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How To Write A Screenplay – Film Concepts

Coming up with a film concept

Screenplay IdeaA film concept is the core idea of what your screenplay will be about.

Finding the right concept is the most important aspect of writing a successful screenplay. I’ve seen terrible scripts get sold because they had the right concept, and I’ve seen great scripts fail because they had the wrong one.

Just to be clear, when I say “right” and “wrong”, I don’t necessarily mean good or bad. I mean concepts that appeal to film industry people, particularly potential buyers, such as producers and executives.

In general, movie folk are isolated from the broader world. This isn’t a criticism. It’s just an observation on human nature. If you operate in a tight-knit community, surrounded by like-minded folks, you’re going to develop certain very specific tastes.

Unless you’re a movie industry insider, it’s difficult to second-guess what’s in fashion – especially when those fashions are changing constantly. As a new screenwriter, you won’t have a clue (unless one of your parents happens to be the head of development at a major studio). So for someone at the start of their career, I think coming up with that killer concept is pretty much impossible. When it happens, it’s nearly always down to sheer dumb luck.

Avoid the wrong ideas

But while coming up with the right concept is difficult, avoiding the wrong one is a little easier.

The first thing is to be critical of any ideas that pop into your head. You must exercise tough love and self-discipline. Try to explore a new concept from as many different angles as possible. Look for the flaws – if you find them, sometimes you can fix them or at least work around them.

Once you’ve convinced yourself that this is a sound movie concept, then go and pitch it to your friends. This has the added advantage of thickening your skin and breaking down those fears of rejection (key and vital attributes for any would-be writer). Listen to your friends’ comments, view your concept through their eyes, and in your heart of hearts, try to figure out if they’ve got a valid point.

Old Father Time is another great teller of truth. You should let your ideas ferment, like a good wine.Movie Concept

Often a new concept idea will come and you’ll be super excited. But don’t start turning it into a screenplay just yet. Instead, mull it over, allow it to ruminate, and then put it aside for a few weeks. There’s a good chance that when you come back to it in the cold light of day, you’ll see it for what it is: a steaming turd of an idea.

Make it accessible

When it comes to concepts, you need to be as detached and objective as possible. Sure, focus on what you know, but try to come up with an angle that makes your idea relateable to those people who may not share your personal life experiences.

And don’t be precious. There’s a thin line between passion and navel-gazing.

Let’s say, for instance, you’re a one-legged Bangladeshi lesbian who likes to watch paint dry on the wall. That’s too much for a mainstream audience. Instead, write about the prejudices facing Bangladeshis living in the West, or what a gay person experiences in a straight world, or what a one-legged person has to deal with in a society that caters for people with two legs. Each of these is a movie concept in its own right. And leave out the bit about paint drying – that’s a hard sell no matter what.

The Pursuit of Happyness is a great example of an accessible mainstream script based on a potentially niche concept. The screenplay sidesteps the whole issue of race relations, even though the protagonist is a black man trying to succeed in a predominantly white world. Instead, it focuses on being a simple underdog story, which is something that everyone, no matter their skin color, can relate to. The race issues are still there, of course, but they’re implied rather than explicit.

To research or not to research

It’s equally important not to write about what you don’t know – unless you’re prepared to do the necessary research.

For example, if you are from Birmingham in England, then it’s better to set your story there rather than Birmingham in Alabama. After all, if you aren’t too familiar with Alabama, don’t know the dialect or the customs, and have no intention of doing the research, then your script won’t come across as authentic. American-set stories may be more commercial, but they also need to feel real. If you can’t do this, then you’re better off choosing a location with which you are more knowledgeable.

Screenplay ResearchSimilarly, don’t write a hospital drama if you know nothing about hospital procedures, or a legal thriller if you have zero understanding of how lawyers go about their business.

And if you want to write a period piece, then be prepared to crack open the history textbooks. You don’t need to become a Harvard professor on the subject, but you must know enough to make your story feel immersive.

This is why many top writers tend to revisit the same worlds over and over again. Take Taylor Sheridan. Sicario, Hell Or High Water, Wind River… They all share so much in terms of locations, character types, themes, and a whole bunch of other things.

In the end, choose something you know about or are prepared to learn about. Then simplify it so that it’s accessible to the largest possible readership.

Screenwriting, after all, is all about making compromises – and that starts with the concept.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you have any questions or thoughts, please leave a comment below.

Until next time…

Best, al

21 Comments

  1. Wonderful information on how to write a screen play! I have been interested in this since helping my son with an online theater class. I don’t work out of my home and I have a lot of ideas in my head. I agree that I need to find something to write about that I am familiar with. Kind of like when you pick a niche. You want to pick something you are passionate about so that passion shows through. Same thing with this right?

    • Yes, it’s most definitely the same thing. 

