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5 Screenwriting Hard Truths (Or The Best Way To F*** Up Your Screenplay)

I’m proud to welcome my collabro JK Amalou back to B2W today to share with his thoughts on what REALLY sells your writing “off the page”, which is a great concept! Like I always say to Bang2writers and screenwriting students, I can read great writing whenever I want so how are you going to differentiate if you want to make a SALE? Even if you want to write samples, you STILL need to differentiate from the rest in the pile!! Read it and weep, spec screenwriters … and take the first step towards harnessing the power of concept by contacting JK today, as he’s taking on some script consulting for a limited time. His contact details are at the bottom of this post and look out for the VERY FIRST pic from ASSASSIN … Enjoy!

DEVMOV_Anna running
You can run … but you gotta write a great concept if you want to get ahead (DEVIATION, 2012)

So you have read every book about screenwriting. You know how to Save The Cat; the Foundations Of Screenwriting; the Writer’s Journey; the Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles Of Screenwriting; your 22 Steps; make A Good Script Great, and countless other methods of how to write your screenplay. You even know how to write your screenplay in 21 Days.

You have written a few screenplays already. You are a master of formatting, characterisation, structure, and dialogue. You are about to write your next screenplay. So what could possibly go wrong?

The concept.

1) Hard Truth # 1: Concept is King (or Queen)!

In other words, what sells a screenplay is its concept, not great writing. To go further, great writing will sell you as a writer, but not your screenplay. If you want to work as a writer for hire, go ahead: write a screenplay that totally shows off your skills.

But there is still a problem.

The only way you will stand out from an agent or producer’s five foot high submission piles is not your great writing, but the concept of your screenplay. I have heard this countless times in my past life as a script consultant for the MEDIA Programme: “Yeah, s/he can write but the concept is shit/boring/derivative.” I see it in 99% of the scripts I am sent as a producer or director. Mighty fine writing but the concept is sleep inducing, or unclear. MORE: 5 Reasons I Got Involved In ASSASSIN

2) Hard Truth # 2: Concept is what they want

The reality is that the biz is first and foremost a concept market.

You don’t believe it?

What is the famed elevator pitch? Convince the powers that be to read your screenplay on the basis of the concept alone.

You still don’t believe it?

The original draft of Tarantino’s screenplay for RESERVOIR DOGS was littered with not very fine writing (typos, atrocious grammar, weird formatting, rambling dialogue), yet it sold and got made. MORE: 4 Reasons Your Concept Counts Above All Else

You really still don’t believe it? Fine …

WTF? A still from JK’s movie HARD MEN (1996)

3) Hard Truth # 3: Execution does count, but not as much as you think

… Okay, I hear you. Concept is not all, execution is just as important. Sure, you are right. Excellent execution does help, but it still won’t sell your screenplay.

Consider this: many years ago, I signed up as a director for a project produced by Arnon Milchan (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, HEAT, and many other major American films.)   Fox Studios were the backers. It became a Diane Keaton vehicle. Well-known actors Minnie Driver, William H. Macy, Paul Sorvino showed interest.

Oh, and the screenplay by a novice screenwriter did sell for a nice amount of money, too (the budget was $15 million so you can do the maths.)

Nice set up, I hear you say. Yes, it was. Except that everyone was in love with the concept of the screenplay, not its execution.

So our novice screenwriter was put through the rewriting wringer. Draft after draft. It still didn’t work out so other writers were brought in to rewrite her screenplay.

Whatever happened to this screenplay doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that it sold because of its concept. Not its fine writing (it was fine writing) or its execution (it was more than proficient.)

This also takes me back to my days as a script consultant for the MEDIA Programme. Many projects submitted got funding on the basis of: “It’s a great concept but the script needs work/more drafts.” In other words, the writers got funding to achieve their screenplay concept’s full potential. MORE: Writing, Selling And MAKING Thriller Screenplays

First pic from ASSASSIN, released March 2015

4) Hard Truth # 4: Concept makes storytelling EASY

Beyond the sale, a story practically writes itself when it has a great concept.

In my experience, a great concept sparks everyone’s imagination. Even your neighbour’s imagination. A great concept will have people coming up with exciting scenes, storylines, characters, etc.

Try it.

Gather a few friends. Stock your fridge with beer and wine. Take a successful concept, make it slightly different, and throw it to them. Something like: “JAWS set not in a seaside resort, but in the forest community”. My bet is that everyone will have a take on the monster, characters, etc.

Try again and throw them another concept: “Guy and Girl meet, fall in love, marry” or “Guy robs a bank, gets caught, ends up in jail.” My bet? Blank faces.

Nothing better than a great concept to totally focus your story plot-wise and character-wise. MORE: 4 Reasons Samey Stories Happen & 1 Thing You Can Do To Beat Them

5) Hard Truth # 5: Marketability is everything 

The main challenge is, of course, coming up with that killer concept. Every killer concept is based on a mundane concept. The key is how to make it exciting.

