The biggest mistake screenwriters make in screenwriting is starting with a bad idea. Actually, “bad” isn’t the right word. Another ‘b’ word is more appropriate. “Benign.” There’s nothing to the idea. It’s empty, uninspired, boring. And yet, 90% of the submissions I get continue to be lame and lifeless. What sucks about this is your script is doomed before you’ve even written word. And I’ve watched that play out too many times, with writers rearranging words, scenes, sentences, sequences, characters, loglines, all in the hope that their “idea” will all of a sudden work.
So what is a good idea? Well, there’s some subjectivity involved, of course. But generally speaking, people know when they’ve been pitched a good idea. Good ideas feels inspired, original, and bursting with potential. On the flip side, bad ideas feel cliched, uninspired, and half-baked. That isn’t a lot to go on as those descriptors are fairly nebulous. But don’t worry, cause I’m going to give you ten tips you can use to finally start coming up with good movie ideas. Are you ready? Let’s get started.
1) Try – This may sound like stupid advice. It isn’t. I’d say that half the ideas I’m pitched are bad simply because the writer isn’t trying. You can tell they came up with the idea quickly and haven’t thought it through. An idea has to be battle-tested. It should be pitted against at least ten other ideas you’ve been working through and emerge as the clear winner. Every time you come up with an idea, ask yourself, is this an inspired idea or is it similar to other ideas out there? Movie idea generation is the most competitive arena there is. EVERYBODY thinks they have a great movie idea, which means you’re competing against billions (with a ‘b’) of ideas. If you’re not trying your hardest, I guarantee you your idea’s bad. Here’s an example of a really well thought-out idea.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – After their relationship fails, a couple undergoes a procedure to have the memories of each other erased, only to realize halfway through that they made a mistake. They then must race through every memory in their relationship to avoid losing each other forever.
2) A fresh angle/take – One of the easiest ways for me to identify a seasoned screenwriter over a newbie is a fresh take on an old premise. Newbies are still in that mindset where they’re re-writing the movies they grew up on. Veterans realize that to make an impression, they must find a new way into the movies they grew up on. One of the best examples of this is Memento, which took the old noir investigative thriller and turned it on its head.
Memento – A man with short-term memory loss utilizes a system of tattooing the clues of his wife’s murder on his body to find the man who killed her.
3) Clarity – A good idea is one where all the elements come together clearly and harmoniously. The idea is simple to understand and you’re able to imagine the movie immediately. I read a lot of ideas where the writer is throwing numerous pieces of the puzzle at us, but the pieces don’t fit together. I’ll give you two romantic comedy ideas to explain what I mean, one with a clear and powerful idea, the other with a murky and cluttered one.
Pretty Woman – A buttoned-up businessman in town for the biggest deal of his life hires an unrefined prostitute to pose as his girlfriend for the week, sparking an unexpected romance.
Aloha – An Air Force pilot returns to Hawaii to oversee the launch of a top secret military satellite while attempting to reconnect with his newly engaged ex-girlfriend as well as exploring a romance with the company woman who’s been assigned to keep tabs on him.
4) A complex/interesting main character – “I’m not interested in super hero movies or high concept stuff, Carson. Does that mean I’m screwed?” No. You’re not screwed. But, if you don’t have a highly marketable idea, you better have a compelling complex-as-shit main or key supporting character. That’s because your character will now become your pitch. Therefore, if they don’t sound interesting, that means you’re not giving us a great idea or a great character. What else is left? Are you going to wow us with your deft ability to hide exposition? Nightcrawler is a good example of this.
Nightcrawler – Louis Bloom, an unpleasant sociopathic loner with a gift for salesmanship, revolutionizes the practice of nightcrawling – taping violent accidents and selling them to news shows – by risking death every night to be the best in the field.
5) Irony – Another way for you guys who hate Hollywood movies to come up with a great idea is to utilize irony. The most basic form of movie irony is to make your hero the exact opposite of what’s required of him. So you wouldn’t write a story about an atheist who starts his own atheism support group. You’d write a story about an atheist who takes a job as a Christian preacher to make ends meet. Because irony is such a powerful element in making ideas pop, it’s another easy way to separate seasoned writers from newbies.
