Screenwriting Strategies: Writing Original Content
Just what is the magic ingredient that will make your story idea stand out from so many others, get noticed, and get sold? In the realm of modern story telling for the screen, audiences (and producers) have seen thousands of stories. Some say every new plot is a variation on older ones. If that's true and there's 'nothing new under the sun,' then you've defeated your purpose before you have even begun, especially in terms of writing something unique that will get you noticed. So if you've heard it before, whether it's a disease-of-the-week story, a disaster plot involving an earthquake or flood, or a coming-of-age story with nothing new to offer, throw it out before you spend time at the computer. Unless you're lucky enough to be working on assignment, those types of dramas have been done to death, and your script will be filed away with a dozen others just like it, never to see the light of day.
Instead, we are invited, as writers with an eye on that first screenplay sale, into the world of 'high concept' stories. This is not to say that the more traditional and established dramatic themes are not frequently successful. They are time tested models of modern cinema. Many are familiar with them, and you can exploit them with great profitability. But you want to be noticed, you want to stand out, you want to intrigue that bleary eyed producer or agent who has read thousands of scripts with an idea he hasn't seen before. Your imagination, then, can open the door in ways that mere competence cannot. When you combine both, you could have a winner on your hands.
So what is 'high concept' writing and how do you do it? For most film fans and writers, you know it when you see it. Films like 'Freaky Friday' (a mother switches identities with her teen-age daughter), 'Liar, Liar' (a lawyer must refrain from telling any lies for 24 hours), or even 'Armageddon' (a meteor from outer space must be diverted by a crew of astronauts before it strikes the Earth) all fall into this category. What they have in common is an unusual premise, a situation or series of events that is strange or compelling, which moves the entire story and frames all the action. Your story can do the same thing, and with any luck you'll hit on a notion that is so new and different, your script will be requested for a read again and again.
Here are some tips for striking the right note on your 'high concept' idea:
Juxtaposition and contrast: try to set up your story by putting two opposites or highly unlikely elements side-by-side. This could include a cowboy and an astronaut, a Wall Street wizard and a homeless man, a prince and a commoner, or even physical elements, like an elephant on a battlefield, a dog that plays basketball, or a magic cupboard that brings a child's toys to life. The effect of juxtaposition and contrast is to bring new insight to common subjects by placing them in conflict or interaction with other common (or maybe not-so-common) subjects they are not ordinarily associated with.
Technology and magic: you can use technology in your 'high concept' idea the same way ancient story tellers once used magic. Conversely, you can use magic the way we use technology today. A teenage boy finds a wrist watch device that can stop time for a few minutes at a time. A new type of non-lethal weapon acts as a mind control device. A computer virus threatens modern civilization. In the realm of fantasy or magic, often the struggle between good and evil is couched in the context of a magical character with special abilities or knowledge. As the borders between science fiction and fantasy blur, your only limitations are your own vision of that special element that drives the plot.
Suspension of disbelief: don't make your 'high concept' idea so far out that it's simply ridiculous and unbelievable for its own sake. Follow rules of logic and reason, so audiences can buy into even fantastic or incredible ideas and enjoy the ride. If you want to do a story about a boy who finds magic tennis shoes that enable him to fly, that's one thing; if you want the same character to be elected President and discover a cure for cancer at the same time, you may have gone too far. Set limits, make rules, and follow them. Your 'high concept' world is your own, but audiences quickly grow tired of stories that abandon all story telling logic.
Keep character in focus: even if you have a far out idea, your story is still about people and how they react to odd or unusual situations. If your protagonist suddenly has God-like powers ('Bruce Almighty'), the story is still about him, how he reacts, and how his personality enables him to cope with this bizarre circumstance. If your protagonist faces an army of evil zombies, audiences still want to identify with a real person or persons thrust into that situation. No matter how incredible the set-up, you can't escape the need for your script to provide genuine, human characters who we care about.
High concept scripts are great fun to write, because the action and plot will ideally all derive from the main idea. You can think of your story-concept as a 'story-seed,' or 'story-engine'---once the audience is fully informed that Bruce has traded places with God for a few days, as in the first act of 'Bruce Almighty,' the rest of the material flows naturally, with all kinds of consequences the writer can explore. So the concept drives everything else that happens, and for a writer this can be just pure joy to put together.
These are also great stories for the animation market, where the writer is truly freed to voyage into the realms of pure imagination. A lot of high concept films have high budgets, but this is not always true. A great way to get your script noticed is to create a high-concept script specifically for low-budget production---films like 'Memento,' or 'Run, Lola, Run,' or 'Phone Booth' accomplished this rather well. The filmmaker inherits an unusual film idea with a great story, and it doesn't cost $100 million to produce. The film gets some attention based on the story, not the alien spaceships and planet destroying asteroids.
For that kind of ingenuity, the writer can be rewarded with a paycheck, his name on a well-received film, and awards.
Everyone loves an action or adventure film. For vicarious thrills, every couch potato, wimp, or wannabe hero can save the day and get the girl when enjoying the adventures of an endless parade of aggressive, masculine film protagonists---and a few dynamic, martial arts trained femme fatales too. You might question the truthfulness of films like 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' or numerous Jackie Chan films, but there's no doubt as to their appeal, marketability, and seemingly inexhaustible variations.
