Concept IS Story
Concept aka ‘premise’, ‘controlling idea’, ‘seed of the story’. Whatever you want to call it, that concept is the FOUNDATION of your story, whether you’re writing a novel or screenplay.
Contrary to the popular belief amongst ‘aspiring’ screenwriters on social media that it’s ‘the execution that counts’ (newsflash: it’s NOT), concept is actually the MOST IMPORTANT BIT. Why?
Because if your concept does not sound interesting from pitch level UP, then no one will invest their time or money in your work – whether they are agents, producers, publishers, viewers or readers.
It’s not rocket science!!!
But hey, I’m assuming you’re not one of THOSE writers who thinks ‘all’ they have to do is (shudder) ‘write something well enough’. As Bang2writers, we know we have to have a kickass idea AND follow it through to the max.
But how can we ensure we don’t waste our OWN time on a sucky concept?? Well good news peeps, ‘cos here’s a round up of the concept mistakes I see regularly:
1) Genre Mishap
You’re a good writer, you did your research into various genres, their conventions and what’s gone before FIRST, right?? ‘Cos if you didn’t, you could end up with one of these:
- Science FACTion – about 5 times a year I get a script that’s supposedly sci fi, yet the supposedly fictional things happening here EXIST IN THE REAL WORLD. This happens especially when it comes to genes, cloning and anything else biological. Get a subscription to NEW SCIENTIST people, FFS!
- Non-Rom-Com – So, this is not an ‘Anti Rom Com’, those are cool. Instead this is a Rom Com with no romance AND no comedy. Don’t know how this is different? FIND OUT.
- Horror/Thriller – Holy hell people, just STOP. Yes Horrors can be thrilling; yes, Thrillers can be horrifying. But they’re rarely one and the same, they are two distinct genres, even if they do carry similar characteristics. Here’s WHY.
- Scare the kids! – With the rise of the 12A in the UK, streetsmart kids are finally be rewarded: they understand far more of the adult world than we give previously given them credit for. That said, some spec scripts in particular are STILL too scary for kids. We rarely see out-and-out scary stuff that’s not played for laughs as well with kids in produced stuff (think VAN HELSING here, which combined scary-ass werewolves etc with humour). The most recent epic tone misstep I can think of is READY PLAYER ONE, which weirdly put THE SHINING into a family film. Guess what happened? My usually hard-ass 6 year old who has sat through any number of Marvel movies was petrified with fear. WTAF, Spielberg! But you are not Spielberg!
- Depressing Drama – Repeat after me: this type of drama is supposed to be devastating, not depressing. Even stories dealing with challenging issues and emotions should still be entertaining. Otherwise, what is the point?? I’d take a bloody exam instead.
KEY QUESTION/S: Do I know what’s gone before? What research should I concentrate on? What opportunities/threats are there to me story, here?
2) Too SAMEy (not enough DIFFERENT!)
When writers begin to understand the notion of concept and actually pitching and SELLING their ideas, they may instinctively go towards the notion ‘The same … but different’. This is a good idea.
The problem is, many writers end up writing derivative stuff because they gravitate too much towards the SAMEY. Instead, they should be examining what’s gone before and flipping it, introducing that ‘something’ that makes it YOURS. Otherwise, you’re just REHASHING.
KEY QUESTION/S: What can I introduce, to TWIST this? What haven’t we seen before, with this concept?
3) Muddy logline
A logline describes an overview of the story and incorporates what I call ‘The 3 Cs’ – clarity, conflict, characters. This works as a nice, straightforward concept checklist because writers typically fall into these 3 traps:
- Overly complicated – if the story is overly complicated, it won’t be clear and we won’t know WHAT we’re dealing with (the conflict, aka the situation or problem at hand), or WHO it involves (characters).
- Too vague – sometimes writers go out of their way to describe AROUND the story, using familiar and even cliched language. As a result, we till don’t know what’s going on. Eeek!
- Misfiring – sometimes a logline is simply bad on its own, in that the script might be good but the logline just doesn’t work. Other times, when the script is not working it helps to go back and write a NEW logline … If you can’t, then that usually helps you pinpoint where the problem is – the character or the conflict.
KEY QUESTION/S: What is my logline? Who has read it and given feedback on it? Why should I take on board their feedback – what do I lose/gain?
4) The SENTENCE OF DOOM kills the story
This is the thing. Stories are like packs of cards. They depend on audiences and readers and suspending their disbelief … BUT if you can take just ONE thing out and that disbelief collapses? You haven’t come up with a strong enough story.
So if someone says, ‘Why does your character do X?’ and you find yourself answering, ‘Because then there would no story’ — EPIC FAIL!
‘Because then there would be no story’ is THE SENTENCE OF DOOM. It means your events are built around something contrived. You need a rethink — and pronto!
KEY QUESTION/S: How can I ensure my characters’ actions are organic and authentic, instead of contrived and constructed for the sake of the story?
5) Builds on cheesy or stale ideas and tropes
The obvious, here. The cheesy and stale has NO PLACE in a spec screenplay or unpublished novel. We all know this, yet we still might accidentally put something in that’s overly familiar without realising … So, how to guard against this??
Easy! More research … Keep reading scripts and books LIKE your story. Figure out what feels stale to you, plus talk about it with others. Follow writers and script readers and editors online. Ask producers and publishers what they see too much of in their submission piles. And check out articles like these – Forewarned is forearmed, after all!