Screenwriting Tip: Forget The "Idea"
How many times have you heard the saying, "I have a great idea for a movie"? And how many times have you followed that rabbit down the hole only to find that the great idea script is lacking, boring or just uninspiring?
When I was writing my short film Prego in 2015, my “idea” was to write a movie that shows what happens when a one-night stand results in a pregnancy with a simpleton. I immediately recognized, however, that my idea was far from original. In fact, it’s been done a thousand times, a thought that lingered with me as I wrote, directed, produced, and ultimately released the film to festivals. At the time, I felt like I was making a mistake; I was kicking myself for not doing more to come up with an “original idea.” I refused to watch it, grew resentful of the film, and was disappointed with myself for being an “unoriginal filmmaker.” And then the festival circuit started, and Prego won almost every award it was nominated for, and I got bombarded with emails and screening requests. I released it online, and it quickly went viral, amassing more than a million views on YouTube and getting translated into five different languages.
The relative “success” of this short sparked a debate inside my own head about the importance of the “original idea,” and I soon came to realize what I should have known all along: it’s all about the quality of the script, not the originality of the idea! Now, there is no doubt in my mind that an original idea can contribute greatly to the overall experience of watching a film, but not having one should not stop you from writing your film. You can work wonders with the simplest idea once you master the art of screenwriting.
While it’s true that Prego was not an original idea, and it’s FAR from being a great film, I did find that it had some original ideas within it. For example, I decided to present the short from the female’s point of view, something that I felt wasn’t really done before. Some of the best jokes in the short came in later drafts, and the idea of having the room go dark as we dive into her point of view also came out during the fourth or fifth draft of the film. I can say with complete confidence that the best “ideas” generally come to me while I am rewriting my scripts (e.g., working/hustling/getting stuff done).
The more I write, the more ideas I get, and the better my ability to distill the great ideas from the ones that didn’t really serve the story. The same thing happened to me a year later as I was writing my first feature film, Pickings. I would get ideas that pertained to the structure, the characters, and the visuals of the film all through the day, even when I wasn’t writing. I’d quickly jot them down and try to add them to the script during writing sessions.
There are plenty of screenwriters who decide not to start writing their script until the "great idea" comes into their heads, this is the biggest contributor to writer’s block, in my opinion, and I found the "just effing write" approach to be the only cure. Whenever you find yourself uninspired by an idea, go back and read some of the loglines and synopses for your favorite films; you’ll be surprised how many of them sound like a movie that you’ve seen a million times before.
Take a look at the following synopsis: “A high school senior from the wrong side of the tracks longs for adventure, sophistication, and opportunity, but finds none of that in her Sacramento Catholic high school. Our film follows the character’s senior year in high school, including her first romance, her participation in the school play, and, most importantly, applying for college.”
That is the official synopsis for the Oscar-winning film Lady Bird – and it should serve as a lesson to everyone who thinks that they need a “great plot idea” before they can start writing a movie. The great ideas in this film came out of the screenwriter’s effort to produce an original piece of work, and they are integrated into the screenplay, but the core idea itself would be categorized by “idea pitchers” as “boring” at its worst or “simple” at its best.
Movies like Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Before Midnight, Reservoir Dogs, Friday, Dazed and Confused, Dark River, Beast, and Wild, to name just a few, are the ultimate proof, in my opinion, that a great movie plot idea is nice to have, but it means nothing at the end of the day. The only thing that matters is “the screenplay” as a whole, the complete body of work. It’s your ticket to making an amazing film, not the “great plot idea.”