The best way to do it is not to wait for the muse to come along and deliver it to you. You might be waiting for a very long time. MORE: 3 Reasons To Write A Marketable Screenplay


The best way is to be proactive and research your concept. Read novels, watch every movie based on the same concept. If you don’t have time to watch hundreds of movies or TV shows/dramas (you should!) or read hundreds of novels (you should, too!), check out their synopsises on Wikipedia. You will find that your killer concept has already been done, thus saving you months of hard work (very likely scenario!) OR you will be able to shape a killer concept by avoiding what has been done before.

So if you are about to start writing your screenplay, DON’T write it! Stop, research your concept, and remember movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg’s words: “The idea is king” –  Katzenberg’s a guy who has bought and developed thousands of screenplays in his career, so I’d listen.


Assassin_poster_webBIOJ.K. Amalou is a writer, producer, director and sometimes script doctor. He has worked on studio and indie films, and TV in the US, UK, and Europe. He also has worked with Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Richard N. Gladstein, etc. His latest film ASSASSIN stars Danny Dyer, Martin and Gary Kemp, and is executive-produced by Barbara De Fina (GOODFELLAS, CASINO, CAPE FEAR). It is released in March 2015. Contact him on or you can follow him on Twitter as @jkamalou.

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26 thoughts on “5 Screenwriting Hard Truths (Or The Best Way To F*** Up Your Screenplay)”

  1. I don’t agree with this at all — I’ve read some scripts that didn’t have the most original concept in the world but they sold because the writing was so well executed. You have to have both – concept and execution. I agree sometimes scripts are rewritten but those writers are usually one hit wonders.

    As far as Assassins, not sure what the fuss is about…it sounds very clichéd, even the title…sounds like a bad B movie. I’m a woman and the thing about the two female leads sounds boring…just a love story….doesn’t sound like the women have much to do. From the trailer I would definitely NOT watch this film although Danny Dyer does seem quite cool.

  2. Hmmmm, I dunno if I agree with the first few points. Concept is king and execution doesn’t count as much as we think? I think that should be the other way around. Look at The King’s Speech. A guy has trouble public speaking, snore. It was executed in a way that it won an Oscar. Ideas are a dime a dozen and almost worthless unless you can crush it in execution. The Purge had a great idea, and fell short when fleshed out. Even Breaking Bad: a high school teacher makes drugs with his ex student. A ton of TV studios passed on this. But the execution…. well it’s Breaking Bad. IMHO.

    1. Put it this way: you and god knows how many other new writers don’t believe it, saying great ideas are everywhere … then they get into the industry and see that it’s not true and that EVERYONE is desperate for a great concept and that execution doesn’t get you v far at all 😉

      1. Yeah, I can see that. I can also see how a great concept gets your foot in the door rather than “you won’t believe how well I can execute stuff”. Movies and TV shows that do both in a great way are the most memorable – Jurassic Park comes to mind. And then there’s Pulp Fiction. Execution seems to be something that can be taught more easier than the ability to come up with killer concepts. Meh, I guess there’s exceptions to both.

    2. Eh? Wot? This is the King of England at a time when the royal family was waning in the public eye! This is the leader of a great world power who has to hold his people together when they are about to be engulfed by a World War! Some guy, some concept.

      1. Um, no. You’re telling me if you heard the pitch of “it’s about a guy who can’t talk and has to fix that” you’d not only pay millions of dollars to make that movie, you’d expect it to win an Oscar for best picture? BS.

        1. Erm, think you need to read the post again padre. Besides, for every drama that is a breakout hit like THE KING’S SPEECH, there are countless others that underperform at the box office. The notion dramas are EVER an “easy sell”, especially at pitch level, is totally false. Read my Drama Screenplays book for more on this 😉

      2. aloha, I’m with UCLA film arts dept. on this. Story is everything and the only thing. Concept: a salesman retires…snore. What kind of concept is that? Yet, it turned into arguably the finest play of the 20th century – Death of a Salesman. Could James Bond be in an Agatha Christie novel? No, because Ian Fleming’s character doesn’t fit. The story will create the character. Modern novels are character driven but it’s the story which creates what is necessary in the characters to move the story to the finale. Lee Child shows a disconnect in one of the premier novel writing statements, which is show don’t tell. He says, correctly, we are story-tellers not story-showers. That’s what all writing is about, telling a story. It’s how you tell the story.

          1. Writers frequently resist the notion concept is what gets producers, investors etc to sign on to make stuff, but guess what: concept is what gets audiences through the door. You can’t watch a movie before you’ve watched it. Same principle at pitch level. That’s why the execution is NOT what counts in making a sale.

            1. I totally agree with you/your point. Hearing the pitch for Jurassic Park beat out hearing a pitch of “and this is how I’m going to pull it off”. I think when there’s a less than high-concept idea one would hope the execution is going to be amazing. I would rather be coming up with killer concepts and hopefully it’ll be executed perfectly. The Island comes to mind when i try to think of a cool concept that lacked when you saw the movie. Maybe it’s more of a balance of the two.

