Movie ideas typically don’t pop into screenwriter’s heads as fully formed, complete and compelling log lines. Rather, they tend to grow from some initial inspiration, sometimes taking years to really gel.
Perhaps you encounter an interesting person that would make a great character, or read about a technological advance that might be the basis of a science fiction story, or come across an unusual environment that would be a good setting for a dramatic tale. Then you noodle with this inspiration over time, possibly combining it with other ideas, until it comes into focus. If you’re like me, you may fill pages with notes and ideas and research as you explore the terrain of your story. Finally, one day the core concept emerges and you can start to outline.
Except it can be difficult to know if that core concept has really developed enough to be a complete and compelling story. Start writing too early, and you set yourself up for frustration and multiple drafts spent just figuring out what the story actually is. For many writers, this can end up in an abandoned screenplay and months or even years of wasted effort.
This is why it’s helpful to craft a great log line before you start outlining. If you aren’t able to craft a great log line, you haven’t really cracked your story yet. It’s why it’s also helpful to work up a pitch for your idea before you write it. Creating a good pitch forces you to figure out what your idea is really about and exposes any holes. It also allows you to bounce the story off trusted friends to get feedback.
But that still doesn’t really explain how you know whether your idea is fully baked. There are five questions to which you should be able to provide good answers that will tell you if your idea’s ready. I’ll get to what I mean by “good” answers in a moment. Here are the questions:
1. Who is the main character?
2. Why do we care what happens to them?
3. What do they want?
4. What is at stake for them?
5. What is the main thing that stands in the way of them achieving their goal?
Let’s look at these one at a time:
Who is the main character?
Structurally there is one main character in every story. Even if it’s an ensemble piece or buddy film, there will be one main character among two or more major characters. The main character is the one whose decisions are driving the action of the story. In a buddy or ensemble movie, you can pick which character is going to be the main character for structural purposes. Even if you don’t believe me on this (although I’m right), pick only one character for this exercise.
Why do we care what happens to them?
It’s not a given that we will care what happens to your main character. And we only care about your story to the extent we care about the main character. This doesn’t mean they have to be likeable or heroic – there are plenty of great, popular, successful films with main characters who are unlikeable and un-heroic. Of course if your character is likeable and heroic, then you’ve answered this question and your job is done. It’s certainly easier to go that route, which is why most characters fit this mold. (Note that simply being a “regular guy” does not make a character likeable.)
If you’re dealing with a character we don’t naturally root for, then you have to figure out why we care what happens to them. There are ways to make this work. We’ll root for an unlikeable character if we support their goal. A petty thief who’s trying to bring down a vicious crime lord who killed the thief’s brother is a sympathetic character even if he isn’t likeable. Or sometimes the unlikeable character will be responsible for a likeable character – like in The Professional (screenplay by Jacques Audiard & Michel Audiard & Georges Lautner), when the hit man takes in a young girl whose parents were murdered. Answering the next two questions can help you figure out why we might root for your character.
What do they want?
People want all kinds of things all at the same time. You might want to be a great screenwriter and also want a sandwich. We’re talking here about the want that is driving the character through the story. It’s what your story is about. The petty thief may want a date with the waitress at the corner coffee shop, but if your story is about him getting revenge, then that is the want we’re focusing on.
What makes the answer to this question good is if the want is specific, significant and visual. It’s hard to write a story about a character who wants something vague, like “fulfillment” or “happiness.” We all want that stuff – but what does it mean to this character? You need to have a clear, specific goal. We need to be able to see on screen when they have or haven’t achieved it. We can see whether the boy got the girl or the criminal escaped prison or the cop caught the bad guy. We can see if Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code or if Martin Luther King, Jr. got the Voting Rights Act passed.
What’s at stake for them?
This is what we mean by a significant want. What does achieving this goal, or failing to achieve it, mean to the character? How will it affect their life? If it doesn’t have an impact, why should we care? We’re looking for big stakes, but what we mean by this is stakes that are really important to the character. Finding a little boy lost on a train can be bigger stakes than saving the world. Make sure the outcome of your story matters to the character. It should really be the most important thing in their lives – otherwise, why are you telling this story? (Note that this is why it's very difficult to do stories that end up being "all just a dream" - why does it matter once the character wakes up?)
What is the main thing standing in the way of them achieving their goal?
This is the obstacle to the character’s success. There may be many obstacles - should be, in fact - but you should be able to identify the one major obstacle that must be overcome. Often this is an antagonist, another character in the story that doesn’t want the main character to succeed for some reason. It could also be a situation. Much more difficult, the primary obstacle could be internal – some character flaw our hero must overcome. (Often heroes must overcome a character flaw, but typically this isn’t the main obstacle.) If this main obstacle is good, it will then generate many smaller obstacles.
A good obstacle will be something that takes an hour or more of screen time to overcome. This obstacle is going to be the focus of most of the scenes in acts two and three, and it can't get repetitive. The solution can’t be simple or transitory. That’s why antagonists make such good obstacles – they act and react to the main character's actions. And defeating the obstacle should require action on the part of the character. It’s difficult to make a film about a character not doing things. Also, the obstacle should be challenging. We measure our heroes by the size of the obstacles they overcome. Finally, the best obstacles play against the main character’s weaknesses.
You may be tempted to accept mediocre answers to these questions. Don’t. It will only lead to problems when you start outlining your story. Make sure you are absolutely confident you have good answers to these questions before you commit to the story.
Want to work on your pitching skills? Check out The Hollywood Pitching Bible.