, we should be aiming to write scripts that come with as little risk as possible. (Read: financial risk) Even if we come up with a big idea that is great, nobody’s going to gamble on it if it comes with an unproven $200 mil price tag.

    But big ideas do not have to equal big movies. Small movies can have big ideas as well. If you can come up with a script that could be made for very cheap, that still has a high concept/big idea, I think your chances are far better than just going pedal to the metal BIG.

    In fact, I think that just might be the single best type of script you can write at this level.

    • S.C.

      Big idea, not necessarily big budget. Different things.

      E.T. rather than WAR OF THE WORLDS.

      SAFE HOUSE rather than SKYFALL.

      I think, and I’m sure you’d agree, I don’t think this is what you are saying, there’s a danger in writing something not great, not great because it’s not a BIG idea, but then saying it’s cheap, it’s more likely to sell. Loads of scripts like that. Loads!

      If you want to write something cheap, make sure it has a strong concept like THE PURGE or, like you say, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

      Just be aware, people, that low-budget can easily become low-ambition.

    • brenkilco

      I’d agree that a big concept that can be done cheap will probably get you noticed. Just caught the indie film Coherence the other night. Had heard some good things about it. Now it’s no classic, a little too dependent on actor improvisation, gets silly toward the end and finishes on an inconclusive note. But it’s still fucking brilliant. It’s got a huge concept. Parallel universes in collision. And it cost virtually nothing beyond whatever they paid the crew and actors. Takes place mostly in a suburban living room. Clever direction but no effects beyond a single shot of what is supposed to be a comet. Could have shot it with an iPhone. And for all I know they did. Yet it keeps you involved and sometimes riveted. Imagination really does trump everything.

      • Linkthis83

        “But it’s still fucking brilliant.”

        Yep. Watched this recently as well. So…so…good.

        Really enjoyed this interview with the director:

        • Ninjaneer

          Yeah, Coherence took a while to get going and was super low budget but was very interesting. Love that type of movie.

          I’ve been looking for more hidden gems like Coherence lately. Trying to find more imaginative, mysterious movies like these:

          The Signal
          The Objective

          Anyone know of similar movies to recommend?

          • Linkthis83

            I’ve only seen the first three on your list. Looking forward to the others.

          • Ninjaneer

            The Signal has one of my favorite trailers of all time. It’s beautiful and mysterious.

            Most of those movies were pretty low budget and made by first or second time directors but stand out based on their concept and imaginative, mysterious execution.

          • Linkthis83

            I would add Donnie Darko to this list. Sometimes the low-budget necessity is what makes these things better.

          • Ninjaneer

            I’ve always enjoyed Donnie Darko and was lucky enough to have caught that in the theater during its short run.

            Another similar movie that I think is under appreciated Mothman Prophecies. I like it because it is creepy but is not disturbing.

            I didn’t add those two to the list because those are movies that most people have seen. I’m looking for ones that have flown under the radar was are interesting, different and mysterious.

          • charliesb

            I really really loved the Signal. It is not a perfect film (neither was his first one LOVE), but the visual style was fantastic. Put a well written script in this guy’s hands and he’ll blow up over night.

          • Nik

            The One I Love

          • Ninjaneer

            Thanks. I’ve seen that movie poster while browsing around but never stopped to check it out. I’ll have to give it a go.

            Oh, forgot to add this one to the list:

            Lake Mungo

          • Poe_Serling

            Don’t Blink

            “Ten people arrive at a secluded mountain resort to find it completely
            deserted. With no gas for the return trip, the visitors are forced to
            stay and investigate the mystery surrounding the abandoned lodge.”

            Just watched it recently on Netflix. Nothing groundbreaking, but still a pleasant surprise.

            **I’m also a huge fan of The Mothman Prophecies with Gere. It has such a creepy vibe from beginning to end.

          • Ninjaneer

            Thanks, I’ll check it out. Looks like the director is also the writer. I appreciated it when Directors are also writers.

            Side note regarding The Mothman Prophecies. Occasionally when I call one of my movie friends and I get their voicemail I’ll name some random object in the creepy Ingrid Cole / Mothman voice. Recently I dialed the wrong number but didn’t realize it and left the creepy mothman message. Embarrassment ensued when I got a call back :)

          • Poe_Serling

            Whether you believe in such things or not, the film’s source material The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel is still a fascinating book to read.

            The whole Mothman sightings were just the tip of the iceberg of weird ass things going on in that area during 1967/1968.

            On a personal note: And I think I’ve mentioned this before, I have a ton of relatives from back there and many of them had their own share of ‘unexplainable’ incidents* during that same time period.

