All About Ideas
Ideas. Every writer has them, but how do you know which ideas are GOOD and WORTH pursuing?
In my career as a writer/producer on projects like HBO’s Band of Brothers, I’ve learned the lesson over and over again that “the idea” is what really matters meaning the core idea for a story.
Writers tend to not spend enough time on their ideas. All the months and years of great polishing can be wasted if the central concept lacks the elements that producers, agents and managers look for.
So, what are the elements of killer ideas? Well, every successful story has a problem at its heart, which someone is trying to solve. But only some problems feel like they could sustain a movie, or series. What makes these sustainable ideas different? They have the following characteristics, which form the acronym PROBLEM:
- Punishing – the main character of a story actively seeks to resolve it but mostly fails and is beaten up in the process.
- Relatable – the audience has strong reasons to emotionally bond with the main character and identify with what they’re going through.
- Original – there’s something new and intriguing about the idea (and the mind of the writer behind it), but it’s a fresh twist on a familiar genre.
- Believable – everything is understandable and feels real, even if there is some big conceptual leap the audience has to take at the beginning.
- Life-Altering – the stakes are huge for all involved. It really matters. Failure is not an option. Lives or something close to that seem to hang in the balance.
- Entertaining – it’s really fun to watch it all play out, in ways that fit the kind of genre elements the audience has come to this movie or series expecting.
- Meaningful – it “sticks to the audience’s ribs” in some way, and is about something that matters, to their life and/or human life at large.
A tall order, I know! But these are the characteristics of projects that succeed.
It’s About Entertainment
Let’s back up to that second-to-last one in the list, shall we?
So many writers forget to entertain audiences with their ideas. They forget that it’s the entertainment business! But the main reason people want to consume our work is that they want to be entertained.
But what does entertaining mean??Well, audiences want to feel something. Movies and TV (and novels and theater) are emotional experiences, first and foremost. The audience is not only emotionally invested in the story and characters, but they are stimulated to feel certain emotions in the watching of them.
Killer Ideas = Entertaining Ideas
I can think of ten main elements that make for entertaining ideas. Let’s use Netflix’s Stranger Thingsas an example that touches on all of them:
Obviously people like to laugh. Adding some comedy to straight drama can help to elevate its commercial potential. “Drama” on its own might not be “fun to watch.” Though Stranger Thingsis not primarily a comedy, there are definitely some laughs along the way.
Suspense, horror and other “life or death stakes” genres often use the fear of what might happen as the primary way they connect with audiences emotionally.
Sometimes the audience is just dying to figure out what’s really going on, and the details of how it’s all unfolding captures their attention and imagination in an intense way. They’re not just interested; they’re fascinated.
When things happen that we didn’t expect, or that hugely up the stakes, or create massive amounts of fresh conflict, all of a sudden, out of the blue – well, that can be enjoyable to experience, too.
5) Lust/ carnal desires
On some level, audiences just like watching pretty people and somewhat sexy situations. It’s part of the vicarious escape of watching so many movies or TV shows. Throwing a little bit of this into the mix (like with Nancy and Jonathan on Stranger Things) sometimes can’t hurt.
Hearts pounding, not necessarily in abject terror but just in the thrill of the moment during an action sequence or anything with high tension and stakes, where a lot is happening, and things are moving fast…
Sometimes we just have to go “Woah.” We’re experiencing something that is so big, so amazing, has so much spectacle, that we might not be excited or fascinated, but we’re kind of watching, mouth agape, overwhelmed by it all.
8) Romantic love
Some stories and series focus mainly on romantic stories. For some, like Stranger Things, they’re a side dish. But they still give the audience that taste of being connected to someone on that deep level that seems to overtake you and make you feel seen, heard, known and accepted. (To make this lastingly compelling for an audience, usually something has to be in the way of the relationship.)
We always want to emotionally connect with characters. But sometimes, this happens so intensely that there is pleasure in how much we care, how much we feel, how much we “are them.”
10) Eager anticipation
It all comes down to the audience wanting to keep watching and readers wanting to keep turning the page. Ideally they care so much about how this all works out, and see so much entertainment potential in coming confrontations and scenes, that they’re on the edge of their seats, totally caught up in what you’ve written.
The best ideas tend to suggest some of these entertainment elements even in their loglines, which lay out the central problem of the story. Some problems, on the other hand, don’t seem like they will be fun to watch characters grapple with.
Let’s never forget that on one level, what we are really creating is “candy” for the audience – a gift that will help them to feel great feelings. And they will pay well for the privilege.
For more on ideas, check out my book, THE IDEA: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage or Fictionby Erik Bork is available on Amazon.
BIO: Erik Bork won two Emmy Awards and two Golden Globe Awards for his work as a writer-producer on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon, for executive producer Tom Hanks (and Steven Spielberg, on Band of Brothers). Erik has sold original series pitches to the broadcast networks, worked on the writing staff of primetime series, and written feature screenplays for Universal, HBO, TNT, and Playtone. He teaches for UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, and National University’s MFA Program in Professional Screenwriting. He has also been called one of the “Top Ten Most Influential Screenwriting Bloggers.” Also check out his free “Ten Key Principals Successful Writers Understand.”