Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tips For Tuesday - Hey, What's the Big Idea?

I bet if you stop someone at the checkout line at the supermarket today and ask them, they’ll tell you that they have an “idea” for a movie.  It seems like everybody over the age of ten has an idea for a movie these days.

You’ve heard me say before that I think the “idea” may be the most crucial thing when it comes to a script.  If that’s the case, why aren’t all those shoppers walking around with studio money in their pockets?

Simple.  You need more than an idea to make a great movie.  But if the idea is so important, you ask, then why do you need more?

Because the idea is simply the starting point.

In order to help you understand this concept, let me tell you my view of the creative evolution when it comes to making a film.  It’s four parts, each with a little more to it, leading up to the cameras beginning to roll:

Idea – Story – Screen Story – Screenplay.

I’ll talk about those last two in the next post, but for now let’s concentrate on the difference between the first two: idea and story.

To the point of tedium, I've told you that ideas for movies are best when expressed like this: “somebody wants something badly and goes after it against great odds”.  One of the reasons I preach this so often is that when the idea is put into that framework, it starts to take on the needed requirements of a story.

Most often, ideas come to folks as something “situational”.  For instance, “ a man planning to propose to his girlfriend travels with her to meet her parents for the first time”.  Of course, I’m referring to Meet the Parents. In part, this was such a great idea for a film because it is universal.  Every prospective spouse has had to endure something like this. In addition, it’s rife with potential conflict.

However, notice what’s missing from that idea.  Specifics.  What specifics you might ask?  Well, how about a more well-defined main character (“somebody”)? A more well-defined “girlfriend”.  Ditto for the prospective in-laws.  (And other characters.)  Genre.  And the biggie?  Plot.

To put it in simple terms, story adds characters and plot to the idea.  For my money, these two are not separate and distinct.  In fact, the characters you create must help to drive the plot.  What do I mean?  Well, let’s take that idea and change the characters from those we eventually saw on the screen.  What if Greg Focker (our main character) was a successful doctor (like Owen Wilson’s character) instead of an unsure male nurse?  Would that change anything?  And what if the prospective father-in-law was a soft-spoken librarian instead of a retired CIA operative?

Notice what they did to create conflict and maximize the idea.  They made Focker someone who was not likely to immediately win the favor of a father-in-law.  Especially a father-in-law who was at the end of a successful, testosterone-filled career that just happened to include questioning the credentials and veracity of every person with whom he came in contact.

In order to go from idea, that first step in the evolution of a script, the writer must come up with all of those missing ingredients in order to create a story with a main character pursuing a goal with high stakes and a clear beginning, middle and end.  And, of course, somewhere along the way, conflict.

The reason ideas don’t sell by themselves is because they lack those specifics.  It’s also why ideas do not enjoy copyright protection.  According to the law, it is only the execution of the idea, not the idea itself, that is protected.  Story represents the execution of the idea.

If you are stuck on your idea and struggling with how to best execute it, you need to brainstorm your idea and come up with those essential ingredients to make it into a good story.  This may be a shameless plug, but my workbook will help you with that.  (However, there are plenty of other resources out there that can help you as well.)  Regardless of what you use, this work needs to be done before you can move on to the next two stages of the evolutionary process.  We’ll talk about them next time.

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