            *Unfortunately, no Mothman sightings to tell about.

          • Levres de Sang

            Thanks for another terrific recommendation! Have to admit that I knew nothing about Mothman, but am now intrigued by both the book and subsequent film.

          • brenkilco

            Kinda like Mothman Prophecies but after watching Don’t Blink on Netflix I felt like throwing something at the screen.

          • Poe_Serling

            “…I felt like throwing something at the screen.”

            Good thing you didn’t… it could’ve disappeared in a blink of an
            eye. ;-)

    • G.S.

      I agree with your conclusion, but take issue with your initial point. I didn’t take Carson’s use of those examples as an appeal to write the next Marvel movie on spec. I think the issue is that these box-office-dominating ideas are the ones that your script is going to be compared to in the minds of producers. “THIS (X-Men) is a movie. THIS (cancer movie spec) is a snooze-fest.”

      And just a nit-pick, Big Hero 6 is also a pre-existing Marvel property.

      But otherwise, you’re right on!

      • Nicholas J

        I didn’t take Carson’s use of those examples as an appeal to write the next Marvel movie on spec.

        Right, but what I am saying is that it is very rare, especially these days, to see a movie of that scale NOT be a pre-existing IP. And since we can’t exactly just go out and adapt a Marvel comic or a bestselling novel into a script, we have to pursue different types of movies.

        I mean, when was the last time a movie came out with a budget in the same ballpark as those examples Carson listed, without it having been pre-existing IP or a project from a bankable writer? Nothing comes to mind, but maybe someone can correct me.

        Big Hero 6 is also a pre-existing Marvel property.

        Hahaha seriously? What isn’t anymore? Next I’m going to find out Lou Bloom was actually a villain in a Marvel comic.

        • S.C.

          “when was the last time a movie came out with a budget in the same ballpark as those examples Carson listed, without it having been pre-existing IP or a project from a bankable writer?”

          Pacific Rim.

          That’s obviously stratospheric budget, but there are lots more like, say, Olympus Has Fallen that are not chicken feed: $70 million.

          I think in a more cost-conscious Hollywood, you’re not going to see as many $200 million films anyway, least of all non-animated, non-IP, all that stuff. But I look at list of specs have sold this year and it’s aircraft carriers being hijacked, the president being rescued, drug runners in boats, not mega-budget, but still pushing it.

          And there’s a lot of interest in spec writers for historical projects and true stories, and they’re not cheap.

          • Nicholas J

            Well Pacific Rim was written by Travis Beacham who already had a relationship with del Toro based on Carnival Row.

            I’m not saying DON’T write these scripts, I’m always on the side of write whatever you want. But I’m saying just know that people don’t make movies this big from unknown writers.

            BUT, these scripts can still get you noticed, or can earn you a sale, representation, whatever, as the example above proves. But so can any script can if it’s good enough. All I’m saying is if you really want to talk about writing a script that someone will realistically look at and think “we can make this!” it more than likely will need to have a reasonable budget compared to your level of experience/recognition as a writer.

          • Bacon Statham

            I think $85 million is a reasonable budget for an action film, which is what Safe House was made for. Blackhat had a budget of $70 million. You could probably get away with making a Mission: Impossible type of film with a budget of $70 million to $100 million.

          • S.C.

            With something like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation or Spectre, you’ve got a globetrotting plot. Which I love.

            My advice for people who want to write films like that (yes, please!) is to write a more contained story, like Safe House, like Blackhat, like The International (but maybe better), so around the $70 million mark.

            If that’s your genre – and I think it is, Bacon, from what I remember of your script – then I think you’re better doing that than all these guys writing low-budget horrors about people getting trapped in a snowstorm.

            They’re ten-a-penny (dime a dozen).

          • Bacon Statham

            That’s pretty much all I write. I tend to focus on spy thrillers and military themed scripts. I am currently in the middle of writing two Sci-Fi (one is Terminator meets Mass Effect and the other is a sci-fi western) scripts.
            I have tried my hand at comedy and horror, but I’m afraid I’m not very good at them. I’m only really funny in the sense I’m quick at cracking a joke and in regards to horror, I don’t feel comfortable writing a script in a genre I know next to nothing about.
            It’s funny, but I think comedy and horror are the two genres everyone should write at least one script for, because they’ll allow you to bring elements over into another genre. If you can master writing tension in a horror script, you can bring that over into an action film. If you can write some genuinely funny gags, you can bring that over to sci-fi.

          • S.C.

