As a screenwriter and novice film producer, people send me screenplays. Like everyone else in town, I'd love to find that next great script, discover that next great talent. And having read and commented on several hundred scripts, let me tell you the single most common problem I've found:
Lack of a good concept.
Very often the screenwriter has picked, right from the start, a concept that even in its best form isn't the type of story that sells to Hollywood.
It gets frustrating. There I would sit, reading a screenplay in which the structure, characters, dialogue, and descriptions were all passable... even, in some cases, very good. And yet, in my heart, I knew that there was virtually no way the screenplay would ever sell, let alone get made. It was doubly frustrating because it was hard to explain exactly why it wouldn't sell. All I could say was that the original idea for the film was lacking in some way. In what way? I didn't have a word for it --
But now I do.
I made one up. Stole a phrase, actually, from fractal geometry. This mysterious 'thing' that most spec screenplays need is... the STRANGE ATTRACTOR.
What it is -- and why you need it
I know this sounds a bit silly, but bear with me. Put 'strange' (meaning 'unique') and 'attractor' (from 'attractive,' meaning 'compelling') together and you get 'strange attractor,' or 'something unique that is also compelling.'
Which is just a quick way of saying that the concept of your movie should be unique -- something that hasn't been done before -- and at the same time, it must 'attract' people to it. There must be some aspect that is compelling, enticing, and intriguing. Some element that is so inventive, so alluring, it has people in Hollywood kicking themselves for not thinking of it first. Kicking themselves so hard, in fact, that they're willing to give you lots of money because you did think of it first.
You could call it a hook, or a gimmick, or a twist. Hollywood sometimes calls it a 'high concept' -- an idea for a movie that can be stated in one or two sentences. You could substitute 'high concept' for 'strange attractor,' but I think strange attractor is more precise. What good is a short, simple idea for a movie if it doesn't also attract people? For example:
A man wrongly convicted of murder runs his investigation from the confines of his jail cell.
Okay, this is mildly intriguing. You could use this 'high concept' to write a screenplay. It might turn out to be the springboard for a good movie -- but a lot depends on the execution, all the way down the line. But even granting that a film did eventually get made, and made well, it still could be a tough sell to an audience.
So from a studio, or 'development' perspective, then, this 'high concept' is not likely to generate a lot of excitement... or enter into the industry for the beginning screenwriter.
An idea that's marginally better (in a purely commercial, make-a- sale-to-Hollywood sense) is:
A man wrongly convicted of murder learns to astral-project himself out of his jail cell; he must locate the real killer in order to clear his name.
(Hey, you didn't think I could afford to publish my best story ideas here, did you?) Still, as hokey as this sounds, at least it has an identifiable strange attractor -- the gimmick of leaving jail through astral projection. Perhaps it could be done as a comedy, with nice thematic statements about freedom and overcoming limitations. You get the idea, even with the above arguably bad example. Here are some better ones:
"A teenager is mistakenly sent into the past, where he must make sure his mother and father meet and fall in love; he then has to get back to the future."
"A group of ex-psychic investigators start a commercial ghost extermination business in New York City."
"A defense attorney falls in love with her client. As the trial progresses, she doesn't know if she's sleeping with an innocent man, or a murderer."
"A rotten kid captures the monster under the bed. He gets seduced into the dark underworld, to the point where he almost becomes a monster himself."
"A guy writes a letter breaking up with his girlfriend, sends it OVERNIGHT EXPRESS. He changes his mind, chases the letter across country, and falls in love along the way."
There is a certain 'aha' that comes with these last ideas. You get the feeling that exploring them will lead to interesting situations, and compelling drama.
A good attractor must do just that -- intrigue people, appeal to people. The best ones explore a bit of the human condition that is specific, universal, and (if possible) has never been done before.
Okay, now. Perhaps you're wondering -- is this really necessary? When is this guy going to start talking about writing screenplays? I must emphasize --
YES THIS IS NECESSARY.
Especially for the first time writer. After all, just consider what you're trying to do. You want:
-- a producer to spend perhaps three years of his life getting your project made;
-- development people to like your idea, and to pick it out of the thousands of screenplays they receive every year;
-- a director to feel it's worth being one of the few films he will direct in his career;
-- a studio executive to risk millions of dollars making the film, then spend millions more promoting it;
-- critics to think it's good, compared to other films made that year, and all other films that have ever been made;
-- millions of people all over the world to spend money to go see the film, maybe even more than once. And to tell their friends how wonderful it is. And to rent it on video, and watch it on cable.
To do all that, you'd better design an attractor into your movie. You need to know exactly what it is. You should be able to point to it and talk about it, the same way you talk about characters and theme and plot.
The strange attractor.
Don't start writing a spec script without one.
Next we'll talk about how you can come up with one of your very own.