What makes these adventure stories work for the film writer? You're going to apply the same three act dramatic structure, the same tools for revealing character, and often the same ideas for writing a comedy script. However, now you get a chance to bring out some hardware, weapons, vehicles and aircraft, juicy bad guys, and convoluted plot twists. It's a lot to ask for from a writer whose greatest adventure for the week may be to pay his phone bill on time, but you'll enjoy writing action films if you enjoy watching them.
One good rule for an action film is to begin your script with action.Audiences paying to see the film will be anticipating all those great fight scenes and explosions, so if you start out slow and easy, it can be a let down. To do this, you want your first act to set up the main problem or conflict of the story, to introduce the characters and setting, to establish the high-concept idea or 'story engine,' and to move us to a significant plot point by about page 30 or 35. However, for the first ten pages of your action script, you need to know your story well enough that the protagonist can already be swinging for the fences as we open, and the audience can catch up on the main story elements later.
This kind of opening also works well with producers who read a lot of scripts as it grabs their attention. So, for example, if you have a cop story or an action screenplay with a police officer as the protagonist, your first ten pages can easily feature a tense chase-and-gunfight sequence. Your detective or drug enforcement character is wrapping up another, un-related case that may be only marginally related to your main story. You have the chase, the suspect, the gun fight; then you move to a conclusion by about page ten. This way we've seen the hero "in action," hopefully defeating his foe, followed by a slower paced part where we get to know what he is like and learn about the elements of the main story of the script. You can later reveal that some portion of the opening sequence was important to your main story---the suspect has some information, the stolen item was pivotal to your main plot, or the suspect works for the 'bad guy.' By bringing us into the film with an exciting sequence like this, we're expecting more of the same, and the audience is enthralled.
The same idea works for other kinds of action stories. For a story about jet fighter pilots and their love lives in a competitive environment (see the film, 'Top Gun,' with Tom Cruise), we open with some kind of exciting training exercise in the jets, not realizing the battle is pretend. For a film like Brad Bird's 'The Incredibles,' we first see our super hero character fighting a bad guy who isn't even in the main story, some time in his past.
The other way your action sequence opening can work is to have a dramatic, high impact or destructive event take place, which is actually crucial to your story by setting everything in motion. You may have a character murdered in the first ten minutes, and the protagonist spends the rest of the film trying to figure out who the killer is, for example. Maybe a new, high tech, experimental weapon is stolen in the first ten minutes, and the hero spends the rest of the film trying to get it back. This is called an 'inciting event' because it's something drastic that happens early on that the rest of the story depends on.
Here are some other key points to consider for your action adventure film play:
Bad guys: most stories have an antagonist. He can be a serial killer, megalomaniacal weapons manufacturer, drug lord kingpin, pirate, alien from outer-space, etc. Because adventure stories have been the backbone of the film industry for many years, the 'bad guy' tends to be overdone or a cliche. For a lot of films, this might work---after all, a drug lord is a drug lord and what we really care about is bringing him to justice, not his feelings about his mother or his childhood. But for the most part, as you write your film and you start to put your bad guy into conflict with your protagonist, give us something new, something realistic, something unexpected, and lay off the melodramatic speeches and bizarre crusades. If we've seen your bad guy in ten other films, you're not doing your job.
Stunts and effects:
often the heart and soul of your action story, the stunts and effects you invent for your filmmaker need a lot of attention and care from the writer. At the current state of the art level for effects, many modern films spend millions to blow us away with unbelievable happenings. But someone had to dream those events up, and they have to fit into the story. Your first consideration is your budget. For a low budget film, a good writer can make something that seems small---like a liquor store hold up, a car crash on a residential street, a fire in a school cafeteria, a mugging, an act of domestic violence---into much more than the sum of its parts.
You can get a good deal of tension and excitement out of these small stunts and action parts by writing them carefully and realistically. Each minute, act, situation, or event is carefully written into the script, moment by moment, building anxiety in the audience. For high budget projects, you want to invent the stunts and action even more carefully. You want 'new,' never before witnessed, and maybe utterly unbelievable bits and sequences. Imagination is required, along with a working knowledge of what we've already seen in other films. You can push the limits, but you have to move the action in proportion to the character's abilities and goals and be true to what your budget can produce.
Use the 'tension and relief' method: no film can be wall to wall action sequences from start to finish, unless it's just silly or something very unusual. You can't have exciting action on the screen every moment---and you wouldn't really want to, because it then becomes too much. Instead, you want to build up slowly to your action sequences, take the audience on the 'ride,' and relieve the tension with slower parts. You can still have plenty of fights, battles, murders, explosions, and so on.
The technique of 'tension and relief' applies well though, because you can be more subtle and play out your story to greater emotional impact. After all, if we really don't care about your characters, it doesn't mean much to us when they fall out of a helicopter. Between the action, with the story moving forward, we get to know these people and their character. So the idea here is a slow build up, and then unexpected, high powered action that blows us away. Once that's over, you can relieve the audience's anxiety with slower parts and repeat the process.