            My main point, which I haven’t made today, not sure why, is PORTFOLIO. You can write any type of script you like: experimental, low-budget, high-concept, TV, web, whatever. But, to be realistic, you need at least one script in your (virtual) portfolio that people just can’t say no to reading.

            I call this the MINDHUNTERS script.

            Wayne (“The Cooler”, “Crossing Over”) Kramer wrote Mindhunters, I’m speculating here, but I think he wrote as his commercial script, to pave the way for his other scripts. Oddly, the film wasn’t that successful, but it did get him that all-important first credit.

            Trouble is, a lot of people don’t want to add a “MINDHUNTERS script” to their collection, even though, as I’ve pointed out, a strong concept is more likely to gain entry to the Scriptshadow 250 (whether it’ll win is another matter).

            That’s all. Write what you like. But be realistic and don’t just have a bunch of “boring” (as defined above) scripts.

        • Bacon Statham

          ”I mean, when was the last time a movie came out with a budget in the same ballpark as those examples Carson listed, without it having been pre-existing IP or a project from a bankable writer? ”
          I’m not entirely sure if David Guggenheim was a bankable writer at the time, but Safe House actually had a larger budget than The Hunger Games, which to be honest is very surprising.

          • Nicholas J

            Probably half of Safe House‘s budget went to Denzel and Reynolds. Whereas Jennifer Lawrence was not the bankable star she is now when filming The Hunger Games.

            Good example though. But I don’t know anything about Guggenheim or the history of that film.

          • guest

            If I remember correctly, Safe House was based on a preexisting comicbook series.

          • Bacon Statham

            I don’t think it was. I’m pretty sure it was an original idea by Guggenheim.

        • G.S.

          You’re right, of course, when comparing the scope and scale of something like Avengers (effects-heavy alien invasion in NYC) to what a producer would be willing to drop on a spec script. But the danger I felt Carson was addressing was more that amateurs trend too far away from those types of movies at all, despite being compared to them.

          For instance, instead of writing about a troubled and abused kid’s descent into crime and betrayal of the few people that care about him, you add that he and those friends all get superpowers one day. Now, instead of a whiny teen movie, you get Chronicle. It’s no Avengers, but the concept allows the thematic and character elements to exist in a world people would be more willing to explore, and trends more toward a superhero movie than an introspective drama.

          We amateurs should definitely be mindful that we’re not trying to ape movies with budgets out of our league for sure. But neither can we hide behind that fact to say we can’t sex-up our concepts with big ideas. That was my takeaway.

          • Nicholas J

            Chronicle is a great example to my point! Big idea, made for just $12 mil.

          • Mr. Blonde

            Then again, Max Landis has obvious connections…

    • Kirk Diggler

      “And without that missing element of RISK, this advice is incomplete. I think as an amateur writer, we should be aiming to write scripts that come with as little risk as possible.”

      Yeah, pretty much agree. I think what causes confusion is the notion that ‘big concept’ must mean big budget. We should be writing big concept ‘somewhat’ contained thrillers that can be made for 30 million or less. Of course that’s the trick, coming up with a big concept that is modestly priced. (of course TV pilots fit this bill to a tee but we’re all stuck on the romantic notion of being a Hollywood screenwriter not a Tv scribe)

      Regarding “Toothpaste Man”. I see Aqua Fresh as the hero, kinda like Aquaman except he raps as he rides giant tidal waves to do battle against the evil Arm & Hammer (played by Social Network’s Armie Hammer, synergy right there!). Arm & Hammer is an evil Thor-like villain whose hammer was fashioned from Wolverine’s adamantium teeth. Years ago they were friends, but a woman came between them, the roller skating superhero chick Denti Dazzle, who blinds her foes with the shiniest, whitest teeth on the planet.

      Something like that.

    • Eddie Panta

      Once again, you are ruining my day… Why bring reality into the conversation?
      Don’t make me pull the TAKEN trigger,

    • drifting in space

      I was going to say all of this but you already did. :)

  • BoSoxBoy

    Spot on. Without the curb appeal, nobody looks inside the house.

  • Eddie Panta

    I’ve read scripts online that we’re praised for their high-concept, but too often after a 90 some page read the “concept” wasn’t articulated more than what was already in the logline.

    The concept seemed to be specifically designed for a great logline, with the script barelyy expanding upon what the logline already told us. And, this seems to be an OK thing with readers, it seems that getting this hook, this “concept” is 90 percent of the battle, so that other stuff, the boring stuff, you know world building and visually rendering scenes is for someone else to do.

    If concept was king, then most of these scripts would be better served to studios as three page treatments rather than the redundant 90 pages that they are.

