The act of choosing your story, identifying your hero and establishing his or her character arc and the story's premise, is highly personal. There is no one way to get an idea - they seem to spring, unbidden, from the great collective unconscious, or from your own dark and troubled past, or from the blitz of information we encounter every day. You might have an idea, or an image you just can't get out of your head, or a dream, or something you see while walking down the street. You might read about an event in the paper, or in a history book, or something happens to you personally, or to someone you know. Maybe there's a historical figure you've always found fascinating, or there's an unusual, larger-than-life figure in your own family. As you can see, the possibilities for where ideas can come from are endless.
No one can choose your story for you, but not all stories are screen stories. There are ways, however, to decide whether a particular story has enough going for it to warrant the effort it will take to turn it into a screenplay, attract millions of dollars in financing, and, oh yeah, entertain, inform and move that all-important audience.
So before you begin the writing process, get out a pencil and paper and ask yourself the following questions, writing down your responses. In fact, if you have several ideas, do this same exercise with each one, and see if you can figure out which one you feel truly compelled to write. Don't skip the exercise - answering these questions honestly is the first step in deciding whether or not to write your idea in the form of a screenplay.
Write out the gist of your story in a phrase or a sentence: "the giant squid project," "Uncle Buddy's Last Hurrah," etc. You know what you mean, and you're not showing this to anyone, so don't go into detail. And even though you can probably answer these questions in your head, don't - you're a writer, remember? Now answer the following questions.
1. What do I find compelling about this story? Do I feel passionate about it? What about this story beckons to me? Be as specific as possible. It doesn't have to be profound, but there has to be something about this story that is going to keep you involved, passionately involved, for the weeks, months, and sometimes years, it takes to finish the screenplay.
2. Is there a specific visual image involved? Remember, film is a visual medium. Is there a compelling visual context for this story?
3. Is there a hero, or heroes, in an untenable situation, with unique obstacles in his path? What is the hero's problem to solve? Can I solve it, in a way we may never before have seen on screen?
4. Is there at least one character I can identify with, and does this character have the possibility of major transformation? Is the main character an everyman, grappling with extraordinary circumstances, or an extraordinary person destined to transform the world around him? Can I identify with the main character, and understand his motivation well enough to write him as a deeply layered personality, as a real person with an inner life of his own that informs all he does? Is there any part of this story that is really about me? Will I be able to maintain enough distance to let the character be who he is, while getting so deeply inside him that I can capture the character's "voice" and make him convincing?
5. Am I capable of writing this story? Do I know enough about the world I'm writing about, or, if not, am I up to doing the amount of research involved? Am I willing to do that research? (If you've written before) Will writing this screenplay push my limits as a writer, or does it fall into a genre I write easily? If this is uncharted territory for me, am I ready to tackle something I've never done before?
6. Has this story been seen before on screen in some form, and, if it has, do I have a fresh new take on it? What is special and unique about my version of this story?
Once you've answered these questions, you should be one step closer to beginning your screenplay. If you have more than one idea, and are unsure about which project to focus on first, answer the above questions for each project to get a feel for which project is "calling to you" more. Then, once you've established which project you're going to focus on, you're ready to take the next step, and write a synopsis. Sometimes, in fact, you can't really do the above exercise until you've written the synopsis. Whatever works for you.
Please note: if, after doing the above exercise, you're still not sure whether you have a movie premise, or which is the most compelling of your movie ideas, you can always email me at [email protected] for a QuickPitch appointment, and pitch your ideas to me over the phone. The service is free, and if you're nervous about divulging what may be a unique idea, you can fill out and send a release form before our appointment. A release form can be found at the end of this book.
So, now that you've made a decision about which project to work on, the next task is:
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