Given a choice between a good idea poorly written or a mediocre idea expertly written, Hollywood will choose the good idea every time.
That might seem unfair until you realize that without a good idea, an entire story is meaningless. “The Shawshank Redemption” is considered one of the best movies ever made, yet it bombed in the box office because it lacked a killer idea to bring people into the theater.
In “The Shawshank Redemption,” the story is about a man unjustly imprisoned so he plots for decades until he can finally escape. That’s nowhere near a compelling enough idea like “Jaws” (a killer shark terrorizes beach goers in the summer) or even a bomb like “Cowboys & Aliens” (cowboys in the Old West must fight against aliens in flying saucers).
“The Shawshank Redemption” is a perfect example of a mediocre idea expertly written and produced. Nearly every bad movie is a perfect example of a good idea poorly executed (“The Marvels” or “The 355”).
So before you spend a lot of time writing a screenplay, ask yourself if your story idea is intriguing enough. In “Inglorious Basterds,” a special American commando unit drops into Nazi-occupied territory to hunt and kill Germans. The catch is that every member of this commando unit is Jewish.
In “Panic,” a hit man wants to get out of the business but the only way he can do that is to kill the man he works for. The catch is that this man is his own father.
If you just start off with a good idea (“Jaws” where a white shark terrorizes beach goers in the summer), it’s easy to go off track unless you also create a catch that puts your hero in a seemingly impossible dilemma.
In “Jaws,” the hero must kill a great white shark terrorizing a beach community. The catch is that this hero is the sheriff who’s afraid of water. To make matters worse, he’s also being blamed for opening up the beach and letting a shark kill a boy. So unless he kills the shark, he’ll forever be saddled with guilt over indirectly letting a boy get killed by the shark.
“Cowboys & Aliens” starts off with an interesting idea (cowboys in the Old West must battle aliens in flying saucers), but it lacks a compelling catch to keep the story on track. As a result, the story is a complete mess, which explains why the movie bombed.
Study bad movies and you’ll find they often start with a good idea but fail to create a catch to make the story more compelling.
“The 355” is about a bunch of female spies from different countries who must work together. The catch? There really isn’t one.
“Mortal Engines” is about a futuristic world where cities are mobile and hunt down and devour smaller cities. The catch? None.
Now look at every great movie and notice they have a catch. “Die Hard” is about a man battling an army of terrorists in a skyscraper. The catch is that these terrorists are holding his wife hostage but they don’t realize it.
“Titanic” is about a woman trying to avoid marrying a man she doesn’t love. The catch is that she’s also trapped on a doomed ocean liner that’s going to sink.
As much as we might wish otherwise, great writing will rarely save a mediocre story idea. Start with a great story idea, make sure it has a compelling catch that sets up a seemingly impossible dilemma, and then execute that idea with great writing.
Ultimately, a good idea supported with great writing is the key to telling memorable stories.