    To me, if you’re dealing with anything with monsters or supernatural entities, then the concept lies in your ability to visually render the attributes of that evil entity in the script.

    Too often CONCEPT refers only to the situation the characters are in and the way in which we approach the characters.

    When I see a thriller or a horror film where the evil entity remains unseen, hidden in the shadows for a long length of the the film, for me its a tip that the writer doesn’t really have any concept, they only have an approach. It’s not what they’re doing, it’s the way that they’re doing it that might make the script unique, but in the end of the day, it still doesn’t have a strong concept.

    IF conceptualizing the evil entity is left illusive in the screenplay, as if that’s for someone in F/X to figure out, or
    for a director to impose upon. then the screenplay doesn’t have a strong concept.

    IF you’re writing a script about Aliens or monsters, an
    evil entity, or even sci-fi, world building is going to be the key to which someone needs to BUY your project, because it has something that no other script has. The concept is the way in which you are
    able to specifically render the attributes of these beings/ places Without that unique expression of the monster in ALIEN there is no story.

    To readers, it’s all about
    story, but at some point, someone will need to figure this stuff out,
    and if the writer has done only character work and has not defined the
    attributes of evil entity or defined ” the world” the script might get passed a reader, but the job isn’t finished.

    • S_P_1

      IF conceptualizing the evil entity is left illusive in the screenplay, as if that’s for someone in F/X to figure out, or
      for a director to impose upon. then the screenplay doesn’t have a strong concept.

      I honestly believe the horror in horror films is strictly a post-production process. Camera, Music, Costume, VFX, SFX, Location, and EDITING would be extremely difficult to convey the horror aspect on paper.

      Could anyone actually describe H.R Giger’s art in the economy of words statute writers are expected to adhere to????

      In the real world, true evil is pervasive and intangible.

      • LV426

        H.R. Giger art description? Granted they didn’t have the final creature design when the scriot was written. Just as a quick and dirty example:

        INT. CARGO BAY

        Dark and oily.

        THE ALIEN

        Descends from the rafters. Raises its glistening phallic head. Opens its mouth. Teeth inside teeth. Flesh and machine. A biomechanical spectre of death.

        • S_P_1

          I think biomechanical might be slightly anachronistic. The concept of a bio-engineered alien courtesy of Prometheus seems too far advanced to accurately describe circa 1979.
          I think the entire cast and crew of Alien was a match made in Heaven. When you have the best talent its hard to fail. I can only think of a few contemporary artists in the vein of H.R Giger.
          In this instance a concept drawing is far more valuable than words.

  • Howie428

    The concepts for a lot of successful movies are boring. Refer to the lists of best picture nominees for examples.

    Whether a concept is “good” or not comes down to how it’s described. A man attends therapy sessions to overcome his stutter… Boring! A King on the cusp of a World War must battle his speech problems to be able to lead his people through their darkest hour… Not Boring! But still the same movie.

    Your description of Philomena as “about an old woman who goes searching for her son,” is boring. But perhaps the following is not, “A cynical journalist befriends a weird old woman as they uncover a cash for babies conspiracy in the Catholic church.”

    Amateurs have three broad choices. Write generic, write high concept, write worthy.

    Unfortunately, none of these options has good prospects.

    If you go generic, i.e. follow a genre formula and tick the boxes, you’ll need to do it at a crazy quality level, since buyers have plenty of these things around and can get proven writers to spew these out.

    Go high concept and the unproven writer lands in second-guess country. A high concept by definition causes the reader to imagine what that movie will be in their own head. Even if you can deliver a quality version of it, the chances of your take matching with their take are quite remote. The take difference will be attributed to your greenness rather than their judgment.

    Write something worthy at a high quality level and people will pat you on the back and tell you how admirable it is. Then they’ll tell you the concept is boring and that the only people who can get these made are insiders with established reputations.

    So the conclusion is… Write lucky. You have to put yourself in a position where the luck can make a difference, but for me it comes down to… Write whatever you like, as well as you can, and be lucky.

  • Maggie Clancy

    I didn’t know Maggie was supposed to be a cancer movie – the parallels make sense, but I thought it was just a clever take on an oversaturated (but still money making) genre of zombies that happened to have an AMAZING title.

    When I first started writing at 18, I found myself drawn to more “real” topics, which I think, to a certain extent, we all are. However, over the past year (and after a couple pity parties of “real life” scripts), I realized…these are not the movies I want to see. Every time I see a trailer of a white guy who had it all and then lost his job and has to move in with a family member to “find himself,” I feel a little bile come up in my throat. (like seriously, how do these keep getting made?). That’s what I like to think of when I find myself veering into “normal” territory with scripts…if I saw the trailer, would I want to see it, or would I groan in embarrassment?

