Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author and script coverage consultant whose publishing credits include 21 books, 112 plays and musicals, 4 optioned feature films, and columns that appear throughout the world. For more information, visit her website.

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INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage

If you want to write for the movies or television, you need to have an understanding of not only what makes for a catchy plot but also what constitutes a “filmable” concept.

“Catchy” equates to what the industry calls “high-concept.” Essentially, high-concept ideas can be distilled into one defining sentence that tells you everything you need to know.

For example:

  • A shipwrecked couple with three sons improvise on a tropical island.
  • An abused wife fakes her own death in order to escape her abusive environment.
  • A losing baseball team is turned around by some divine intervention.
  • An orphaned baby is raised by gorillas.
  • A computer operator inadvertently receives British agent’s SOS.
  • A coma victim’s family mistakenly assumes that the woman who saved his life is his fiancée.
  • These mini-summations are then spun by the marketing departments into movie posters, promotions, and billboards. As you start to develop your own film idea, imagine what it would look like if you saw it advertised in the Sunday movie section of your local paper. Could you sum up its premise in just one sentence and make viewers want to go see it?

    “Filmable” relates to the constraints of time, technology, and budget but also has application to the variant issue of whether the storyline is primarily driven by action, dialogue, or imagination. Several years ago when I served on the board of directors of a local access station, I was asked to judge a 10-minute script contest whereby selected winners would have three days to shoot their film locally using the studio’s equipment. One particularly ambitious entrant turned in an apocalyptic drama in which 4,000 Imperial storm troopers chase Elvis across the Tower Bridge just before the entire thing explodes into a fiery inferno.

    Even if the script had been brilliantly written (which it seriously wasn’t), it was encumbered by elements that well exceeded time, space, and available resources. This is an important thing to keep in mind if you’re pitching your project to independent producers with lots of heart but limited capital. In theory, they may love your storyline but need to pass on it because it would be impossible for them to do it justice.

    Plots that rely heavily on special effects would seem to be a natural for the big screen. Even before the advent of CGI technology (computer generated imagery), producers were employing stop-action photography, miniaturized sets, and built to scale models to recreate primeval worlds, pirate battles on the open sea, and even King Kong taking swipes at airplanes from atop the Empire State Building.

    While movies have become more visually stimulating, however, it has often been at the expense of plot and character. PEARL HARBOR, for instance, had all the requisite you-are-there sight and sound explosions to simulate the horror of December 7, 1941, but fell short in delivering an empathetic love story that was compelling enough to justify its price tag and media hype. Contrast this to 1965’s IN HARM’S WAY, in which the World War II Pacific theater battle scenes are pretty hokey by today’s standards but the character nuances, sexual tension and dialogue still make it a watchable film.

    Consider as well the original STAR WARS released in 1977 versus any of its eye-popping ‘prequels’ about the life and times of Darth Vader. Somewhere in the passage of 25 years, the emphasis shifted from characters that audiences could genuinely cheer (or hiss) about to an ensemble that largely wanders around as talking props against a high-tech backdrop.

    As I always advise my students and clients, if you can strip away all the glitz and gizmos and your story still has something substantive to say to an audience, you’ve probably got yourself a solid plot. If, however, the glitz and gizmos are needed to hold your viewers’ attention, be forewarned that no amount of money in the world can save a limp plot from going straight to and the bargain video bin within the first month of opening.

    You may not have given it much thought before now but every movie—no matter how wacky, heart-tugging, disturbing, or far-fetched—has an underlying message or philosophy that it means to leave with us by the final credits.

    For instance:

  • Love conquers all.
  • Appearances are deceiving.
  • Friends are just strangers we haven’t met yet.
  • Love is blind.
  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • There’s no place like home.
  • Arising from the film’s message is the antithesis statement—the conflict which drives the action forward. If, for instance, you want to demonstrate that true love has the power to vanquish all obstacles, the plot needs to be “obstacle-intensive” in order to present a significant enough threat to the protagonist’s romantic future. Or let’s say that your storyline sets out to prove that “there’s no place like home.” Accordingly, the alternatives to the home front have to contest the latter’s shortcomings in such a way as to make it seem an inferior choice for the long-term.

    Both the message and anti-message require that the lead characters’ motivations be driven by one or more of the three core themes of fiction: reward, revenge and escape. There has to be something major at stake for which they will risk whatever they have in order to win it (i.e., romance, riches, recognition), to get even with it (i.e., annihilate, retaliate, humiliate), or just to get away from it (i.e., prison, paranormal, political oppression). All action, thus, is an instrument of resolution, pointing up the need to stay focused on what your characters have to accomplish by the movie’s end. These are the elements that will keep your audience riveted as well.

    In order to understand how this principle works, consider each of the following films and identify which themes are prevalent:

    Who do you think your movie idea would most appeal to? Teenage boys? Middle-aged women? Families? Senior citizens? In order for your film to tug at all the right emotional chords, it helps to understand what issues are on the front burner for your target viewers.

    With teens, for instance, angst and identity are tied in to plots about coming of age, breaking rules, and spreading wings. Middle-aged women are a core market for romance, whether it relates to finding a new one or surviving the break-up of an old one. Families are drawn to films that not only bring all of them together for a night out but espouse values and morality benchmarks that will continue to keep alive and deep and abiding respect for each other long after the show itself is over. Older moviegoers are drawn to films that celebrate the best of the past, reinforcing a clarity of purpose and integrity they deem to be darkly elusive in the present. Themes of reunion and redemption are also especially strong.

    What kind of films do you, as a film fan, personally enjoy watching? Always remember that writing isn’t just an exercise in writing about what you know; it’s also in writing about what you really like!

    Buy yourself an idea book for recording potential plots, character sketches, and, yes, even titles and snippets of dialogue. It can be a blank journal, a spiral bound tablet, or even a mini-notebook that you can tuck into your purse, briefcase or glove compartment. The main thing is that it be easily accessible for you to jot down your thoughts before they get away!

    For each idea you come up with, make a brief notation of the following:

    SOURCE. If it was derived something already existing (i.e., a book, a newspaper item, an interview), you’ll need to explore the legalities of optioning or adapting the material to fit your particular inspiration. If it was a completely original thought, keep in mind how hard it is to maintain enthusiasm and momentum for a project once the initial euphoria wears off. By being able to remind yourself of what you were doing when the thought first struck, you can reinvigorate yourself to keep working on it and see it through to completion.

    MESSAGE. What does your idea have to say about the human condition, the fickleness of fate, the cyclical nature of history, etc.? If you haven’t glanced at any books on proverbs lately, this could be a good time to do so. Proverbs are a helpful way to crystallize your concept and give you something to refer back to whenever you feel as if you’re getting off track.

    THEME. What motivates your characters? Is it reward, revenge, escape or a combination of the three? If they’re not motivated by much of anything, you probably also don’t have much of a story, either.

    TARGET AUDIENCE. Who, besides your immediate family and friends, would find this story as compelling as you do? Why?