“This may shock you, but most beginners fail at the concept. It’s the single most common problem I’ve found with scripts. Concept is the core of the script.”
Writing for Emotional Impact
“The other overwhelming weakness with these ninety-out-of-a-hundred rejected screenplays is with initial concept.”
Writing Screenplays that Sell
(Formatting being the other weakness according to Hauge)
How do you test your story concept? What filter system do you have in place that tells you, “This concept is worth investing my time and talent to write into a feature screenplay.” Despite knowing the best time to test your concept is before you write your screenplay—many writers ignore any warning signs and the concept flaw is not fully revealed until after their script is completed.
But what if your concept sucks?
If the concept is weak all that’s left is, as the saying goes, “polishing brass on a sinking ship.”
“One lesson I’ve learned in Hollywood is that right out of the gate a screenplay will be judged solely on its concept or premise.”
Now Write! Screenwriting
Last week I did a one-hour concept consultation with Adam Levenberg and time will tell what fruit that conversation will bear, but I will say that I’m more jazzed about my latest concept and coming at the story with a clearer focus than I’ve had in the past. I walked away with seven specific ways to turn the concept into a solid (and castable) screenplay. Adam also sent me two scripts that were similar but different to my concept. But perhaps most importantly is our one-hour conversation convinced me that this is the script I should be writing. I was prepared to move down the concept list if Adam didn’t think my #1 concept had legs.
I’m a fan of Adam’s work because of his development background, his Official Screenwriting podcast, and the fact that last year I spent three hours on the phone going over my last script Shadows in the Dark. I wrote in the post Script Consultant Adam Levenberg that it was the most detailed feedback I’d ever gotten on a script I’d written. We went over characters, plot, structure, the ending—pretty much everything. I walked away with many pages of notes—on top of the notes he sent me— on how to make it better. And the only way he could have that three-hour conversation about my script is that he spent at least a day–maybe two–dissecting my script before we had our conversation.
But Adam was also honest in saying he didn’t think the basic concept could get traction in Hollywood. And he told me why. And that began my conversion from structure, structure, structure to concept, concept, concept. Both are important, but I think concept trumps structure. Which is why you’ll hear stories of scripts being sold solely on concept.
I know there are plenty of naysayers about paying anything to anybody in regards to furthering your career. Ironically, one of the biggest voices against paying a consultant has what today amounts to $400,000 in college education. I’m certainly not against going to college (have a film school degree myself) but I also think Adam’s $99 concept consulting fee can be a better investment in your screenwriting career than 20 hours of a free screenwriting podcasts and blogs—even the best ones. (Came up with 20 hours because that’s about what it would take to pay $99 making minimum wage minus taxes and such. )
“What you choose to write is far more important than any decision you make about how to write it.”
The Anatomy of Story
A few years ago, before online training took off, I was looking at attending an all day Final Cut Pro seminar in Chicago. The class promised an 8-hour day with a Final Cut guru. I lived about five hours from Chicago at the time and figured by the time I added in costs of the hotel, food, gas and the seminar itself the hard cost to me were going to be over $600.
Being self-employed I had to look at other variables. Five hours driving each way and the seminar itself would cost me two days of down time. Two days where nothing was billed meaning the real cost where much more than $600. Sure I’d learn a few cost saving tips from the guru, might even make some interesting connections, but in the end I found a solution that worked better for me—I found DVD tutorials that included 47 hours of training for $300.
If you aren’t doing it already, start thinking of yourself as a small business owner. Sure you’re a creative person who writers screenplays, but don’t forget the business side. One of the key principles of any business is to make every purchase an investment. When I had a corporate video producing gig I looked forward to attending seminars in Seattle, Washington and Rockport, Maine. Learned a lot, too. But these days I take advantage of lynda.com for $25 a month and the free seminars produced by creativeLIVE. (Less fresh king crab and lobster, but you have to make sacrifices in life.)
Keep in mind that all those free screenwriting blogs and podcasts cost you something—time. The books and seminars cost you time and money. Undergraduate and graduate degrees can take a lot of time and a lot of money. None of use will make great decisions 100% of the time. But crunch the numbers, asks questions, and move forward.
“Repeatedly, after reading a screenplay, I asked myself in amazement how the author could possibly think that the story idea would be of interest to anyone besides him and maybe his mom. Had the writer even chosen a concept that had the slightest degree of interest, uniqueness, or artistic and commercial potential, he would have already elevated his screenplay into the top 10 percent.”
Writing Screenplays That Sell
(Chapter 2 on Story Concept)
If you’re like many writers you have a computer list or shoebox full of story ideas and concepts. One option is to jealously guard that concept until you send the script out, another is talking to the one or two friends whose opinions you cherish (if one of your friends is Steven Spielberg that’s a bonus) , and another option now is using Adam Levenberg’s concept consulation.
P.S. Years ago I shopped a coming of age story—my Stand By Me-type script—and one production company fellow was kind enough to tell me I had made a big mistake. I didn’t have a single castable adult character of any weight. He went on to explain how a strong adult lead was needed to get funding and hope to attract people to the movie. I went back and watched Stand By Me and sure enough there was the Richard Dreyuss and Kiefer Sutherland roles. I went back and watched The Sandlot and sure enough there was the James Earl Jones character. That’s the kind of stuff that you gotta know at the concept stage.
Related Links: Think Hallewood “Why do most concepts suck?—Christopher Lockhart