    • S.C.

      The type of stories you choose to watch, read and write change as you get older.

      When I started writing, in the pre-Windows days, I was super-pretentious. Then I was dumbly mercenary. Now I’m sandwiched in between.

  • brenkilco

    All very true. Maybe too true. Still depressing to once again face the fact that what you’re selling is the box and the wrapping paper, not what’s inside. And that real pros are adept at using the box and wrapping to actually conceal what’s inside.

    An exercise. Make a list of your favorite movies. Now take out all the ones based on established IP. Fairy Tales, comic books, recent bestsellers. All of em. How many of the ones left, not counting Star Wars, are based on “great” bigger than life concepts? Great concepts sell but is there any correlation between a great concept and a great movie?

    • S.C.

      Some of my favorites:

      The Rock
      The First Great Train Robbery
      The French Connection
      99 and 44/100% Dead
      The Towering Inferno
      Pretty Woman
      Throw Momma From the Train
      My Cousin Vinny
      Trading Places

      I could go on, but you get the idea. Strong concepts all, solid execution, bloody-good writing.

      • brenkilco

        I would agree this is a list of good movies. Well, mostly. The Rock is, well, what it is. Everything and everyone in Towering Inferno not burning or blowing up is pretty dull. And 99 and 44 is so obscure it doesn’t even have a cult rep. All I remember about it is that Richard Harris looked ancient, though he couldn’t have been much more than forty. Quick, where does the title come from?

        But most of the rest I’d argue don’t have big concepts. Speed and Robocop. Sure. But French Connection and Stakeout are just routine cops and robbers setups. Can you even describe the soft premises of Sneakers and Vinny in five or six words that scream hit? A movie about a victorian train robbery would not have excited anybody if Crighton hadn’t been pushing it. And anyway it was an adaptation of his book. The premise of Ronin is so generic it’s practically abstract. Pretty Woman is Cinderella so I’m discounting it. Then there’s the movie about a nature vs nurture experiment by a couple of plutocrats that involves elevating a homeless man to the status of a millionaire commodities trader. Interesting but the poster doesn’t exactly draw itself. For the most part these are serviceable ideas made great by fine writing and direction. The same I’d argue as most other great movies.

        • S.C.

          All right, all right, all right… I don’t really want my list of favorite films dissected, so I mostly skipped what you wrote! Point is, I was just testing myself, you know these are movies that I watch quite a bit and my opinion of them varies a lot (some I haven’t seen for a while).

          But there all pretty much high-concept, and they’re all pretty different (also my list of favorites is probably in the hundreds because I like a lot of stuff. Some people will have top tens. I can’t really do that, I always want to re-watch different things).

          It’s surprising, actually, how important the premise is. And a lot of movies I like, I wasn’t impressed by the premise. I may have seen it for other reasons, including it was raining. But the inspiration behind the story, it just infects the whole film. And some of these films, they just make me smile. And nothing can that away from me.

          But one of the things I want to say is, when I see “amateur” loglines, I want to like them. I do, I’m amazed at how bad some of them are, particularly when the people who wrote them, I know them, at least on here, and they seem smart. I think that having some sense of commercial success, whether it’s old films or new films (my favorites seem to lie mostly between the 70s and 90s – my era, I guess), is essential for screenwriters, like a businessman who knows business.

          And some screenwriters I don’t think have that commercial sense. And so, I wish them success, but it’s going to be a struggle for them. And that’s why I’m so hard on them about their loglines.

        • klmn

          “Quick, where does the title come from?”

          A soap commercial from years ago. Ivory perhaps.

          • brenkilco

            Bingo. Advertised as 99 and 44/100% pure. Don’t think anyone ever bothered to ask just what the hell that meant.

          • S.C.

            They changed it to Call Harry Crown in Britain!

            I just remember watching it on YouTube when it wasn’t on DVD and… it just blew me away. Can’t explain it.

            Same person could watch the film and say, eh, ‘salright, ‘spose.

            Can’t explain it.

            Oh, and the 99 and 44/100% Dead started out from an idea the writer had for the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West; a body being tossed in the water and ending up with lots of other dead bodies underwater with cement shoes.

            Sergio Leone turned the writer down, so he wrote it as an original script, building the story from that opening, and filling the rather simple story with lots of colorful details. Wonderful.