      As my manager has said many times, passion is key and it’s one of the first things he looks for in a new client. 

      If you’re passionate, even if the script never sells, you’re still going to have great fun writing it. As a fellow parent, I can genuinely say that only two things beat the joy and satisfaction of completing a screenplay – parenthood and being involved in a happy marriage/relationship. And though writing is by no means easy, it’s not nearly as hard or as ongoing as the other two 😉

      As for picking your subject, there’s no rush. It’s something that you can constantly have at the back of your mind, mulling it over so to speak. At first, your vision may feel cloudy, but gradually the ideas will become more focused. If that doesn’t happen, no problem. You just move on to the next one until you find something that feels right.

      As a tip, one thing I find useful when looking for a concept is to visualize specific isolated scenes, like I’m watching a movie inside my head. Those scenes will gradually point me towards the concept.

  2. Sounds like being a screenwriter should be based on the KISS principle…Keep It Sweet and Simple.

    I agree with everything you said. I just never thought about it so deeply. Even though I have written a number of articles, I have never thought that I could even begin to be a screenwriter. But, after reading this article, I think I am going to give it a shot.

    As you said, the important things are writing about what you know, have researched extensively, or have experienced and do not get too complicated.

    I am sure that if I keep these things in mind, I can appeal to a large enough audience to successfully convince at least one producer or executive that I have a great story worthy of at least mid-level budgets and actors.

    I enjoyed the reading. It gives me hope!

    Jim

    • Hi Jim,

      With regards to keeping it simple, yes, absolutely. 

      I think at their core, all the great scripts tend to be quite simple. The complexity comes in the nuances and the shading, whether that’s to do with characterization, plot, etc. Citizen Kane, arguably the greatest film ever made, is actually a very simple story, but one told in a clever and intriguing way.

      If writing is something that appeals to you, then I think it’s definitely worth taking a shot at. There is one book I would recommend – Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a very clear and insightful guide into the mechanics of screenwriting. My only minor criticism is that he never really touches upon passion, which I personally think is key. After all, screenwriting is ultimately a combination of craftsmanship and artistry.

  3. My favorite line:” And don’t be precious. There’s a thin line between passion and navel-gazing.” It’s so easy to get possessive of your ideas and concepts! Editing is always the hardest thing to do, cutting out stuff you love because it doesn’t move the story along or just doesn’t fit where you put it. I agree it’s a good idea to let your concepts “ferment” and also to be open to suggestions. Great article on how to start thinking about screenwriting!

    • Hi there, Suzi. Yes, it’s so easy to forget that just because you are passionate about something doesn’t mean that other people will be. Of course, passion can be contagious, but only up to a point! I think it’s a real shock to the system for new writers. 

      I once sat down with a very senior producer, who said to me, “The most successful writers aren’t the best writers. They’re the ones who give people what they want.” If you want to be a professional screenwriter, these are truly words to live by.

  4. A friend of mine and I have been discussing the idea of trying to write our own sitcom. We are both bartenders and see all kinds of things that would be great in a comedy show!
    After reading your article How To Write A Screenplay, I now have a much better idea of what it will take and your tips seem to make sense.
    The problem is I am not much of a writer, any suggestions on something that could help me get better at writing?
    Brendon

    • Hey Brendon, yes, I can imagine the barroom is a very rich source of colorful anecdotes 😉 Besides, this is exactly where it all begins – throwing around ideas, banter between mates and colleagues, and so on.

      I have to confess, my experience of TV writing is quite limited. I’ve always focused far more on features and only made brief forays into TV. That said, Amazon and Netflix are fast becoming major players in both mediums, especially TV.

      In terms of books, you might want to check out The TV Writer’s Workbook by Ellen Sandler, Writing Television Sitcoms by Evan S Smith, and Writing The Pilot by William Rabkin. I believe the first two, in particular, are geared towards sitcoms.

  5. Another great article!
    What sort of research should you do for a fantastical setting? Say I wanted to write a mythical LOTR type screenplay. Should I focus more on researching the character’s story arc, or researching past written fantastical works to see how they navigate translating an “imagined” world into reality?
    Thanks!

    • I think historical fantasy is one of the most challenging genres. It’s easy to do badly and very tricky to do well. If you write it in a very contemporary tone, it can feel inauthentic. But if you go down the traditional ‘ye olde Engylish’ route, it can become cheesy. 

      I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for your first script – unless it is something you are truly steeped in already. Most first-time writers are probably better off writing something contemporary – drama, comedy, horror, action-adventure, etc.

      That all said, if you want to write something like this, I would start by reading as many fantasy novels as possible. If there is a movie of the book, then watch that in conjunction with the reading in order to see how the book was adapted into a film. Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter, and Game Of Thrones are all good brands to explore. You might also want to check out things like The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson (there’s only the books, but no movie). 