The Social Network – An antisocial Harvard freshman with no friends ends up creating the single largest friend network in the history of the world.
6) Strange Attractor – One of you had the perfect reaction to a recent Amateur Offerings idea. The commenter, assessing an idea that sounded like every action movie ever, said that the logline was the equivalent of “beige wallpaper.” And I thought that was perfect. You want to avoid the “beige wallpaper” version of movie ideas. One way to do this is to include a “strange attractor,” which is a unique element that stands out like a red rose in a desert. Even if your idea isn’t perfect, the strange attractor will get a reader’s attention. Say you want to write a survival movie. You can write about a man stuck on a life raft after his boat sinks, which has no strange attractor. Or you can go with something like this…
Life of Pie – When a ship transferring zoo animals to a new country sinks, a young boy is stuck on a lifeboat with a dangerous tiger.
7) Ill-equipped main character – One of the easiest ways to make your idea more interesting is to include a main character who is extremely ill-equipped for the mission at hand. This will make the character an UNDERDOG, which is one of the most salable elements in idea creation. And really, this gets to the heart of what makes any story good, which is that the journey must be difficult. What better way to make the journey difficult than to make the main character as ill-equipped for that journey as possible?
The King’s Speech – The King of England, a rampant stutterer, must overcome his speech impediment to give the most important speech in history, one that inspires the world to stop Adolf Hitler.
8) A Primary Source of Conflict – Remember guys, that a screenplay is broken down into three acts. Act 1 is SETUP. Act 3 is RESOLUTION. That leaves us with one act left. Which act is that? It’s the act of CONFLICT. A movie idea without conflict isn’t a movie idea. It’s the beginning of a movie idea. One of the reasons Hancock was so forgettable was because it only ever figured out the beginning of its idea – a drunk superhero. It needed a strong conflict to turn it into a fully-fleshed out idea.
Murder on the Orient Express – When a murder occurs on an extended lavish train ride, a detective must find the killer amongst 13 suspects before the murderer strikes again. (the conflict is the detective’s investigation – that’s what will take up the second act).
9) Genre-Mixing – This is one of the oldest tricks in coming up with fresh ideas. You simply take one genre and mix it up with another one. Since most writers tend to stay in one genre lane, the Frankensteinien results of genre mixing give way to some interesting ideas. Some of the more common genres that are mixed are horror and sci-fi, comedy and sci-fi, thrillers and horror. But don’t stop there. Get weird if you want. Mix a musical with a western. Mix adventure and film noir. At the very least, you’ll have an idea that stands apart from all that cliche garbage everyone else is coming up with. And here’s a bonus tip: The less the two genres go together, the more unique the idea will be. Mixing the romance and serial killer genres, for example.
Westworld (combines Western and Science-Fiction genre) – A robot malfunction creates havoc at a futuristic amusement park that allows its participants to live in an artificially constructed Old West.
10) Relatively High Stakes – There’s a reason I used the word “relatively” here. That’s because not every movie is about saving the universe, nor should it be. However, the importance of your hero’s journey must contain consequences relative to that journey. Otherwise your idea sounds unimportant. One of the reasons the movie “Wild” didn’t catch on was because there were no clear stakes. A girl hikes a trail to find herself. What happens if she doesn’t find herself? Err… she’s upset? The relative stakes in that movie are non-existent. The Sweet Hereafter, another character-driven indie film, was dripping in stakes.
The Sweet Hereafter – A teenage girl who survived the most horrific school bus crash in history is the key witness in a class action suit against the state, but isn’t sure she wants to tell the truth about what happened that day.
There you have it, guys! The road map to all your future movie ideas. I encourage you to practice these tips and share the results in the comments section. The readers of this site are good at explaining why loglines or concepts aren’t working. So this is as good of an opportunity as you’re going to get at practicing idea generation and receiving valuable feedback.
If you want to get my personal opinion, I charge $25 for 200 words of feedback on loglines. I also charge $75 for a pack of 5 loglines. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: “LOGLINE” to sign up. You can also hire me to consult on feature screenplays and pilots. I’ll give you $50 off with the subject header: “CONSULTATION 50.” Hope to hear from you soon!