      • Dan B

        That’s a pretty solid list . I’m surprised Coming to America ain’t o.n there sice you included trading places

  • klmn

    Carson, I congratulate your discovery of the potential to be boring.

    My question: do you still like contained thrillers?

  • Eddie Panta

    Exploring the human condition in a larger than life idea/concept SS points out the scrip from the black list about a family amidst and alien invasion.

    Here are the three loglines for the spec script EXTINCTION which sold in 2013.

    These loglines reveal the conflict, and the struggles of the character, but the true “concept” is not revealed.

    Sometimes I feel like people want a juicy logline with the high-concept spelled out.
    In the horror or sci-fi genre capturing the premise in a sentence or two is a very different beast than other genres.

    Here the logline for Extinction is very broad, really this could be any kind of movie, to reveal anymore would ruin the suspense of the script, which to me is what many readers seem to want, they want to know exactly what they’re in for before reading it.

    Haunted by violent visions involving his
    wife, a father fights to spare his family from unknown forces attacking

    A father sees visions of an impending
    invasion, and when it arrives, he must protect his family and try to

    A man haunted by nightmares where his
    wife is brutally assaulted, is thrust into action when the earth is
    invaded by an army hell bent on the eradication of everyone living on
    the planet.

  • Poe_Serling

    Another solid article, Carson! I agree finding an exciting concept is just the first part of the arduous process of getting a film actually made. Then comes the execution of the ‘concept’ into a kickass script… followed by getting others onboard with the $ to make it.

    Also, you see a lot of projects get off the ground because of ‘star power’ alone – meaning an A-lister wants to do it for whatever reason and has the clout to get it produced.

    Just saw this in action today:

    “Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig have teamed for a top secret Lifetime movie called A Deadly Adoption… [It’s] a dramatic thriller as a successful couple who house and care for a
    pregnant woman (played by 90210 alum Jessica Lowndes) with the hopes of adopting her unborn child — then things quickly go awry. The movie is described as campy and fun and a contemporary wink at the genre…

    Ferrell, as it turns out, is a huge fan of the Lifetime movies and always has wanted to make one himself.”

    **So, I guess you never know which path your project may take before it hits the big or small screen.

    • S.C.

      April’s Fools?

      • Poe_Serling

        I thought so at first too, but Lifetime confirms that “this is no April Fools’ joke. The film was made to mark the 25th anniversary of Lifetime’s reign over the made-for-TV movie genre. The film reunites Wiig, Ferrell, and screenwriter Andrew Steele, who worked on the epic Thornbirds-inspired miniseries The Spoils of Babylon. The two-hour movie has already been filmed and is slated to premiere on Lifetime this summer.”

        I hope it’s legit… the project sounds like a lot of fun with Ferrell and Wiig toplining it.

    • drifting in space

      Sometimes I look at my ideas/writing and wonder… is this a Lifetime movie or a real movie…….?

    • Dan B

      It doesn’t totally surprise me. Him doing a lifetime movie is almost like a more real “Funny or Die” short. He did that complete Spanish language movie as well. Will is an Improv guy, and I think he just likes to mix it up and screw around

  • klmn

    If you’re submitting for AOW, I’d mention that you have a midpoint shift. Otherwise, I dunno.

  • Eddie Panta

    Scroll down to my post from earlier today. Depends on the genre.
    In the loglines for Exctintion the concept is directly tied to the suspense, but the twist comes later in the third act.
    Mid-point twist is a good place to end the premise while still eluding to nature of the conflict.

  • drifting in space

    It’s a number game. Just as many people break in with big, flashy concepts as they do with character pieces on a smaller scale.

    Just as many movies with big concepts win awards as the smaller character pieces.

    Maybe instead of spending our time debating it, we should be honing our craft. It always comes down to GOOD WRITING. That is your best shot.

    • S.C.

      Something I wrote in reply to Nicholas J, but PORTFOLIO. Like a stock portfolio, have a portfolio of scripts to minimize (though not eliminate) risk.

      A high-concept script
      A low budget script
      A TV script
      A web script, maybe
      An experimental script

      And so on. And they should all be good. Clear out your (virtual) portfolio every year, i.e. don’t flog the same script over and over again. Throw out your old stuff, the stuff you wrote when you were twelve. Don’t bother with the experimental stuff that didn’t work.

      But have at LEAST ONE high-concepter. That’s all I ask, please! Just have one high-concept script.

      • drifting in space


        Honestly, the thing that (I think) separates amateurs from professionals is the effort behind their work.

        I’ve said this before (and been chastised for it) but most AoW entries look like 1st (usually) or 2nd drafts (even this feels rare). The story isn’t flushed out. The characters are paper thin. ETC ETC ETC.

