Chances are if you’re reading this, one of these statements launched the journey of your current project or maybe even you as a writer: ‘that would make a great movie’ or ‘you should write a book’. How many times have you heard or thought that, only to find that once you perched yourself in front of a keyboard you struggled with the best way to express that idea?
Before we get to, how you can approach the germs of an idea so they can spread into something that takes hold, a wee bit of housekeeping…
SURPRISE! I haven’t forgotten all of you, as you can see a little bit of renovation is in progress here on the site, in preparation to provide all of you more cohesive, helpful and engaging content. The current navigation is the same, with some pages moved into dropdowns and the addition of Launch Your Career, which provides some respected and legitimate ways to break in.
There’s more to come over the summer as we do some vacuuming, and rearranging.
Now, back to those germs of story ideas that need to be tested to see if they can spread into a compelling story before you waste valuable time and it’s too late to turn back.
Usually, it starts with either character or premise.
Say your the writer of a little tale called SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, is the inspiration, what if a fledgling FBI agent’s first case is a serial killer and she has to rely on an incarcerated, psychoanalyzing, cannibal, to help her solve it? The character’s core conundrum is a big one; she’s green and has to be picked apart by a man so brilliant he knows her internal wounds, oh, and he may secretly want to eat her.
Or is the inspiration, a serial killer kidnaps girls for their pelts and the only person that can lead to him is incarcerated for cannibalism? The premise’s core conundrum is also pretty big; a lunatic going around skinning girls alive and the only one who can help is an even smarter lunatic.
Clearly, there’s much more depth to this particular story – but you get the idea, it had to start somewhere and the way it got to be the revered story that it is, is because the core conundrum (I hope you love reading that ad much as I do typing it) for both premise and character work together in plot and theme.
Let’s take a closer look…
When your friends say you should write a book, what are they referring to? Maybe that vacation from hell you took together when the campground you booked was actually a nudist colony, or the fact that one of you needed the vacation to get away to find your sense of self after you found your husband of twenty years cheating on you with a college student, so the thought of exposing yourself in front of strangers is not only horrifying, it could scar you for life.
Chances are it’s the merging of the premise/setting/event conundrum with the character conundrum that makes you want to share the story – yet more often than not one of these falls short OR somehow these two conundrums just don’t jive together into one cohesive plot and theme. And that’s where we step through the gates of development hell.
Too often, an idea will sound so good, that writers immediately jump into the fray and start pecking out the pages, crafting character names and masterpiece titles only to get half into the crux and find their story adrift. This is most likely a big factor in the dreaded second act lag or why so many novels go unfinished.
So then, usually what happens is one of the following: [the writer] keeps pushing through, with the notion they will fix the problem in subsequent drafts or they put it aside thinking someday inspiration will strike and fill in the whole in the wall they can’t seem to write their way out of — which usually either adds to the pile of half-finished manuscripts and screenplays clogging the inspirational land fill of our collective creative conscience. Or most often, results in a wildly overwritten piece of work that requires massive editing. I think this is where the ‘just get it down’ theory of 1st drafts fails most writers. Granted, everyone has different styles, some are avid outliners, researchers, character bio enthusiasts, and other prefer to write freeform. None of these approaches are wrong but what I see more often than not is that we take that ‘just get it down’ mantra to produce a vomit draft (another oft coined term) and then think all it needs is some word-smithing in dialogue and tone and the story is done – but wait why doesn’t anybody like it? The ‘gurus’ that proclaim the vomit draft theory have a good amount of experience, so whether they admit it or not, they probably have done quite a bit of story work in their head and they are not afraid to rip apart a first draft and start all over again.
Sometime ago, Emma Coats former story artist at Pixar ascribed 22 rules that she learned about storytelling while there. #11 is the best version of ‘just get it down’ and much less misleading.
#11 “Putting it on paper, lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.”
My version of that is “a good idea is nothing but a bunch of hot air unless you act on it.”
I’ve approached first drafts using all of the above methods and am finally honing in on an approach that works for me – which I will share in the story studio on this site as things are being rearranged.
But over the last few months I’ve been slogging away at four projects in various stages (five if you count that one is a 2 part piece). This two-parter is a ghost writing assignment and one of the first things I had to tackle in the research phase was to figure out if the material already developed, warranted two scripts. The other three are all my projects that have generated interest recently. One, I wrote a while back as a spin-off to something else, because I felt the characters warranted it, the other was something I had written as both a book and screenplay and the third was just an idea written on a post-it, that was daring me to explore it fully.
All of these went through radical changes before the idea (no matter how far along it seemed) got to a point they were on the road to being marketable – meaning produced, published what have you – they had a long way to go before their core ideas became parallel conundrums that made solid stories. In this post I hope to give you the litmus test that will help you do the same with your ‘great ideas’.
While this work was going on, I was also reading Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, Pixar co-founder and president, now also presiding over Disney Feature Animation. At first it was a nostalgic reason for reading it, I wanted to see if it rang true to what my experiences were that paralleled my years at Disney, and what I’ve heard from friends and former colleagues in the years since, but some things immediately struck a chord in what I was toiling over with my own work.
Many have read the widely distributed 22 rules of Pixar stories I mentioned above – but one thing that seems to need repeating – a lot – is that their process (and by default Disney’s) is no where near the same as every other script and story out there and it is NOT one of the 22 rules. To be fair, the 22 rules (IMO) are more about the day-to-day grind of story and not geared to the subjectivity of asking; ‘is this idea any good in the first place?’
