At writing conferences, screenwriters occasionally tell me about the projects they’re working on and ask me to react to their logline. Often it’s something like the following:
“At a campground, a young couple leaves their infant daughter alone for a few minutes and when they come back, she’s disappeared.”
“A man hooks up 100 helium balloons to a lawn chair and goes on an odyssey.”
“A man running for the U.S. Senate who has based his campaign on opposing homosexuality finds out that his son is gay and about to come out on the eve of the election.”
All of these ideas are relatively high concept: They involve a situation that piques the curiosity. We instinctively want to know what happened to the infant; the man in the flying lawn chair; the politician and his son.
The problem is, these are situations, not stories—and that’s often where things go downhill. The challenge of high-concept script ideas is that they promise a lot. Here are the most typical ways novice screenwriters fail to deliver on the promise of their loglines in their final draft:
• THEY TAKE AN EXCITING SITUATION IN A TOTALLY PREDICTABLE OR FAMILIAR DIRECTION. For instance, in the story about the missing infant, the baby is snatched by a mentally ill woman who wasn’t able to have her own child. That’s entirely plausible, of course, but that situation has been rehashed on TV shows so many times that it’s almost expected. Unless you give some surprising new insight, it’s a letdown.
• IN AN EFFORT TO AVOID THE PREDICTABLE, THE NOVICE SCREENWRITER GRAFTS A TOTALLY DIFFERENT SITUATION ONTO THE FIRST ONE AND THROWS AWAY THE PROMISE OF THE FORMER. For example, the lawn-chair man lands in the middle of a bank robbery, gets kidnapped and has to outsmart the crooks in order to escape. While this might be one incident in a broad comedy, what hooks me in the first place is what would motivate a man to do such a crazy thing. If that gets lost, you’ve wasted the idea.
• THE WRITER STARTS A STORY IN ONE GENRE OR WITH ONE TONE, AND THEN VEERS INTO ANOTHER ONE WITHOUT LAYING THE GROUNDWORK FOR SUCH A CHANGE. For example, the story about the politician with the gay son could be a sensitive drama or a thriller. It’s not that one choice is better than the other, but you should decide what genre you’re writing and stick to it. If your script is a family drama for the first half-hour, and then suddenly the father cold-bloodedly shoots the son in order to avoid having his campaign wrecked, you’ve mixed genres. Yes, your thriller can have a quiet opening with a seemingly normal family, as long as you foreshadow what is to come. That might entail having the father reveal in the opening scene, in some small way not necessarily related to his son, how cruel or ruthless he really is.
FIND FRESH ANGLES
Turning a great situation into a great script is difficult but not impossible. The secret is to go more deeply into the aspect of the story that most interests people, but avoid taking them where they’ve been before. Here are questions that can lead you to fresh angles:
• FROM WHOSE PERSPECTIVE COULD YOU TELL THIS STORY? This question is worth considering because the most obvious viewpoint is not always the most effective one. For instance, in the book and film, To Kill a Mockingbird, the fact that the story is told from the point of view of Scout, the lawyer’s young daughter, gives it a totally different feel than if it had been told from the perspective of the lawyer or the accused.
In the case of our missing infant, you could use the viewpoint of the mother, the father, the person who took the child, the police detective investigating the case or an innocent person accused of taking the child.
• AT WHAT POINT DO YOU WANT TO START THE STORY? One of the most unusual choices was made in the classic film, Sunset Boulevard, which starts when the character played by William Holden has been shot and killed by Norma Desmond and is floating face down in her swimming pool. Next the story goes back to the beginning with the dead man narrating.
In the case of the man in the flying lawn chair, is the moment that he rises into the air the beginning? Or is the bulk of the film about the pressures that drive him to that point?
• HOW DOES THIS SITUATION CHANGE YOUR PROTAGONIST? In most films there’s a “character arc.” This is the change the protagonist undergoes as a result of the experiences he has in the story. Frequently, it’s this transformation that gives depth and meaning to what otherwise might be just an interesting situation. In A Christmas Carol (and its many film versions), Scrooge makes a huge change from heartless skinflint to genial, generous man. Naturally there has to be a good match between the enormity of the change and the intensity of the situation. For a big change to be plausible, big dramatic actions are required (such as being visited by ghosts, etc.).
In our politician/gay son scenario, either—or both—could change. The father might start out as a tough politician who seems ready to sacrifice everything for his ambition but ends up deciding that his family is more important—or vice versa if you’re writing a darker story. The son initially might be willing to hide who he really is in order to please his father but comes to feel that it’s more important to be himself. Alternately, he might start off wanting to use his coming out to damage his Dad’s political career in retribution for what he feels was his father’s neglect. But by the end, he could realize that his Dad is a damaged person who did the best he could.
If you have a great situation as your starting point, congratulations—you’re halfway there. Using the questions above along with your own curiosity and insight about the many possibilities offered by the situation, you can make it a great story that will have people eagerly turning the pages of your script to see what happens next.