        Writing is a full-time job and you have to treat it like that. How many hours did you spend last week writing? 40 hours? Doubt it.

        I’m not saying to quit your job or miss out on life… but it takes more work than getting from FADE IN to FADE OUT to get into the game. I made this mistake on my first script and it was torn apart (cordially, of course). You can just…. tell.

        For example: Brian Duffield. Jane Got A Gun started as a buddy road trip. Turned into a female led western through rewrites.

        You don’t go from buddy road trip to western in 1 or 2 drafts. That takes time and effort.

        • S.C.

          Sorry to always seem like I’m down on struggling writers – I’m not, I’m one myself! – but the other impression I get from some AOW scripts is that they have – my expression is – “been around the block” and that AOW is perhaps their last-chance gasp. Worse, in some cases it feels as if they have just been rewriting and selling, rewriting and selling the same script for years, perhaps under different titles.

          And when they get another negative response on this website, they just go and rewrite it again.

          (This isn’t just psychic. Very often the writer leaves clues like putting the number of the draft on the title page, not changing the dates in the story, and saying in his WYSR how long he’s been working on this story.).

          You can get a lot done in just an hour’s writing. If you know what you’re writing (key phrase), you can knock out five pages, three scenes, 1,000 words in one session.

          Some people will know, or guess, due to my circumstances, I have a bit more time than some people here. I probably did work more than 40 hours last week on my screenplay, but I don’t necessarily think I’m a better writer for it. It’s what you do with your time. The pressure of having less free time can result in a more focused approach. Or not.

          I tell you what though, after twenty-three years of writing, way more than 10,000 hours, I think I know a thing or two about writing. I should stop commenting here and get back to my own scripts. I’m better than I think I am!

        • Casper Chris

          I’ve said this before (and been chastised for it) but most AoW entries look like 1st (usually) or 2nd drafts (even this feels rare). The story isn’t flushed out.

          That’s funny. Flush out your stories!

  • Adam W. Parker

    It depends, but I suggest you find your strongest and earliest ironic concept. If that is your midpoint – then I would probably say your structure is lacking in the script. In other words, if you can’t find anything that would make someone want to read before the midpoint then that’s a bigger problem.

  • S.C.

    Ransom with Mel Gibson, the twist is he’s not gonna pay the ransom, and instead uses the money as reward for killing the kidnapper.

    That’s in the trailer, so it’s not a twist, but it happens more than halfway through the movie. On the other hand, a kidnapped child is a high-stakes story, and if it is as well-written as Ransom, you can get away with waiting that long for the premise to kick in.

    However, we had a werewolf script recently, on Amateur Offerings Weekend (AOW) where no werewolves appeared until about page 50. Of a 95 page script. Suffice to say, the script wasn’t picked for Amateur Friday.

    So, if the twist IS part of the concept, it just doesn’t happen ’til halfway through, then write it in the logline, and best of luck to you. But make sure the reader isn’t bored by the time they get to it.

    • Dan B

      Good point, I feel like in Ransom there are enough stakes building that the story is entertaining. Also, we wouldn’t buy into it if his first attempt to get his child was to flip the script on his sons captors. He tries to pay them off once but the deal doesn’t work out.

    • Darkline

      This is my big problem with Hollywood. They are so obsessed with BO numbers and marketing that they spoil movies completely in the trailers. As an audience member I don’t want to know a twist 30 mins in. Is it me or do trailers show almost everything except the last 5 minutes now? You can almost piece together the whole movie before you’ve seen it.

      I’ve adopted a new rule this year – don’t watch any trailers! I can often judge what I want to see from the logline and a metacritic score lol. I have enjoyed the movies much more. I’ve later watched the trailers and thought “Thank god I didn’t see that, it would have ruined it”

      So if I was making a film I’d say never show that important stuff in the trailer. In the logline? Maybe. You need as many people to read it as possible.

      I think it comes down to this, does your concept sound interesting enough without the twist? If so, don’t put it in. The reader will love your script even more if you can surprise them. Another reason is if the twist comes late in the script then it can have a negative effect if the reader knows it’s coming and is waiting…. and waiting, for it to happen.
      It’s not a simple one, if your concept is generic without it, you may have no choice.

  • Fish Tank Festival

    I HIGHLY recommend THE SIGNAL, although it is a slow-burn. But loved it and plan to watch it again myself.

