Debunking Screenwriting Myths, Part 4: Concepts
by Geno Scala
We’ve all heard the expression, “Concept is King!” It’s short, catchy, and the alliteration of the hard “cah” sound makes it work. But what does it really mean?
A screenplay “concept” is your basic story idea- the sinking of the Titanic, a man-eating shark that stalks victims at a summer tourist spot. That is the basic premise of your story. When discussing screenplays and screenwriting, we’re often talking about “high concepts”; an idea that would attract a wide demographic and is unique, fresh and original, and can be easily understood.
People often mistake “high concept” with high production value and costs. This is not necessarily the case. It is also NOT great characters, NOT big action scenes, and NOT a story with twists and turns. A high concept idea is one that is easily understood by the most people in the fewest terms. If I had to describe a screenplay that involves “a post-apocalyptic government on a planet that was about to run out of energy because the seas turned to desert, and because of a conspiracy to eradicate the beings, and because”…because…because…you get my drift.
This is extremely important when writing spec scripts. Too often I read spec scripts from new, fresh-faced, anxious and motivated (while also unknown and unproduced) screenwriters that make “Battlefield Earth” look like a half-hour situation comedy. Elaborate set-ups, vast settings, hundreds of characters, CGI, stunt-laden, FX galore, etc. The basic premise or theme of the story, if there IS a story beneath it all, is lost and crushed by the weight of the potential production.
Often times, screenwriters will spend days and weeks perfecting their loglines and synopses, and months or years completing and perfecting their screenplays. They’ll spend more time and money developing a comprehensive marketing plan and a thorough networking “strategery”. What they forget is that NO amount of networking, no business marketing plan and no logline or synopsis paid-for assistance is going to get their screenplay read, and/or purchased, if the concept is ill-conceived.
It is often said that there are only a few GOOD ideas; just a million new ways to present them. Discover a new twist on an old idea, and you will have a winning concept. For example, we’ve all seen the old, tired, played out rom-com formula “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl”. I’m not a big rom-com guy, but even I have seen enough of these. So, along comes “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” who deals with the post-break-up heartache, from the male perspective, then has him run into his old flame, while she’s vacationing with her new boyfriend! Another current movie, “The Five Year Engagement”, deals with an oft-talked-about rom-com topic that is quite prevalent in society, but hasn’t been (successfully) translated onto screen: the ultra-long engagement period (the fact that the two movies star the same cast and have the same director is purely coincidental). The premise is still “boy meets girl”, but the twist in the concept gives it a fresh, unique and original appeal to the story.
When writing a spec script, and if your goal is to SELL the script, it’s best to write a story with a high concept, easily understood, with a minimum number of characters and in a limited setting. Let the CONCEPT get the producers interested in it enough to request a read, and then let your writing- the wonderful characters that A-listers want to play, the fantastic dialogue with memorable lines, and the intriguing and/or hilarious storyline- sell it.
Then, rinse and repeat…several times. Once you’ve established a name for yourself as a writer, you’ll get your “Abyss” made.
Before typing another word, review the concept on that script that you’re spending every waking moment on. Ask your family and friends, your fellow writers in your writing group, or your script mentor, if the concept is a good one. If it doesn’t fit the general criteria of having a wide enough audience appeal, being original, fresh and unique, and easily understandable, then consider switching gears to a more marketable script idea.
Geno Scala has been writing for over twenty years, and was one of the Executive Directors for the 1999-2000 Academy Awards presentation. He is an optioned screenwriter with nine screenplays to his credit, and is an alumnus of ScreenwritingU. He maintains a business in Hollywood, and resides in beautiful Huntsville, Alabama with his rocket-scientist wife, a daughter in grad school, another daughter in college in CA, and two teen-aged sons.