              1. Peter Butterworth

                aloha Lucy, I hear what you’re saying; a writer wants to sell and get paid. That’s why I’ve come to understand the pitch or tagline and logline need to be tied to the ‘high concept.’ But you still have to have written a good story well told if it’s going to be any good. Example: I started to watch Assassins 4 (or some number) recently and it opened up with one implausibility after another. I went to do something else. It was so poorly written I could have cared less about any concept that may have been sensational. Yes, whoever wrote the story got paid and it’s possible the movie actually made money but how much harder is it to write a good story (concept) well? Couldn’t a better written story have made more money? I will add that it’s doubtful that more than 175 spec scripts are sold every year and as much as 600 feature films are being made. What is the formula for a spec script to be sold? A good concept poorly written or a good concept well written?

                1. There’s no formula. A good concept is a good concept. If people want it, they will buy it. As for movies making more money if they’re well written – what does “well written” actually mean? Different things for different people, that’s what. There are no absolutes.

                2. Peter Butterworth

                  aloha Mauro, No, I found Professor Walter from an interview which is on You Tube. The more I thought about what he was saying the more I came to understand the dynamics of the character within a story. Writing screenplays has actually helped me in writing novels which is what I have a major interest in. I ended up writing screenplays from stories I wrote but weren’t long enough to submit to a traditional publisher. Wonderful experience.

              2. Aaah yes, the old “execution that counts” argument. If only it were that simple! Sure, story is everything, but film is principally about commerce, not art. If you think it’s the latter? Get out NOW. You will not enjoy this BUSINESS (the clue is in the name, FYI). More on why the execution does NOT count in my screenwriting books.

            2. Well this is why dramas appeal to some and not others, I think it’s dull as fuck at pitch level, I’d never have signed on for that. Plus this is why the majority of dramas *have* to be passion projects, with people taking them on and getting them made by hook or by crook – and for every break out hit like THE KING’S SPEECH, the majority underperform or even fail spectacularly at the box office, even – get this – Oscar winners. This is why drama is a “hard SELL”, from pitch level through to getting bums on seats. More in my drama screenplays on this, look inside the book HERE.

        1. aloha, I would also say this is one difference btwn novel writing and screenplay writing. A ‘concept’ helps with a strong linear plot. Not a lot of time to deviate in a movie only 90 minutes long. A clever novelist can interweave elements in their story since time is not factor. As long as the novelist is writing well enough for the reader to want to turn the page strong subplots or convoluted twists can be introduced. It’s one reason why the tagline and the logline are important for a screenplay; it creates the linear description of the plot.

          1. TBH, the best novels – or rather the ones that do best, with readers – have a strong central concept as well. What do GONE GIRL, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and even 50 SHADES OF GREY all have in common? A very very strong central concept.

        2. This article hits home really hard for me.

          It was only when I attempted to pitch my first screenplay at last years London Screenwriters’ Festival that the penny dropped. Yes, the script had been put through its paces by script consultants who had loved the idea. Yes, the script had been highly praised in a few writing competitions. Yes the quality of the writing had been noted upon. But, and her’s the real doozy, when attempting to put the story into words to pitch it, the gaps in the strength of the concept became apparently clear. I had a couple of requests for a synopsis but they came to nothing. Years of work all destroyed in a two minute, well prepared but wanting pitch.

          But, lesson learned. I have spent all this year researching a new concept which, although pen has not yet been put to paper on page one, I know it will be easy to pitch. This article confirms that this is time well spent.


          1. Delighted to hear the article helped Kim – concept is SO important, so it’s brilliant you learned that lesson so quickly. Lots of writers resist it … and for YEARS!

        3. Hmm, I get all this, and mostly agree, but I have a screenplay that a producer LOVES because of the concept. It’s a Gothic supernatural drama with a female lead. We had it checked over by a rep of BBC Wales drama and they said the concept was good, the story was great and the script is well written. My producer had the script read by several industry people before we went for finance. They made a few comments to clean it up, make it tighter, but the concept is SOLID. However, at finance level we were told by a reader that whilst the concept was there and the characters were well rounded, the story is old fashioned in cinematic terms, thus we were turned down for money. At LSF I had clear indication from industry people that the concept was indeed good, and that my problem my be genre related because I have written a ghost story as a drama and not a horror, which apparently makes for uncomfortable reading because ghosts need to scare the balls off the audience. After reading Writing for emotional impact I understood that my concept is indeed key, but I think it’s a little more complex. Having had my script read by some good people and being assured that my concept is solid, my producer has advised me that I should stick to my guns and grow and extra thick skin. But id concept is the key, I think in my case the locks need changing…

          1. I think you answer your own conundrum there Lee … supernatural or not, you say it’s a DRAMA. Always a hard sell, great concept or not.

            1. So, whilst I agree that I answer my own question, is it also fair to say that not ALL genres fit this idea of concept being key? Yes this is a drama, and I have fiddled with it to make it more genre friendly, but this ruined it, changed the meaning and also altered the very concept I am working with. I realise drama is a hard sell but that’s what this is. I have other elevated genre projects in the works, so I’ll just keep working.

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