I’ve mentioned it before here as well and it’s gone into extensively in the Catmull’s book, the stories at Pixar are written and rewritten while the films are being worked on until it is right. It takes years and every employee is encouraged to give notes in the process but a core team (on other movies) meets regularly during these years to pick apart the story until there’s nothing left to pick because it’s just right. I earmarked 10 notes that stood out to me — #6 is Andrew Stanton’s version of the vomit draft.
Of these 10 notes, five of them point to how the original idea of some of their most successful movies was not found until the project was well on its way. Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Up and even Disney Animation’s Frozen. Some of the premises and characters changed more radically than others, but one thing always stayed the same, THE CORE CONUNDRUM of either the premise or the character, depending on the director who pitched it – so the original germ never changed but it’s parallel conundrum did until it worked with the core idea pitched.
My bookmarked notes from Creativity Inc. follow in the order of the book:
- To ensure quality, excellence must be an earned word attributed to us by others, not proclaimed by us about ourselves
- Toy Story 2 did not work out its story issues until someone came up with the question: Would you choose to live forever without love, or choose a guaranteed future sadness to know love now?
- Frozen (a similar theme about true love). Screenwriter Jennifer Lee says it wasn’t until she got the core idea of true love that she was able to go back and make it all work.
- Early on all of our movies suck. The braintrust does not prescribe how to fix the problem – they diagnose and every 3-6 months the process repeats. The key difference is the BT is made up of storytellers not studio executives giving notes
- Monsters Inc. The core idea was always, monsters are real and they scare kids for a living. 1st the human was a 6 yr old girl, then a boy and then back to a bossy girl then finally to the proverbial toddler. Mike (the one-eyed better half of Sulley) wasn’t added until a year after the first treatment!
- Creating art for profit is expensive – Andrew Stanton is known for saying be wrong as fast as you can. While planning is important to any project there is only so much you can control creativity before it gets bland. And probably the most important is the more time you spend mapping out an approach the more you become attached to it subconsciously or consciously. Things get ingrained in your brain like a rut in the mud.
- A sign a [movie] is stuck is when notes are given and 3 months later when it’s back up for review, it’s essentially unchanged.
- Nemo was originally pitched as two worlds (Marlin’s and the tank in Sydney) with a tremendous amount of flashbacks until they merged. They loved the pitch so much and had gone through such strenuous shifts in story with Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc. that they decided with NEMO they’d finish the script first, before putting it into production. BUT it was not meant to be – the original pitch was laden with flashbacks that seemed endearing at the time but once on reels it was confusing and in the end they ended up making just as many changes in production as they did on previous shows. I can say I read the script, it was 144 pages, and every darling killed made it stronger.
- The greenlight process in Hollywood takes a film into development before production – often called development hell, because many projects go here to die. Pixar has only had one film go into development that didn’t complete production.
- Only 2 things survived from the original version of UP, the tall bird and the title.
I recommend Creativity Inc., especially if you’re a fan, but also if you have to manage a large staff or crew. However, the chapter on Steve Jobs is worth it alone.
So how can you emulate the development that a fantastic, universal blockbuster goes through in your material when you don’t have a braintrust like Pixar’s?
It comes down to character, and how your characters relate to the theme of your story. NOT premise. Premise is this part of the idea: Two people go on a bank-robbing spree, escaping the law at every turn.
Theme is your point or the purpose of this story and why these characters at this time and place in your story: The bank robbers can be lovers (Bonnie and Clyde, they were like psychopaths who robbed banks and actually probably enjoyed getting riddled with bullets) or they can be best friends (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ousted from their gang and trying to live a straight life – but it’s just too much work).
Once you get character into the idea you can layer in theme (that will be felt not told).
Theme will become deeper, more precise and evolve with your story – some don’t even try to get at it in the first draft. (I write differently, before I write new pages I go back over previous ones to sort ground myself and I always end up honing the pace, dialogue and character – so by the time by 1st full draft is done – at least 2/3rds is in its 5 or 6 draft.)
So I know what the theme is – and there’s a benefit to that, it helps build the spine of your story’s structure, it fine tunes dialogue and props and informs other characters as to how they live by that particular theme.
For instance, when we talk about JAWS we talk about the characters, not that a deadly shark invades a beachfront town. We talk about the song they sang, ‘we’re going to need a bigger boat’ etc. when we talk about Sharknado, we don’t get beyond the title, and no doubt this clever invention of a word will never compare to the book and film of JAWS. When we talk about YOU’VE GOT MAIL, we talk about the lady who owned the little book shop and the ass that owned the big book store chain, we don’t talk about how they emailed each other back and forth. What we remember about THE GODFATHER is that the idealistic son of a brutal Mob leader swears to leave the family business, we don’t get into him getting revenge for his brother’s death and becoming the new Godfather – until we know he didn’t want that to begin with.
Brody hates boats and water,
Kathleen Kelly hates giant bookstores and big business
The youngest of the Mob Family wants nothing to do with it
All very different stories that found their stride when we focus on the character and build the world around them – not build the world and make the character fit, and this is where most of Emma’s 22 rules come into play.
So, no matter what spawned your idea and its first core conundrum, the key to molding that into a cohesive story is developing it’s opposite conundrum, and then have the characters try to solve both conundrums via the genre and theme that gets the audience to feel why their conundrums matter.