The biggest mistake most people make is to start writing too soon. When you don’t know your story, writing your screenplay too soon is like jumping into your car and driving away when you don’t even know where you want to go. This usually results in a partially finished screenplay that gets abandoned because the screenwriter has no idea what to do next. If the screenwriter finishes the screenplay, the story is disjointed and incoherent.
The best solution is to start by examining your story idea first. If you have a great story idea, you can write a great screenplay, but if you start off with a dull story, even the best writing will result in a mediocre screenplay. You don’t want to strive for mediocrity. You want to strive to excellence and you can do that by creating a compelling story idea.
Here are the three basic types of story ideas:
- Ideas about trivia
- Interesting idea
- Deep thematic message
A friend of mine came up with a screenplay idea depicting the typical day of a radio station starting with the morning show and ending with the all-night talk show. Basically the story was about nothing other than showing us what really happens in a radio station. There’s no conflict, no goal, and no story. Such trivial ideas can be turned into interesting movies, but it can be difficult and definitely not something for novices to tackle. Trivial ideas are too easy to ignore no matter how well-written the screenplay may be.
More common are interesting ideas. “Escape Plan” is about a prison specialist trapped in a maximum-security prison and teaming up with an inmate to break out. This type of idea defines a strong conflict and goal. Now it’s up to the screenwriter to make it into a great screenplay or a mediocre one. Trying to come up with interesting ideas can be fun, but ultimately the story is only going to be as strong as your execution, which means your story idea can grab someone’s attention, but that’s it.
A third type of story idea is one with a deep thematic message. At the worse level, this can be as boring as a trivia story idea. However, a well-written thematic story idea intrigues beyond the simple conflict. For example, “12 Years a Slave” is about a black man kidnapped and sold into slavery. That by itself is conflict enough, but when you tack on the history behind slavery, suddenly this story is more than just slavery but about teaching us part of history as well. That’s far more interesting than just conflict because it’s revealing some insight into our own lives.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is more than just a story about a man and his guardian angel. Instead, it’s about questioning how important one life can be in influencing others. “Munich” isn’t just about Israeli assassins hunting down the planners of the Munich massacre. Instead it’s about what happens to people when they use violence to solve their problems and the consequences that occur as a result.
Deep thematic story ideas intrigue us not just through the implied conflict but through the deeper meaning it can have in answering questions about our own life. So when you’re coming up with story ideas, first ask yourself if your story idea simply highlights a trivial event. If so, it probably won’t be strong enough to turn into a full-length screenplay.
Next, ask yourself if you have an intriguing idea that implies conflict. Before stopping there, go one step further and ask yourself if you can turn your story idea into something deeper that can make your story something more than just a simple good guy vs. bad guy battle. You definitely want a good guy vs. bad guy story, but if you can tack on a stronger thematic issue at the same time, your story idea will simply be that much stronger.
“Source Code” isn’t just about some guy trapped in a computer simulation, but also about how we can create a whole new world. “Cast Away” isn’t just about some guy surviving on a deserted island, but also about realizing what’s important in life. “Harold and Maude” isn’t just about some guy who likes pretending to commit suicide, but about learning how to live.
If you just come up with an interesting idea, you may create an interesting screenplay. However, if you come up with an interesting idea with a deeper theme, you could create a great screenplay. Given the choice between creating great movies or merely creating average movies, why not strive to make your next screenplay a classic film for history just by creating a deeper theme for your story?