(SPOILERS: Some Like It Hot, The King’s Speech, Her, Gravity)
I find young writers are often far too eager to rush on to the first draft without a fully developed story. Truth is, I find that in more experienced writers as well. In fact, when I get to the end of my first draft, I often wish I’d spent a little more time on my outline!
Generally the longer one has been writing, the more time one will spend making sure the idea is fully baked. Why? Because whenever you move too fast into the first draft, you will end up having to do huge changes in the second draft. Sometimes you even have to throw away large sections of the script – sections you may have spent weeks or months writing. It is even possible to discover the idea was fatally flawed to begin with and you have to throw out the entire project! Do this a few times and you will become devoted to proper idea development and outlining.
Here are three signs that your idea needs a little more time in the oven:
1. Is your idea exhausted by the end of act one? It is common to see scripts where everything interesting appears in the first 30 pages or the first 60 pages, and then the rest of the story just plays out as expected with diminishing entertainment returns. Your initial concept will probably give you plenty of material for your first act, since the first act will be the set up of this concept. If the concept is good, it should give you another 15-30 pages of scenes that exploit the ideas it encompasses. But without another element or twist beyond the premise, stories tend to lose steam by the middle of the script.
In Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren & M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) the first half of the movie is about Joe and Jerry disguising themselves as women to escape the mob. This generates lots of fun, character development and scene ideas. But when this concept exhausts itself in the middle of the film, Joe dons a new disguise – a millionaire oil heir – in an attempt to seduce Sugar, and Jerry starts his relationship with the older millionaire, providing many new interesting conflicts and scenes.
Good movies expand on the initial concept with new ideas. In The King’s Speech (screenplay by David Seidler), the hero’s brother abdicates, leaving the hero as heir, and then later his therapist’s credentials are revealed to be fake. In Her (written by Spike Jones) Theodore learns Samantha has relationships with other operating systems, turning his conception of their relationship on its head. In Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron) Matt is killed, leaving Ryan to find a way back on her own. Each of these examples spins the respective story in a new direction.
If you don’t have such a twist or new element or spin, you need to keep developing your premise.
2. Do you know both the external story – the plot – and the internal story – the character arc? Good stories operate on two levels. In Some Like It Hot the external story is about Joe and Jerry trying to pass themselves off as women, with Joe’s seduction of Sugar constituting a subplot. But Joe also has an internal journey – he goes from womanizer to genuinely loving Sugar, from selfishness to sacrificing his own interests for hers.
In The King’s Speech the external journey is about the eventual King George overcoming a speech impediment while the internal journey is about him gaining the self-confidence to rule. In Her the external story is Theodore’s romance with an operating system while the internal journey is about him overcoming his depression at the failure of his marriage. In Gravity the external story is Ryan’s quest for survival while the internal journey is about her letting go of her grief and embracing a will to live.
Notice in all these cases the internal and external are related thematically. If you find you are missing one of these journeys (usually it’s the internal) then consider how the themes you are already dealing with could also be explored either internally or externally, as needed. (This post might help.)
3. Another warning sign I often see in inexperienced writers’ outlines is a third act that is really a denouement rather than an act. This occurs when the main conflict is essentially resolved at the end of act two and act three is simply showing us how everything ended up. There ought to be a radical change from the end of act two to the end of the story – either from failure to success or success to failure. (This is why the end of act two is sometimes called the “lowest moment” – because most stories have happy endings.)
If your act three is simply playing out the outcome of the end of act two, you most likely have improperly structured your story. It could be as simple as you’ve misidentified where the act break is. Though acts are theoretical, improperly analyzing your act breaks can still cause you problems even if the order of plot points is correct. Proper analysis helps you spread your story beats most dramatically across the length of your script. Remember, the third act should be the most exciting part of your story! If it’s not, you probably need to restructure.
Alternatively, you might have simply not given your characters a real lowest (or highest) moment at the end of act two. In this case your story will be predictable. This happens because writers fall in love with their main characters and it can be difficult to really make things hard on them. But if success is easy it isn’t dramatic. Whatever your resolution is, success or failure, at the end of act two that outcome should appear nearly impossible.
When checking your ideas to see if they are really ready, you have to keep an objective eye. But if you do it will make your first draft – and your second draft – much easier to write.