      Once the research is done, I would suggest thinking about the world in which your story will be set. What sort of world is it? What are the rules by which its inhabitants live? In a way, this is a part of your concept. Consider LotR and GoT… The worlds in those stories are very rich. In a way, they are essentially ‘characters’ and have their own personalities.

      After you have an idea of the world/backdrop, you can start fleshing out your concept. For instance, in its simplest form, the GoT concept is something like this: 

      “Various rulers, warriors, and charlatans engage in a deadly power struggle for control of the kingdom. Simultaneously, an ancient supernatural force of evil emerges in the background and becomes a major threat to the kingdom. To defeat this evil force, the rulers, warriors, and charlatans will have to put their personal ambitions aside and join forces.”

      Once you have the basic concept in your head, you can then build upon it by developing the themes and characters, and finally, the plot.

      Hope that helps.

      Best, al

  6. Another great article!
    What sort of research should you do for a fantastical setting? Say I wanted to write a mythical LOTR type screenplay. Should I focus more on researching the character’s story arc, or researching past written fantastical works to see how they navigate translating an “imagined” world into reality?
    Thanks!

  7. This is great information here. When I become interested in how to write a screenplay. It is because I am planning to make a film on Sims 4. As you might be heard of it before. Also, I can add English Sub on it. That’s all I have a lot ideas in my head. Although I am afraid my write English doesn’t good. The reason is that I am deaf.

    So, I must have more practice how to write skills before become screenwriter. Since I agree with everything you said after reading this article.

    I have a question. If you used grammar software… Do you think I must use it for helping my write? After buy premium on grammar software?

    • Hey James, having a lot of ideas in your head is the most important thing. If this is the case, then you’re already at an advantage over many new writers 😉 Fact is, writing is an intellectual pursuit, so being deaf shouldn’t be a major obstacle in any way.

      I’m a big PC gamer. Haven’t played The Sims, but I’m obviously aware of it. If I were you, however, I would stay clear of writing a literal Sims 4 screenplay (unless it’s purely for your own enjoyment). In order to adapt a game into a sellable script, you’re going to have to own the rights, and the rights to a big brand like Sims will be very expensive (assuming they are even available). There’s no reason, however, why you couldn’t write a screenplay that is loosely inspired by Sims.

      I’ve never used grammar software beyond the spellchecker function in programs such as Final Draft and MS Word. My advice would be try out a demo before purchasing, as I believe these products are quite expensive. Maybe check out Grammarly and WhiteSmoke. They are two of the market leaders.

      Generally, I think screenwriting is a less forgiving medium than prose-writing (such as novels). This is because you have certain limitations imposed on you by the very nature of it. However, the one area where screenwriting is easier is quality of language/writing. Readers expect beautiful writing in a novel. A screenplay, by comparison, just needs to be functional. So long as the reader can understand what you’re writing, then that’s all that counts.

  8. I’ve never thought about being a screenwriter but this was a very interesting site. I have had a few good ideas for a movie but never went any further with it. I think you done a good job in explaining things in a unique perspective. keep up the good work. I believe you could go far with this.

    • Hi Rick,

      Many thanks for your kind comments and I’m really glad you enjoyed the site. 

      Best, al

  9. Well it goes without saying I suppose that there is not guaranteed approach that will make you a successful script. It seems that once you have the structure and idea figured out that it wouldn’t hurt to have a little luck on your side. It also probably helps who you know and if you can get it into the right hands. A little networking skills are probably useful.

    • Hey Jeremy, thanks for reading. Yes, luck truly is key – these days it’s probably the bulk of the equation. So often it’s about having the right script at the right time and place.

  10. Hi Al,

    I really enjoyed this article. You have a great way of using very descriptive phrases to get your point across, like “steaming turd of an idea” or “one-legged Bangladeshi lesbian who likes to watch paint dry on the wall”. These are priceless.
    Also your advice on doing your research is right on the money. I write songs as a hobby and need to come up with the lyrics for these songs. It is not the same as a screenplay but I can relate to a lot of what you have to say. Great article.

    Ray

    • Hi Ray, thanks so much and I’m really glad that you enjoyed the article. 

      Yes, I think the creative process probably follows certain rules right across the writing spectrum, including song lyrics.

      Best, al

  11. Thanks for the article. I appreciate the detailed information on writing a screen play. This is kinda a hidden desire for me. I appreciated the info.

    I really like you structured information in what you should do and what you should not do. How long have you been writing screen plays?

    • Hi Jerry, 

      Many thanks and glad you found it useful.

      Oh boy, I’ve been writing as long as I can remember – too long, probably 😉  I sold my first feature script back in 2003 and have been at it ever since.

      Best, al

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