  • 21BelowZero

    Based on the logline alone, I probably never would’ve watched one of my favorite movies of all time: “Vietnam, Sixties counterculture, Watergate. A Southern simpleton has a bumbling hand in some of the 20th century’s biggest events in this touching story of love, courage over adversity and snappily-named shrimp chains.”

    To me it sounds…silly, but FORREST GUMP was amazing!

  • S.C.

    Fascinating discussion today! Hope people learned something and I’m looking forward to seeing some high-concept scripts on AOW in future, and maybe in the Scriptshadow 250 too.

    In the meantime, I must recharge my batteries. Here’s a bedtime story from Sir Patrick Stewart.

  • fragglewriter

    I like that idea of writing an allegory inside a tentpole. I think also the writer has to be wary not write too big that ii’s unbelievable or had to follow.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Started another script 3 or 4 months back.
    This would have made 6 movies scripts I’m working on
    Got two thirds through — and realized i had to put it aside.

    Here’s the thing: AMAZING CONCEPT.
    I can described it in six words — and everyone who heard it would like it.
    But here’s the big problem:
    The concept has TOO MANY possibilities. Everyone would think they have a better take.
    A tar baby of rewrites.

    Had to shelve it, until I finish the others..

    • klmn

      I envy your ambition in tackling so many projects at once. Hopefully one (or more) will pay off this year.

      • Malibo Jackk

        No plans on marketing scripts this year.
        Will be writing and working on other projects.

  • Midnight Luck

    Good article Carson.

    Of course, it falls under that prized #1 rule of screenwriting: NEVER BE BORING.

    Whenever a “rule” pops up, all I can ever think is “there is only one rule, really”, This one ^.

    Other than that, seems a writer can and should do just about anything they want.

    As long as they aren’t being BORING!

    So thanks for reiterating this fantastic point again.

    Every time AoW pops up on the weekend, we get another reminder of this one true rule. If the writers would just look at their own work, BEFORE they send it in, and reflect and say, “If I was given this script, and was told the logline, WOULD I WANT TO READ IT?”.

    Maybe that is being too negative or harsh, or picky, but I don’t think so. I am basically stating exactly what your article is stating. Writers need to be incredibly HONEST with themselves. Everyone knows in their GUT if their work is there yet or not. Everyone knows if their writing is boring, and if it should be released out on its own, to see if it can survive out in the world.

    Many people just jump the gun, hoping, I suppose, that somehow it won’t be noticed that the work isn’t quite there yet. Yet the reader ALWAYS notices, especially when there is such a huge group of readers, and such an astute group of readers as on this site. Nothing is getting passed the SS readers.

    • Casper Chris

      Second only to


  • Barry_2211

    Thanks a lot for your suggestions.
    I kind of like midpoint twists, because they can give a movie a new impulse and new energy that pushes the reader through the second half. Where else sometimes scripts with a conventional second act can drag until it gets to the final act.
    I actually don’t want to mention the twist, because it’s so much more effective if the reader doesn’t see it coming. On the other hand, I want the reader to get to the mid point. So my job as a writer is now to make the first half as exciting and entertaining as possible.

  • MichaelAQ

    “You can explore the human condition inside of ANY idea.” Probably Carson’s best line. I recently had this epiphany not too long ago.

    An approach I recommend is to write the character piece you want. Then go back through it and see where you can raise stakes, flip genre, and make it marketable. By doing that, you should have a stronger script, because you have the character stuff as your foundation already.

  • George

    I don’t read as many scripts as yourself. But, I have read
    my fair share at various review sites, and while the potential for boring is
    quite correct. The problem isn’t a basic human condition story won’t make it
    far, it’s all around poor storytelling, and most importantly the dialogue is
    usually not up to par.

    The great human condition stories produced in the US are
    usually based on theatrical plays, whose dialogue is at its peak. Monologues
    are metaphorically poetic, and if you have great actors the end result is
    usually perfection. Of course the dialogue is changed from theatre to screen.
    But, it retains the essence of theatre, and natural dialogue won’t cut it.

    The average wanna-be screenwriter (such as myself) who has mastered
    the show don’t tell the story, and has natural dialogue will rarely create the
    dialogue necessary to write a human condition story properly. If they did get
    picked up it would be for an awful Lifetime MOTW flick.

    Human condition stories that deal with subjects like cancer
    and such and aren’t transplanted into zombies and far out scenarios, should be
    left to the professionals. Those few who since birth have had the natural
    ability to tell a story and create that wonderful dialogue that allows an
    audience to spend 2 hours in a live-theatre with actors plying their craft each
    night, and while the actor might be recanting a tale about cows, he’s actually
    telling you his history, and you completely understand him. It’s a whole
    different animal.